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February 19, 2019

At George Washington’s Mount Vernon, remembering the enslaved people who built America


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Directions: Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions. You may want to read along using the transcript here or turn on “CC” closed-captions. The story was filmed, edited and produced by middle and high school students who are part of the NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs program.

Summary: Presidents Day is observed on George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 18th. A tour guide at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, who is also a distant relation of an enslaved person at the Virginia estate, offers his perspective about American history, slavery and the founding fathers. Rohulamin Quander is a descendent of the Quander family, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, documented African American families in the country. “We need people in the African American diaspora to understand it; we have always been a part of what constitutes America,” said Quander.

Kenneth C. Davis, author of “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four President and Five Black Lives, refers to slavery as America’s “great contradiction.” “Washington also was a slaveholder, was one of the largest slaveholders at the time. In fact, in 1776, he was already beginning to wrestle with that problem. This contradiction. How do we fight for liberty, yet keep people in chains,” Davis told CBS News. On Monday, he tweeted, “History must balance the scales. On #washingtonsbirthday the job is difficult but critical. ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?'” Davis was quoting English writer Samuel Johnsonwho was loyal to King George III, and a critic of the protests by American colonists like Washington; Johnson derided the founders defense of slavery.

Discussion questions: 

1) Essential question: How might learning the history of slavery and the lives of enslaved people at Mount Vernon give a more complete picture of American history and George Washington’s life?

2) What lessons have you had in school about the lives of enslaved people in American history? What about those living at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate? How could you learn more about the lives of enslaved people?

3) “I often say this is not a black history tour; this is an American history tour,” says Quander. What do you think he means? Why do you think he tells his tour groups this?

4) Media literacy: What do you know about the history of Presidents Day? On Presidents Day, which presidents do you hear about? How many U.S. presidents enslaved people? (10 of the first 15 U.S. presidents owned or grew up in slave-holding households, according to Davis’s “In the Shadow of Liberty.”) Why have more and more historians and members of the public started to use the term “enslaved person” instead of “slave”?

Extension activities:

  1. Mini-Lesson Plan via Extra: Revealing the painful last moments of George Washington

Visit PBS NewsHour Extra for more education resources designed to help teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories. You can read the original story here@NewsHourExtra

PBS NewsHour Classroom

PBS NewsHour Classroom helps teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories.

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