The Broad Omission of Slavery in Virginia Highway Markers

A proposal to retire and replace markers that fail to provide adequate historical context.

Over the course of 92 years, 1928 to 2020, there have been 87 highway markers placed that reference George Washington by name; 9 of those markers mention or acknowledge slavery as an institution; only 1 explicitly names him as a slaveowner. The last one.

“Ona Judge (ca. 1773-1848)
C-63
Ona (or Oney) Judge, born into slavery at Mount Vernon, became Martha Washington’s personal attendant as a child. After George Washington was elected president in 1789, Judge was brought to New York City and later to Philadelphia to serve his household. Washington periodically sent her back to Virginia to skirt a Pennsylvania law that might have granted her freedom based on long-term residency. In 1796, after learning that she was to become a gift for Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Judge escaped from Philadelphia to New Hampshire. There she married, had three children, taught herself to read and write, and lived for more than 50 years, having resisted Washington’s attempts to recover her.
Department of Historic Resources, 2020″[1]

What is truly is striking about Ona Judge’s story is that it is not a history that we are accustomed to hearing. Of course, it is common knowledge that George Washington owned slaves; him, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and many other Founding Fathers did.[2] It is a known fact and yet we accept these men as great men. And truly, they did do some great things and set ideas into motion that would drive the United States into the present.

However, omissions in historical perspective come from omissions in historical records. There is a specific instance of broad omissions in Virginia highway markers. My proposal for a new marker is to replace all Virginia Highway Markers about plantations that do not include mention of slavery, specifically this list. That should happen so the markers have proper historical context.

Using data pulled from the Virginia Highway Marker database, I am going to take a look at how George Washington is represented on historical markers, why discussion of slavery is so important for George Washington’s biography, and why Virginia Highway Markers about plantations are a necessary place to practically start.

For the sake of neatness, here is a breakdown of how I cleaned and coded the data for this analysis along with the datasets used in this project. For the sake of clarity, at minimum read through the explanation of ‘Relation’ codes.

This stacked bar chart is a core reference for my analysis as it lays out the timeline for markers being placed, visually shows distribution, and shows the number of each type of relation that George Washington has to that marker. There are a lot of ways this chart could be discussed in this project, ways it could be modified, leads that could be followed up on for a more comprehensive investigation (the hardest thing to do was making cuts and paring down).

Right away there are 2 noticeable time periods with higher distributions of markers being placed. The first is 1928-1930, the second is 1997-2000. The first group makes sense, it being right after the start of the highway marker program, there would be larger first wave of markers, particularly ones regarding the most notable Virginia native. I am not certain what the reason is for the second clump (I like to image it was a sober task to record as much history as possible before Y2K.). The notable commonality between both periods is the emphasis on ‘Biographical’ relationships to the markers. Though that is an observation to make about the entire set. Biographical markers make up 27 out of 87 markers.

These biographical markers altogether paint something of a picture of George Washington. They give the image of a young man who attended school, participated in his church, picked up surveying as a trade, and had many things named after him… but this is not an objective or value-neutral depiction of George Washington’s life. He was born into a slave-owning family, owned slaves personally from the age of 11 until his death, and willed slaves to family members with his passing.[3] An objective depiction of George Washington’s life is one in which slavery is ever-present. But history is not always presented in an objective way, regardless of intentions.

Even as he softened his beliefs to support progress toward abolition and had expressed it to those around him, he still defended the institution while he benefitted him. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, one of the earliest pieces of controversial legislation pitting free and slave states against one another. He intended to personally use that act when Ona Judge ran away.[4] He wanted to free his slaves. However, he wanted some willed to grandchildren and he wanted to make sure Martha still had slaves supporting her.

Sure, this does reflect some selfishness, but what’s more important to consider the cognitive dissonance of a whole lifetime of understanding Black people in America as an economic asset versus Enlightenment-inspired morality in the wake of the Revolution. This can be more broadly applied to other Founding Fathers as well. They are complicated figures, and we cannot ignore neither their achievements nor their sins. They fought a war and built a country, laying out core governing doctrines we still argue over today. Through all of that, there are endless moral and legal compromises accommodating and constraining slavery during that founding period, setting the tone for how the first half of the 19th century would go.

For Southern, Slave-owning, planters, slavery was a fundamental part of their lives and their belief systems. When it comes to biographical information, slavery should always be included as a contextualizing variable. Beyond just a representation question, it is a question of due diligence in presenting the past.

The big pragmatic question when it comes to changing the markers is how? What process is there? I assure you; I am not screaming in the wind. The intention of this assignment was to put something together that could be submitted to petition for a highway marker. My project does meet that.

The answer is in The Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ ‘Marker Retirement & Adoption Policy.’ One of the standards for marker retirement is if a marker “lack[s] historical context, such that their educational value is severely limited.”[5]

As stated at the beginning, only 9 of the 87 George Washington highway markers make any mention of slavery. Not every marker should mention slavery, of course, but there are some obvious questions that do arise. For instance, there are 7 markers with ‘Plantation’ as the ‘Primary Subject;’ only 3 of those markers acknowledge slavery in any way. There are 12 ‘Property’ markers, understood to be commercial properties. While these workforces cannot be assumed to have utilized slave labor, still only 3 mentioned slavery.

This is a reflection of a larger issue. Following collecting the data on George Washington, I chose to also gather data on markers regarding plantations. Of the total 121 markers for plantations, 39 mention “slave” or a disambiguation. This is significant (This dataset can be found on the methodology page.).

All of the plantations referred to in the Virginia Markers were operational when slavery was around. They all were likely worked by slaves. The plantations were the reason for slavery’s continuance. The plantations are where the affluent elites in Virginia grew up and shaped their views of the world. They lived in a world of slavery and it influenced their economy, their laws, their state nationalism, and defines who they are. Not so much as mentioning it does lack historical context. It lacks historical context in a way that constrains perspective. Which plantation was George Washington living out his boyhood days when he inherited his first personally owned slave at 11 years old? Who was that slave? The explicit association with slavery gives insight into what sentiments they were exposed to and what was normal to them. Maybe that assumption can be made from it being a plantation and this is quibbling.

Then again, if slavery isn’t treated as important enough to document in context, why expect people to think it’s really that important at all?

References

[1] “Historical Highway Markers Online Database.” Department of Historic Resources. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://vcris.dhr.virginia.gov/HistoricMarkers/.

[2] “List of the Founding Fathers Who Owned Slaves.” Slavery Advocate. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://slaveryadvocate.com/list-of-founding-fathers-who-owned-slaves/.

[3] “Ten Facts about Washington & Slavery.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/ten-facts-about-washington-slavery/.

[4] “Ona Judge Staines, the Fugitive Slave Who Outwitted George Washington.” New England Historical Society, February 22, 2021. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/ona-judge-staines-fugitive-slave-outwitted-george-washington/.

[5] “Marker Retirement & Adoption Policy.” DHR. Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers/marker-retirement-adoption-policy/.

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