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Celebrating Black History

Revisiting slave life at Gunston Hall.

George Mason was critical of men who owned slaves, yet he was a slave owner himself. And unlike George Washington, he never freed his slaves; instead he willed them to his children when he died.

“He never freed his slaves, but he had reservations about slavery and wanted the exportation of slaves stopped,” said Jackie LaRaia, interpreter. “This is one of the reasons he didn’t sign the Constitution. He called slave owners ‘petty tyrants’ and warned of grave dangers if slavery continued.”

This is one of the many facts one can learn during Gunston Hall’s “Black and White Together” tours given every Sunday in February at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m.

“We concentrate on the inside of the house, talking about the slaves we know and what functions they performed in the various rooms,” LaRaia said.

LaRaia speculated that Mason couldn’t have maintained such a large plantation without slave labor. Unlike other plantations, forty percent of the slaves at Gunston Hall were skilled, serving as weavers, shoemakers and carpenters. They may have even worked on some of the intricate molding seen throughout the home.

LaRaia’s interpretation is based on readings from letters, journals and runaway slave postings. Based on the latter, they do know that a slave named “Yellow Dick” ran away twice. He was back in the “inventory” after his first attempt, but never mentioned again after his second attempt. There is some speculation that he made his way to the Eastern Shore.

UNLIKE THE QUANDER family, who trace their roots back to Mount Vernon slaves, there are no known descendents to Gunston Hall slaves. So much of the grounds at Gunston were plowed under that it is not known where the slave quarters were.

Mason’s son, John, who wrote recollections of time spent with this father, talks about a slave village on the other side of the fields called “Log Town.” LaRaia is hoping that archeologists will be able to conduct a survey on that site one day.

Being that Mason’s slaves were skilled and seemed to be fairly well treated, LaRaia wonders if some of them ever learned to read. In particular, she wonders if the cook could read recipes or if Mrs. Mason had to give her the instructions. She addresses this when she brings visitors into the main bed chamber.

It was here where the cook would come and receive rationed supplies of cinnamon, nutmeg or sugar from Mrs. Mason’s locked pantry. She would then give the orders about whether to make soap, make candles or slaughter one of the animals. It is believed that this is also where the slaves came to get the clothing to dress the children every day.

Across from the bed chamber was the room where Mason did all his business. LaRaia said that his son wrote that his father worked every morning with two trusted slaves.

“I’m not sure what they did or who they [the slaves] were,” LaRaia said.

They do know that Mason’s personal waiter was named James, and that Mason held him in such high esteem that he postponed a trip one time to wait for James to recover from an illness.

It would most likely have been James who prepared the punch and served the alcohol in the parlor, another room that LaRaia shows to visitors. She points out the hot water urn, which would allow Mrs. Mason to serve multiple cups of tea without the slaves having to wait on them.

Moving into the dining room and looking upon the table laden with food, LaRaia said, “One can’t help thinking about how much preparation this took and how hard the slaves had to work.”

She also explained that unlike most homes where tables and chairs are left assembled, she said that after a meal the table and chairs would be broken down and moved. The room might be turned into a parlor or even a guest bedroom if there were many visitors.

“You can’t interpret a room like this without thinking about all the work they did,” LaRaia said.