I live in Washington, D.C., and much like most of the parents in the area—the whole country, really—my wife and I have looked for mostly outdoor activities to do with our kids since the beginning of the pandemic. Washington, D.C., and its surrounding suburbs, are home to tons of museums and monuments; there’s always somewhere to go to look at some national something-or-other with some social distancing that’s pretty much a 30-minute drive from us all.
Which is exactly what I did a few weeks ago. On one of those days when my kids clearly needed to get outside, I put my kids in the car and we took a drive out into the city and realized that there was a location I’d never been before but I kept seeing pop up on my friends’ social media posts: Theodore Roosevelt Island.
Here is how he National Park Service—the island is part of the National Park Service—describes Theodore Roosevelt Island:
In the 1930s, landscape architects transformed Mason’s Island from neglected, overgrown farmland into Theodore Roosevelt Island, a memorial to America’s 26th president. They conceived a “real forest” designed to mimic the natural forest that once covered the island. Today miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands honor the legacy of a great outdoorsman and conservationist.
The Mason that they’re referencing to is George Mason, one of America’s Founding Fathers and the namesake of Fairfax, Virginia’s, George Mason University, whose family owned the property and whose son, John, and his family, lived on the island from around 1800 to 1831. And that neglected, overgrown farmland was actually a functioning cotton and corn plantation (please click the link to see a rendering of the layout of the actual plantation) until the family was forced to leave in 1831 over some bad business dealings on the part of George’s son, John. For the record, the National Park Service website makes no mention of this anywhere on the site. I wouldn’t even have made this discovery if not for my son asking me to read every sign we passed. But we’ll get there.
Theodore Roosevelt Island, as currently operated, is a memorial to the former President. It’s a forest-like island full of trails for running, walking or nature-watching and right in the middle is a huge statue of Teddy Roosevelt and some pools and two small bridges. It’s a cool escape from the city; when you get onto the island—you have to walk across the Potomac River on a huge wooden bridge—you basically walk into the woods and into some peace and quiet with only the faint sounds of cars on the George Washington Parkway in the distance. My kids loved it. My oldest son kept looking for paw-prints and my youngest kept hoping that it didn’t rain; he is not about that precipitation life.
Scattered about the island are some small plaques and information boards that tell you about Teddy Roosevelt and what used to be there. I had zero idea what used to be there. That started to change as we walked along one of the nature trails. There was a sign that pointed out that in the distance used to be the home of John Marshall but all that was left were a few bricks from the original foundation. You couldn’t see any of that, the brush and trees had long covered whatever used to be there. When I saw that sign I thought it was interesting that there used to be a house there and wondered if there had been more. I took note and kept walking. We passed a sign pointing out that there was poison ivy to avoid.
We walked a little further and down an incline and then I saw a slightly bigger information board. Since we were standing in the middle of a bunch of forestry, I pretty much only glanced at the board but my son asked me what it said. I decided to give it a real look and that’s when I saw a picture of what looked like a bunch of Black children standing around listening to a few white men, one of which was Teddy Roosevelt but it piqued my interest. This is the early 1900s—Roosevelt died in 1919—so I was insanely curious as to how those Black kids ended up in the audience of the President and the signage didn’t specify anything about the picture, just that the President inspired youngsters to appreciate America’s resources. In my quest for information, I read every single thing on the board and came across an interesting tidbit:
Between 1717 and 1833 the Mason family of Virginia established a ferry business here and, later, a plantation. Their stately mansion became the centerpiece of what was then called “Mason’s Island.”
As you can imagine, I was immediately taken aback and thought, “wait, this was a whole plantation?” I was literally walking around crop fields, unknowingly, and based on the maps I later saw, probably at that moment standing near where the slave quarters were.
My entire demeanor changed after that. I was amazed at how little information was made available that the land we were on was actually a plantation, you know, the kind with slaves. As soon as I got home, annoyed, I looked up Theodore Roosevelt Island and George Mason (and his family) and found out that he was a slaveholder who wanted to abolish slavery; while he recognized the benefits of the practice and used it for his own gains, he didn’t want the practice to continue further in this new nation he helped form. His son, though, turned that whole family island—after George Mason’s death—into a plantation, and the National Park Service, which was founded by President Roosevelt, then turned the former plantation into a memorial for him. I find it odd how little it is pointed out that the island, which commemorates a President, was a plantation though. I was walking around in spaces where Black bodies were tortured and used for free labor and had no idea. If it wasn’t for my son asking me to read a board, I still wouldn’t know.
Ronald Reagan National Airport sits on what used to be a plantation. I know this because there is signage outside of the airport and inside of the airport. It is made clear and not hidden. It doesn’t change my use of the airport but it is an interesting piece of history that isn’t obscured from those who frequent the airport. Had I known the Island was a plantation would it have stopped me from going? I doubt it; I’ve visited plantations—on purpose—even taking a plantation tour during my bachelor party outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. But something about how little effort is made to point it out just doesn’t sit right with me.
This whole ass memorial for a President though is built on a plantation and you wouldn’t even know it unless you read every board and then go and look up your own information because the information board is pretty sparse. In fact, it almost seems like the mention of it being a plantation was done just to ensure that nobody can say they tried to hide it. It isn’t mentioned on the NPS website in the description, option to only call it neglected, overgrown farmland. That is a pretty significant under-description of what actually existed on that land. I took my kids to visit a whole plantation and I didn’t even know it. I’d bet most folks don’t know it because, well, it’s not really part of the public story of the island. And yet.
But if you are ever in Washington, D.C. and looking for a new former plantation to visit, you can go on ahead and check out the memorial for the 26th President. There you can walk right through former cotton fields quietly transformed into nature trails for you and your family to enjoy.
This is America.