Today’s Mount Vernon Slave Tour has almost ended when Gladys Quander Tancil calls her guests to a halt. The half-dozen visitors stop in front of a small, whitewashed building in a corner of George Washington’s estate. Tancil has already shown them the dank salting houses where slaves toiled, whisked them past the overseer’s apartment, and guided them through the dark, cramped quarters where slaves slept 10 to a room. “Now,” says the seventysomething Tancil in a voice both gentle and genteel, “we go ’round to the spinning room.”
Tancil, who’s dressed in a starched white blouse and khaki skirt, waits patiently by the building’s door while the tourists duck their heads inside. Four creaky-looking wooden spinning wheels are arrayed across the front of the room, and Tancil explains how slaves used them to spin wool and cotton for the plantation. The tourists listen briefly, glance at the wheels, then stroll down the dusty gravel path back to the house. The spinning room is just another stop on another tour of another national monument.
But for Tancil, this room is an ancestral home. Two centuries ago, Tancil’s relative Nancy Quander spent her days here, spinning yarn for the Father of Our Country. Mount Vernon records show that a 13-year-old spinner named Nancy Quander was freed in 1799, the year George Washington died. According to Rohulamin Quander, the family historian and a distant cousin of Tancil’s, Nancy Quander remained in Northern Virginia, but no one knows what she did, where she lived, if she married, or when she died.
“She probably couldn’t read or write, or leave any records. No pictures, records. Nothing,” Tancil says.
“We don’t credit her with starting the Quander family,” Tancil says, but Rohulamin Quander has found records of two Quander brothers who surfaced in Alexandria during the early 19th century, soon after Nancy left Mount Vernon. Their exact relationship to Nancy is unknown, but they were almost certainly her relatives. One brother moved to New England. The other remained in Virginia and may be Tancil’s ancestor.
Like Arlington Cemetery or the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Vernon is more sacred shrine than historic landmark. It is a place that celebrates American mythology. Tourists come to see the place where, they imagine, George chopped down the cherry tree, chucked the coin across the Potomac, and agonized over his farewell address to the nation. This is idealized history: a lush garden, a gorgeous house, a key to the Bastille, and a sweeping Potomac vista, barely changed since the Revolutionary War.
But two days every week, Gladys Quander Tancil is subverting, or at least editing, the myth, reminding visitors about the other residents of the plantation—the ones whose names are not recorded in any books, much less history books. A Mount Vernon guide for almost two decades, Tancil gave the plantation’s first slave tour in April.
“People really aren’t aware of how the slave suffered, even on the Washington estate,” she says. “Washington had a beautiful house and land, and people should know about it. People don’t like the fact that George Washington was a slaveholder.”
Tancil takes her visitors—about equal numbers of blacks and whites—through the less swank portions of the estate. About 316 slaves lived on Mount Vernon’s 8,000 acres, and, as Tancil emphasizes throughout the tour, they lived no differently than slaves on any other Southern plantation. While George and Martha Washington strolled their gardens, entertained the rich and the powerful, and philosophized about the new, noble American democracy, Nancy Quander and her fellow slaves worked long hours under harsh conditions, endured overseers’ whippings, and were bought and sold like animals. Washington redeemed himself in only one way, Tancil tells her guests: He never broke up a family. A single point on the scorecard of humanity.
According to her supervisor Billie McSeveney, Tancil’s tours have been an incredible success.
“As a descendant, Gladys has a marvelous sense of continuity, and a great sense of dignity that she brings to the tour,” remarks McSeveney. “People who regularly bring groups to Mount Vernon specifically request Gladys to give them the slave tour.”
Tancil’s own exquisite sense of history and love for Mount Vernon are easily explained. Her family has planted deep, deep roots in Northern Virginia. Though Tancil knows she’s somehow related to Nancy Quander and the two Quander brothers, she only traces her direct family tree to her grandfather, Charles Henry Quander. He was a slave on the Hayfield plantation, where Hayfield High now stands. When he was freed—probably at the end of the Civil War—he bought land in the area two acres at a time, until he had acquired 88 acres. At his death, his children split the property. James Henry Quander, Tancil’s father, received 26 acres and a home. That land, too, was divided: Tancil’s brother inherited five acres; the state took all but four acres of the remainder to build what is now West Potomac High. Tancil’s home in Alexandria still stands on land her grandfather purchased a century ago. Not far from the house, near the Potomac River, is another family legacy: Quander Street.
Tancil’s parents may have lived in Northern Virginia, but she spent much of her childhood in the District. Under Jim Crow, Alexandria’s public schools for blacks were very separate and very unequal—to the point of nonexistence. Tancil’s parents sent her to live with an aunt in D.C., where she attended Armstrong High School and, later, Miner Teacher’s College (one of the predecessors of the University of the District of Columbia).
In another sense, however, Tancil grew up at Mount Vernon. Her mother, Alice Cordelia Smith, worked as Mount Vernon’s mistress from 1930 to 1962. Tancil remembers helping her mother as she cooked meals and prepared dining rooms for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association’s annual meetings. (The association operates the estate.)
But Tancil didn’t rediscover Mount Vernon for almost half a century. In between, she married, had two children, and divorced. Her former husband has since died, and her children and three grandchildren live in suburban Chicago. It was only in 1975, when Tancil retired after 33 years of government service, that she came back to the plantation.
Tancil took a post-retirement class at a catering firm, and one day she called the estate for information about George Washington’s dinner menus. She spoke with Christine Meadows, a friend who worked at Mount Vernon. Meadows knew Tancil’s long history with the estate and suggested she apply for a job as a “historical interpreter.” An interview later, she landed a part-time position that she has worked ever since for nominal pay. “Really, this is a job for retired persons. I couldn’t live off of this without my pension,” she says. “I do it mostly because I enjoy it. The people here are nice, and it’s an interesting place. I wouldn’t have stayed here as long as I have if I didn’t like it.”
When Tancil was hired, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association consisted of—as one might expect—Southern white ladies who did not necessarily have the most radical ideas about race. Tancil was the only black guide in 1975, and she remained the only black guide for the next 19 years.
“They had black housekeepers, maids and gardeners, but I was the only historical interpreter,” Tancil says.
“They had one white maid, but that didn’t last long. They wanted it to look like it did during Washington’s time, and he didn’t have any white help,” Tancil adds wryly.
But early this summer, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association hired a second African-American interpreter, whom Tancil is training. Tancil says that when she leaves the estate, she hopes the new guide will replace her, in title and in spirit.