“… it is also a story of triumph over tragedy, even if it took well more than a century for the magnitude of the full story to emerge.” — “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Through the diary he kept with his quill pen, George Washington gave us a lot of insight into life at Mount Vernon.
The great void, however, has been the silenced voices of the more than 300 enslaved humans who lived and toiled there.
The fog, however, is beginning to lift. In addition to the gamut of archivists, researchers and writers, there are also first-person interpreters. These folks often turn their passion for their subject into a years-long study. In this unique way, they give a voice to those who were unable to tell us what they observed year after year.
Azie Mira Dungey recently gave a voice to Caroline Branham, George and Martha’s personal maid. Dungey portrayed Branham at Mount Vernon for several years, as well as at the National Museum of American History.
Dungey has earned acclaim as an actress and a writer. In 2013 she created the comedic web series "Ask a Slave,” and played the lead role of an enslaved housemaid for the Washingtons.
In a revealing interview with “This American Life,” Dungey details some of her time as Branham’s portrayer. Her experience was rewarding but marred by lewd comments and odd questions that were anything but funny.
Another source of information on the life of Caroline Branham is the recent publication,“Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.”
In the book, Jesse MacLeod, Associate Curator at Mount Vernon, tells us Branham fully witnessed Washington’s last day. She alerted Martha that Washington was coughing on the early morning of December14, 1799. Branham was probably in his upstairs room when Washington took his last breath.
Genealogy is a particularly tough challenge for researchers, but when the strands are connected and verified, the results can bring joy and discovery.
Such uplifting emotions came to ZSun-nee Matema (pronounced “ZUN-nee maw-tee-MAH”). She tells some of her discovery story in Lives Bound Together.
Matema spent six years researching her family ancestry. She found out she is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Caroline Branham.
Some of this story taps into Alexandria. Matema’s great-great grandfather, Caroline’s grandson, was Robert Henry Robinson. After Robinson found his freedom, he found work as a baker at the Jamieson Bakery in Alexandria. He then became the first ordained minister from Roberts Memorial United Methodist Chapel in Alexandria on S. Washington Street.
Robinson’s name also lives on at the Alexandria Black History Museum. In the wake of a pioneering Civil Rights sit-in that took place at Alexandria’s main library in 1939, the city built a small library for African Americans at the corner of N. Alfred and With streets in the Parker-Gray neighborhood. The library, which forms the east wing of the museum, was named for Robert Robinson.
It was there at the adjacent Alexandria Black Resource Center that Matema made her remarkable discovery. She recalls:
I was working for Arena Stage in the late ’90s, and as part of doing multicultural programs and community outreach,
I went to the Alexandria Black History Museum. I see this photograph hanging over the entryway of Robert Henry Robinson. I asked the archivist if he was related to my great-grandfather, Magnus Lewis Robinson. She says that’s his father, then tells me to sit down, goes and gets piles and piles of papers, plops them on the desk in front of me and says, “Enjoy!”
When I learned that my great-great-grandfather, Robert Henry Robinson, was the grandson of the personal maid of Martha Washington, Caroline Branham, I was immensely proud.
Matema’s great-grandfather was Magnus L. Robinson (1852-), a distinguished African American businessman and newspaper editor in Alexandria. His is another great story yet to be told.
Robinson lived in “The Dip” or “Bottoms” neighborhood (south of Wolfe and east of Washington) and established the John Hay School in Alexandria. Robinson was also a friend of Frederick Douglass and secured him as the speaker for Alexandria’s Emancipation Day celebration in 1894.
Matema’s grandmother was Mary Virginia Robinson, the daughter of Magnus L. Robinson. Matema’s father was Emmett Robinson Miller, who operated a restaurant in northwest Washington.
Matema also portrayed Branham at Mount Vernon, and was interviewed by C-SPAN during a reenactment of Washington’s funeral in 1999.
“Lives Bound Together,” also has an essay by Rohulamin Quander and Gloria Tancil Holmes.
The Tancil family is also a forgotten Alexandria story. Much more known are the Quanders. Their reunions are legendary around these parts and the family name lives on in a public way through Quander Road School, Quander Road and Quander Brook south of Alexandria. Quander descendants live in Gum Springs, as well as along or near Quander Road.
The essay tells us about Nancy Carter Quander. Enslaved at Ferry Farm near Mount Vernon, she was eleven when Washington died in 1799. Washington’s will called for the freeing of his slaves (but not Martha’s dower slaves). Quander and her mother and her sister were thus freed in 1801.
Gloria Tancil Holmes, who co-wrote the essay, is the daughter of Gladys Quander Tancil, who passed away in 2002. Tancil blazed paths for Matema and Dungey by becoming the first African American historic interpreter at Mount Vernon.
It’s great we are learning more about Mount Vernon and the enslaved there. The sad part is those ugly comments a few rude people made to Dungey.
The tables will turn, however, as she is writing, “How I Survived the 18th-Century.”
Silent voices no more.