Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon
The Forgotten History of an American Shrine
By Scott E. Casper
(Hill and Wang, Hardcover, 9780809084142, 320pp.)
Publication Date: January 22, 2008
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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New Stories from an Old American Shrine
The home of our first president has come to symbolize the ideals of our nation: freedom for all, national solidarity, and universal democracy. Mount Vernon is a place where the memories of George Washington and the era of America’s birth are carefully preserved and re-created for the nearly one million tourists who visit it every year. But behind the familiar stories lies a history that visitors never hear. Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon recounts the experience of the hundreds of African Americans who are forgotten in Mount Vernon’s narrative. Historian and archival sleuth Scott E. Casper recovers the remarkable history of former slave Sarah Johnson, who spent more than fifty years at Mount Vernon, before and after emancipation. Through her life and the lives of her family and friends, Casper provides an intimate picture of Mount Vernon’s operation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, years that are rarely part of its story. Working for the Washington heirs and then the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, these African Americans played an essential part in creating the legacy of Mount Vernon as an American shrine. Their lives and contributions have long been lost to history and erased from memory. Casper restores them both, and in so doing adds a new layer of significance to America’s most popular historical estate.
Scott E. Casper is a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Constructing American Lives, which won the 1999 Book History Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.
“Now, at last, Casper tells the story of the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate for generations.... Casper deftly uses the limited sources available to depict Johnson’s life with an authenticity that is moving.” —The Washington Post “A fascinating look at a national shrine from another angle…. Casper deftly weaves his story of slaves and free blacks of Mount Vernon into the larger story of the plantation and its owners.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch “Scott E. Casper lays bare the unique narrative of America's first sacred shrine, capturing the dizzying complexity of an early American community largely unrecognized and misunderstood.” —The Christian Science Monitor “His account is evenhanded and scrupulously detailed, yet always emotionally connected to the life of housekeeper Sarah Johnson (1844-1920) and dozens of other blacks, slave and free, who lived and worked at Mount Vernon for generations in virtual anonymity.” —The Los Angeles Times “Meticulous and fascinating… People such as Sarah Johnson were essential to the successful transformation of Mount Vernon, but their personal stories have long been ignored and largely forgotten… There are lots of great stories here.” —The D.C. Examiner “Casper decries the fact that the story of the blacks who were a key part of the estate’s existence has been overlooked. In painstaking detail that reflects his impressive research, Casper rectifies that failing by telling Sarah Johnson’s story and those of many other blacks at Mount Vernon through the eras of slavery, emancipation and freedom…. Casper has performed a great service by bringing to light the stories of these forgotten folks.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch “An unexpected, revealing look at an enduring and complex national symbol through the lives of those who knew it best.” —Kirkus Reviews “Unanticipated links and unsolved mysteries engage, while Casper's cautious speculation and meticulous documentation make his book as trustworthy as it is fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly “Mount Vernon boasts stories that number in the hundreds, but one of its most dramatic tales has been left untold until now. In Scott Casper’s compelling narrative we see sectional crisis, Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction through the eyes of Sarah Johnson and the hundreds other African Americans who lived and labored at the fabled shrine. The Mount Vernon that belonged to them as much as to Washington and his heirs now testifies to the signal importance of our nation’s African American past.” —Mary Kelley, Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan, and author of Learning to Stand and Speak “George Washington’s will freed his slaves, yet slavery remained at Mount Vernon. Beginning with this living paradox, Scott Casper tells a fascinating story about the African Americans who lived and worked at a national temple, challenging and tending the myths we still cherish about the home of our country’s father.” —Eric Rauchway, author of Blessed Among Nations “Scott Casper’s meticulous excavation of the lives of African-Americans at Mount Vernon holds invaluable lessons about the interplay between race and historical memory in American culture. Based on documents revealing everything from economic hardship and regional conflict to mismanagement and misplaced patriotism, the book also teaches us by example about the rewards of imaginative synthesis and interpretation.” —Joan Shelley Rubin, University of Rochester “In this impressively researched and highly readable book, Scott Casper provides a new and fascinating picture of one of our national shrines, the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington. For the first time, we understand the Washington family and their plantation from the vantage point of Mount Vernon’s slave community and specifically though the life of Sarah Johnson who lived there for half a century. This is history at its best, revealing a world at Mount Vernon that few have ever known.”—James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History