Alexandria, Va. is a city A. Rich in history, B. Haunted by history, C. Grappling with history, or D. All of the above.
Go with D.
Neighbored on the north by Arlington and the National Cemetery and on the south by Mt. Vernon, and facing Washington, D.C., across the Potomac River, Alexandria and its environs comprise as storied a piece of real estate as can be found anywhere in the country.
Local history and custom are baked into nearly every aspect of city life. This can be something as obvious as the regional fare, i.e., seafood, that dominates city menus. I tried Vola’s Dockside Grill, which nicely breaks the old rule that the closer to the water the worse the restaurant. And there is barbecue, of course—of course, because there is nothing more ubiquitous lately than barbecue. I feel like I would surely find a barbecue shack waiting for me if I ventured to Antarctica. This is said not to complain but merely in amazement at how barbecue, quintessentially southern in all its varieties, has in half a century conquered the country, like the coyote. And in Alexandria, you get very lucky because Georgia pitmaster Myron Mixon just happened to partner with a friend and open a restaurant there. It is decidedly more Georgia than Virginia style—there are peaches in the baked beans (this is a good idea), and the Brunswick stew tastes nothing like what you’d get in, say, nearby Brunswick County, Va. (as far as I can tell, every Brunswick County in the U.S. claims to have invented Brunswick stew), but Mixon’s brisket is as good as brisket gets.
I doubt, though, that many tourists go to Alexandria for the food. They go for the history, or they better, because you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. For example: Want a sunset cruise? There’s the tall ship Providence, a trim little sloop that’s a replica of one of the first ships commissioned during the revolution and first captained by John Paul Jones. You can find this marriage of historic and touristic all over town.
That said, Alexandria doesn’t do ye olde history. It may be charming, but it’s not cute or quaint. It comes by its charm honestly. The row houses in the older part of town that climb a gentle hill away from the waterfront are not replicas—they’re simply well preserved. This is not Williamsburg. The city looks old because it is.
And the historical story it tells is honest. It doesn’t airbrush or cherry-pick the past or ignore the less savory parts. Taking John T. Chapman’s Duke Street Black History tour brought the city a little more in focus for me and gave history the depth that only shadows can give. Standing in front of the building that once housed a slave auction house and holding pens for human beings is so completely creepy and saddening that you know you’ll never forget it.
This brings us to Mount Vernon, which first opened to tourists in 1860. If you’re visiting Alexandria, you’re almost surely one of the 1 million who annually visit Mount Vernon, and if you’re not, you need to rethink your itinerary.
As a child, I loved history, but whenever my family toured some old house that once belonged to someone famous or some battlefield where the tide of war was turned (tides are always turning on battlefields), I got bored. These were tours about larger than life people who had done heroic things, but they never seemed real to me. They seemed more like characters in a play with their wigs and carriages and funny hats.
Worst of all, they never did anything wrong. I remember in particular wanting to reach back through time and smack George Washington when I heard the story about cutting down the cherry tree. It was like he betrayed American childhood with that “cannot tell a lie” nonsense that set such an unreachable standard.
As I got older and learned more about Washington, I found out that the truth was both better and worse. Better because Parson Weems’ little story about the cherry tree is likely itself a lie. Worse because the story is true in spirit. Washington really was the sort to tell on himself. He spent all his life trying to do the right thing, emulating Roman stoicism, and in the process holding himself to an impossible standard of good behavior. He was a man in conflict with himself. And nowhere is this clearer than the issue of slavery.
The question of slavery never came up when I was being dragged around on all those house tours as a child. No one went so far as to say slavery didn’t exist. They simply didn’t talk about it at all. I wish they had, not merely because it would have been the right thing to do but because it would have made those tours so much more interestingly problematic.
In How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith describes touring Monticello and overhearing two other visitors digesting the tour guide’s spiel about Jefferson the founding father who not only owned enslaved people, flogged them, and sold them, but fathered a line of descendants with one of them. “This really took the shine off the guy,” one of the tourists told Smith.
It sure does. It also means we have to square the slave owner with the man who wrote, “all men are created equal.” Or rather, we have to pay closer attention to how Jefferson himself tried to square that circle. Unless we’re going to assume that people today are better and smarter and more evolved than our ancestors, we have to do the often unpleasant work of putting ourselves in their heads as best we can. Only then do we come anywhere close to understanding the world they left for us.
Washington is, in this respect, perhaps the most accessible of the founders, because he was, in what he said and what he did, so conflicted, so human. Of all the founders, he alone still has the capacity to occasionally surprise us, usually by defying our expectations and preconceptions. He was, for example, the least formally educated of any president before Lincoln, and yet he was the only slave-holding founder to free the enslaved people who worked for him, albeit after his death. In fact, his will stipulated that no one would be freed until after his wife’s death, but Martha was so fearful that someone would murder her to hasten this eventuality that she freed her late husband’s slaves a little over a year after he died in 1799.
Washington and Jefferson both thought slavery was wrong and that perpetuating it would eventually tear the country apart. But while Jefferson waxed eloquent on the tragic implications for America, Henry Wiencek observes in his beautiful history An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, “Washington did not dither over making fine metaphors; he simply freed his people.”
I was fortunate enough to visit Mount Vernon this summer on Juneteenth and attend the presentation Freedom Skies in which Brenda Parker, a Mount Vernon Character Interpreter, brought to life through reenactment four of the enslaved who Martha Washington freed on Jan. 1, 1801. Together with Lives Bound Together, an exhibit delineating slavery at Mount Vernon at the site’s museum, Parker’s presentation went a long way toward making an abstract issue more comprehensible, more human, and yes, more tragic.
My day at Mount Vernon—and if ever there was a historical site that warrants more than just one day’s visit, this is it—left me with more questions than answers. But in doing that, the Mount Vernon experience also made Washington more human, which is more than any history lesson I ever had in school had managed to do.
As presidents’ homes go, Mount Vernon is most like Hyde Park, FDR’s Hudson River home: they are each grand enough to let you know a wealthy family lived there, but they are not extravagant. Mount Vernon in particular is surprising because, photographs of the exterior notwithstanding, it is not very large once you get inside, and its rooms are almost all of modest size and modestly furnished.
But let me be clear. Nothing you see at Mount Vernon or the work of its historians should be construed as “cutting Washington down to size.” One thing the historians at Mount Vernon will never do is belittle George Washington. Rather, the idea seems to be to give visitors as much information as possible, flattering or not, and let them make up their own minds.
Not that the physical place doesn’t give you all the evidence you need. Off to one side of the main house is a formal garden of which Washington was extremely proud and made a point of showing his guests. Dominating this garden on one side is a tall orangery/greenhouse built of glass and brick, an imposing and rather cutting-edge arboreal edifice. The back of that same building supplied housing for the enslaved, and those living quarters are rough and cramped, and their occupants, crammed in with no thought of privacy or ease, often slept three to a bed, and the beds are not big. One side of the building is bathed in light, the other in perpetual shade, but the overarching point is that they are parts of the same building, a solid structure built to endure, one side of which celebrated botanical innovation and the Age of Enlightenment, the other side perpetuating one of humanity’s direst crimes against itself. I’ll take the contradictory, irreconcilable, and, yes, heartbreaking truth of that building over an orchard of cherry trees.