Speech at Mt Vernon

First, I would like to give honor to God – who makes all things possible. 

My name is Linda Allen Hollis, and I am a direct descendant of West Ford. Many may not know that West was integral in the management of Mount Vernon for close to 60 years, guarding George Washington’s tomb and one of the caretakers of the slave cemetery. 

Before speaking about him, I want to thank the Black Women United for Action (BWUFA) for giving me opportunity to talk today and for their diligent work in making this com mem oration a successful yearly process.

I also want to thank the Mount Vernon staff for continuing to work with the families of slave descendants through the League of Descendants of the Enslaved at Mount Vernon. Lastly, I want to thank two key people; Ron Chase who has kept West Ford’s legacy alive through the Gum Springs Museum for over 30 years and to my cousin, the late Dr. Judith Saunders Burton, who worked tirelessly on having a permanent monument placed at the burial site. I stand on her shoulders today because of her efforts.

The Mount Vernon Slave Cemetery holds a special place in my family as it is a part of our history. I too, felt that realization of our heritage as my family and I took a tour of the cemetery on Friday.

My great grandfather, Major George Ford, who was born and raised on the, then Mount Vernon Plantation, visited the slave cemetery in 1929 with his son, Bruce. When they arrived, they found two men working in the cemetery, a Wilford Neitzey and Artie Petit. They were hauling away debris and some of it included tombstones and markers.  When my great grandfather asked with some concern, “what are going to do with stones, are you going to put them back” and they replied, “we were told to get rid of them.” The two men also stated that they would be placing a stone tablet in the center designating the area as the slave cemetery.

Removing those markers deprived the slaves of the individuality of their burial, to be forgotten, like an old house or barn that was torn down and with time, no one would ever know that something else had been erected there. 

You can kind of understand my great grandfather’s despair because some of those markers carried the names of his family members. His great, great grandmother Jenny, his grandmother Venus, his grand Aunt Bettey, his grandparents West and Priscella Ford and his father William, and his mother Henrietta.  All buried in the slave cemetery—their graves no longer noted. 

The Mount Vernon slave cemetery and West Ford share a sense of identity even though we don’t know exactly where he is buried. And while West Ford gained some prominence at Mount Vernon, he came as a slave in 1805, and was later freed around the age of 21. To commemorate the occasion of Ford’s freedom, the Washington’s had an artist come to Mount Vernon to pencil sketch his portrait. While we don’t know who the artist was, as there are no records available, we do know that West was impeccably groomed, and his chestnut-colored hair was pulled back tightly against his head and his blue/gray eyes sparkling at the gaining his freedom. After gaining his freedom, he later became a landowner in 1829. 

West would go on to manage the estate for decades, gaining the trust of owners Bushrod Washington, John Augustine Washington II, and John Augustine Washington III. He kept the estate account records, wrote letters to the Washington’s and they replied, purchased and sold items for the estate, and traveled the countryside when others of his race could not do so.  When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took over Mount Vernon, West Ford became a valuable resource to them when they began to renovate the estate. 

West married Priscella Bell, a free woman, and the ceremony was performed by a Reverend Muir who was the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, and it was recorded in the county records. West raised his children and grandchildren on Mount Vernon and all of them were educated on the estate. He died at the age of 79 in July 1863 at Mount Vernon, in the mansion house, and his obituary appeared in the Alexandria Gazette Newspaper. A portion of West Ford’s land later became a refuge for freed slaves after the Civil War and was called Gum Springs. West Ford later became known as “the Father and Founder of Gum Springs.”

It can also be stated that West Ford is of Washington lineage, and we Fords are confident on who his father is. However, that determination will be settled by future DNA analysis.

  West Ford and the other African Americans that once belonged to George Washington has a shared story, a shared family portrait from Mount Vernon.  I for one, am looking forward to the estate giving more visibility to West Ford and renovating and beautifying the slave cemetery for those visitors who may wish to sit a spell and contemplate on the lives of those buried here.