October 24, 2021

If You Go to Alexandria, Don’t Count on a Ye Olde Historical past Lesson

8 min read


Alexandria, Va. is a metropolis A. Wealthy in historical past, B. Haunted by historical past, C. Grappling with historical past, or D. The entire above.

Go along with D.

Neighbored on the north by Arlington and the Nationwide Cemetery and on the south by Mt. Vernon, and going through Washington, D.C., throughout the Potomac River, Alexandria and its environs comprise as storied a chunk of actual property as could be discovered anyplace within the nation.

Native historical past and customized are baked into almost each side of metropolis life. This may be one thing as apparent because the regional fare, i.e., seafood, that dominates metropolis menus. I attempted Vola’s Dockside Grill, which properly breaks the previous rule that the nearer to the water the more severe the restaurant. And there’s barbecue, after all—after all, as a result of there’s nothing extra ubiquitous these days than barbecue. I really feel like I’d certainly discover a barbecue shack ready for me if I ventured to Antarctica. That is stated to not complain however merely in amazement at how barbecue, quintessentially southern in all its varieties, has in half a century conquered the nation, just like the coyote. And in Alexandria, you get very fortunate as a result of Georgia pitmaster Myron Mixon simply occurred to associate with a pal and open a restaurant there. It’s decidedly extra Georgia than Virginia fashion—there are peaches within the baked beans (it is a good concept), and the Brunswick stew tastes nothing like what you’d get in, say, close by Brunswick County, Va. (so far as I can inform, each Brunswick County within the U.S. claims to have invented Brunswick stew), however Mixon’s brisket is nearly as good as brisket will get.

I doubt, although, that many vacationers go to Alexandria for the meals. They go for the historical past, or they higher, since you couldn’t keep away from it when you tried. For instance: Need a sundown cruise? There’s the tall ship Providence, a trim little sloop that’s a reproduction of one of many first ships commissioned through the revolution and first captained by John Paul Jones. You could find this marriage of historic and touristic throughout city.

That stated, Alexandria doesn’t do ye olde historical past. It could be charming, nevertheless it’s not cute or quaint. It comes by its appeal actually. The row homes within the older a part of city that climb a mild hill away from the waterfront are usually not replicas—they’re merely nicely preserved. This isn’t Williamsburg. Town seems previous as a result of it’s.

And the historic story it tells is trustworthy. It doesn’t airbrush or cherry-pick the previous or ignore the much less savory elements. Taking John T. Chapman’s Duke Road Black Historical past tour introduced town somewhat extra in focus for me and gave historical past the depth that solely shadows may give. Standing in entrance of the constructing that when housed a slave public sale home and holding pens for human beings is so utterly creepy and saddening that you already know you’ll always remember it.

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This brings us to Mount Vernon, which first opened to vacationers in 1860. If you happen to’re visiting Alexandria, you’re virtually certainly one of many 1 million who yearly go to Mount Vernon, and when you’re not, that you must rethink your itinerary.

As a baby, I cherished historical past, however each time my household toured some previous home that when belonged to somebody well-known or some battlefield the place the tide of warfare was turned (tides are all the time turning on battlefields), I bought bored. These had been excursions about bigger than life individuals who had carried out heroic issues, however they by no means appeared actual to me. They appeared extra like characters in a play with their wigs and carriages and humorous hats.

Worst of all, they by no means did something unsuitable. I bear in mind particularly wanting to succeed in again by way of time and smack George Washington after I heard the story about reducing down the cherry tree. It was like he betrayed American childhood with that “can not inform a lie” nonsense that set such an unreachable normal.

As I bought older and realized extra about Washington, I discovered that the reality was each higher and worse. Higher as a result of Parson Weems’ little story concerning the cherry tree is probably going itself a lie. Worse as a result of the story is true in spirit. Washington actually was the type to inform on himself. He spent all his life making an attempt to do the correct factor, emulating Roman stoicism, and within the course of holding himself to an unimaginable normal of excellent conduct. He was a person in battle with himself. And nowhere is that this clearer than the difficulty of slavery.

The query of slavery by no means got here up after I was being dragged round on all these home excursions as a baby. Nobody went as far as to say slavery didn’t exist. They merely didn’t discuss it in any respect. I want they’d, not merely as a result of it will have been the correct factor to do however as a result of it will have made these excursions a lot extra curiously problematic.

In How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith describes touring Monticello and overhearing two different guests digesting the tour information’s spiel about Jefferson the founding father who not solely owned enslaved folks, flogged them, and offered them, however fathered a line of descendants with certainly one of them. “This actually took the shine off the man,” one of many vacationers advised Smith.

It positive does. It additionally means we’ve got to sq. the slave proprietor with the person who wrote, “all males are created equal.” Or fairly, we’ve got to pay nearer consideration to how Jefferson himself tried to sq. that circle. Except we’re going to imagine that folks at this time are higher and smarter and extra developed than our ancestors, we’ve got to do the usually disagreeable work of placing ourselves of their heads as finest we are able to. Solely then can we come anyplace near understanding the world they left for us.

Washington is, on this respect, maybe essentially the most accessible of the founders, as a result of he was, in what he stated and what he did, so conflicted, so human. Of all of the founders, he alone nonetheless has the capability to sometimes shock us, normally by defying our expectations and preconceptions. He was, for instance, the least formally educated of any president earlier than Lincoln, and but he was the one slave-holding founder to free the enslaved individuals who labored for him, albeit after his dying. In actual fact, his will stipulated that nobody could be freed till after his spouse’s dying, however Martha was so fearful that somebody would homicide her to hasten this eventuality that she freed her late husband’s slaves somewhat over a 12 months after he died in 1799.

Washington and Jefferson each thought slavery was unsuitable and that perpetuating it will finally tear the nation aside. However whereas Jefferson waxed eloquent on the tragic implications for America, Henry Wiencek observes in his stunning historical past An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, “Washington didn’t dither over making fantastic metaphors; he merely freed his folks.”

I used to be lucky sufficient to go to Mount Vernon this summer time on Juneteenth and attend the presentation Freedom Skies through which Brenda Parker, a Mount Vernon Character Interpreter, dropped at life by way of reenactment 4 of the enslaved who Martha Washington freed on Jan. 1, 1801. Along with Lives Certain Collectively, an exhibit delineating slavery at Mount Vernon on the website’s museum, Parker’s presentation went a good distance towards making an summary challenge extra understandable, extra human, and sure, extra tragic.

My day at Mount Vernon—and if ever there was a historic website that warrants extra than simply in the future’s go to, that is it—left me with extra questions than solutions. However in doing that, the Mount Vernon expertise additionally made Washington extra human, which is greater than any historical past lesson I ever had in class had managed to do.

As presidents’ properties go, Mount Vernon is most like Hyde Park, FDR’s Hudson River residence: they’re every grand sufficient to let you already know a rich household lived there, however they aren’t extravagant. Mount Vernon particularly is stunning as a result of, pictures of the outside however, it’s not very massive when you get inside, and its rooms are virtually all of modest dimension and modestly furnished.

However let me be clear. Nothing you see at Mount Vernon or the work of its historians needs to be construed as “reducing Washington all the way down to dimension.” One factor the historians at Mount Vernon won’t ever do is belittle George Washington. Reasonably, the concept appears to be to provide guests as a lot data as attainable, flattering or not, and allow them to make up their very own minds.

Quarters for the enslaved, Mount Vernon

Malcolm Jones

Not that the bodily place doesn’t offer you all of the proof you want. Off to 1 facet of the primary home is a proper backyard of which Washington was extraordinarily proud and made some extent of displaying his friends. Dominating this backyard on one facet is a tall orangery/greenhouse constructed of glass and brick, an imposing and fairly cutting-edge arboreal edifice. The again of that very same constructing equipped housing for the enslaved, and people dwelling quarters are tough and cramped, and their occupants, crammed in with no considered privateness or ease, usually slept three to a mattress, and the beds are usually not huge. One facet of the constructing is bathed in mild, the opposite in perpetual shade, however the overarching level is that they’re elements of the identical constructing, a strong construction constructed to endure, one facet of which celebrated botanical innovation and the Age of Enlightenment, the opposite facet perpetuating certainly one of humanity’s direst crimes in opposition to itself. I’ll take the contradictory, irreconcilable, and, sure, heartbreaking fact of that constructing over an orchard of cherry bushes.



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