I WAS GLAD TO SEE YOUR piece on historical interpreter Gladys Tancil (“Mount Vernon’s Other Legacy,” The District Line, 8/25) because, for the longest time, I’ve been trying to figure our how to broach the subject of the slave marker. I want to tell the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Tancil that they got the inscription wrong.
The inscription on the slave mark er dedicated by the association in 1983 says “In Memory of the Afro Americans Who Served as Slaves at Mount Vernon.” What galls me about this inscription is its bald inaccuracy—playing with words, misreading history. “Serve,” they say, as if any slave ever chose slavery. “Service” implies choice. “Slave,” of its nature, denies choice. The terms and the history are wrong.
Africans and their children were enslaved, bred, and doubly enslaved. But no “American” that I know of was ever enslaved in the United States of America.
Afro-American, African-American, American Negro—all American. These terms came into general usage after George Washington was dead and slavery abolished. The combination of terms such as “African-American” speak to ancestry and present tense. But present-tense usage is not the same as antebellum practice.
Let the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and Tancil in particular, be advised. And let them set about revising some more, until they come a bit closer to the truth. Then print the truth—no matter how uncomfortable it makes the Mount Vernon staff, the association members themselves, and visitors to the plantation site of our first president.