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Primary Source of the Month
Depictions of enslaved African Americans are rare, particularly images that lack the distortions of caricature and stereotyping. Colonial Williamsburg's portrait is unusually empathetic and closely-observed. Mary Anna Randolph Custis (1807-1873) was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis (George Washington's step-grandson and adopted son) and Mary Lee Fitzhugh of Arlington House in Northern Virginia. Likely the subject was one of the Custis family's slaves, though her name is unknown. (The word "Topsy" was written on her apron later, by an unidentified hand).
A minimal setting and fine, skillfully executed details focus attention sharply on the subject, whose quiet dignity dominates the image. The child's stance is attentive, yet relaxed and easy, and she regards the viewer with a calm, straightforward gaze. Although small, female, young, and vulnerable, every detail of the girl's attitude conveys naturalness, self-possession, and assurance.
Mary Custis harbored a lifelong concern for the education of slaves, emulating the work of her mother in teaching those at Arlington House to read and write. Her goal was to prepare them for eventual emancipation. Her father's will directed that his slaves be freed within five years of his death if his estate were solvent. He died in 1857 leaving considerable debt, however, and it was only on December 29, 1862, that executor Robert E. Lee formalized their freedom.
George Washington Parke Custis built Arlington House in 1802-1818, establishing it as both a family home and a memorial to George Washington, the step-grandfather who had raised him at Mount Vernon and whom he had grown to reverence. Inherited estates afforded Custis a comfortable living and allowed him the luxury of pursuing personal interests in painting, playwriting, music, and oratory. He must have stimulated his daughter's artistic tendencies, and he may have taught her the skills revealed in her watercolor.