Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian

· Enslaved and Free ·

Historian Mark Auslander details the roles of enslaved workers in building the original Smithsonian “castle.” Some of the slave workers involved labored at Maryland quarries owned by Peter family members and had roots in enslaved families owned by First Lady Martha Custis Washington, who bequeathed 90 such “dower slaves” to Martha Custis Peter, original owner of Tudor Place. Tudor Place Archivist Wendy Kail assisted with this essay on the darker history of an iconic national institution.

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Letter from George Washington to his wife Martha Washington, June 18, 1775

My Dearest,

I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern—and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased when I reflect on the uneasiness I know it will give you…

After her husband’s death, Martha Washington ordered the burning of all their personal letters. This letter, purportedly found behind the drawer of her writing desk from Mount Vernon and now in the Tudor Place Archive, is one of only three pieces of their

George Washington to Martha Washington June 18, 1775, Paper, ink MS3_HV

George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775, Paper, ink, MS3_HV

correspondence known to exist. In it, General Washington informed his wife of his appointment to lead the Continental Army and details preparations he has consequently made to provide for her and their Virginia household during his absence. According to Peter family tradition, the letter was found by an unspecified family member while the desk resided at Tudor Place. A descendant sold the desk in 1939 to Mount Vernon, but the letter remained at Tudor Place under the ownership of Armistead Peter, Jr., a fifth-generation descendant of Martha Washington.


The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia

· Enslaved and Free ·

Held in the Library of Congress, this comprehensive compendium reprises the full text, judicial decisions, and commentary on regulations governing slavery in the District and Maryland up until D.C. Emancipation in 1862.

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District of Columbia Emancipation Act

· Enslaved and Free ·

Held in the National Archives and signed on April 16, 1862, the law required the release from bondage of “ all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent,” and the manner in which their owners, if willing to swear allegiance to the Union, could obtain government compensation for the loss of human “property.”

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