Local Author Brings Slaves' Lives to Light
New children's book reveals individual lives of some George Washington's slaves and our first president's evolving attitude toward them.
When author Marfè Ferguson Delano heard about Charlotte, one of George Washington’s slaves, she became curious about other Mount
Vernon slaves, not as a group but as individuals. Surely they must have had
hopes and dreams, fears and delights just like any other humans. Delano’s curiosity led to her insightful new children’s book,”Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation.” Aimed at readers 10 and older, the book went on sale in January.
The author of more than a dozen nonfiction books for children published by National Geographic, Marfe Ferguson Delano is a longtime resident of the Tauxemont neighborhood. She says she is always looking for new ideas for books.
“While doing research, I found there were lots of biographies about George Washington as general, as president, as a boy, as a farmer, but there was nothing for kids that focused on him as a slave owner. So I thought well, here’s an opportunity to write a book that isn’t out there, something new,” Delano said.
The author turned to her good friend and neighbor Mary Thompson, who is a research historian at Mount Vernon.
“Mary helped me focus my research. I did a lot of research at Mount Vernon and some of it at Sherwood Regional library and some of it on the Internet," Delano said. "Eventually I pulled together a proposal to send to my editor.”
Delano’s editor at National Geographic helped her to see that there was another story that needed to be interwoven into the book — how Washington’s attitude toward slavery changed over his lifetime.
Further research brought out the human stories of the slaves. Delano realized, “I have to tell these stories.” Some of them were heart-wrenching. For
example, after Martha Custis married George Washington, she and her
four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter moved to Mount Vernon from
southern Virginia. Martha’s children each brought their own personal slaves,
who were children themselves. These enslaved children would have had to leave their families behind. Surely the separation was painful.
While visiting the re-creation of a slave cabin at Mount Vernon last year, Delano found herself chatting with some schoolchildren. When Delano told them she was writing a book about George Washington’s slaves, one of the children was shocked to learn that the first President had slaves. Delano realized that not all kids would even know what it meant to be a slave. It was something she had to address right in the first chapter of the book. She had to insert an explanation of slavery itself, give it context.
Delano says “Of course there’s the whole irony of the situation that the person who led the American struggle for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness himself held hundreds of people in bondage. I hope my young readers will pick up on the fact that a person can be honored as a hero, and yet not be perfect. I think most textbooks shy away from the story of the Founders as slave owners, but thatcontradiction is a fundamental part of American history, and it’s a story that needs to be told.”