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Women's History Month: Anne Pamela Cunningham, the woman who saved Mount Vernon

As part of our series on Women’s History Month, we look at the woman who saved George Washington’s Mount Vernon; South Carolina native Anne Pamela Cunningham.

Anne Pamela Cunningham is buried at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia
photo by author

Anne Pamela Cunningham was born on a South Carolina plantation. As a teenager, she was thrown from a horse and was left a semi-invalid. In 1853, she traveled with her mother to Philadelphia for medical treatment.

Traveling back to South Carolina, Cunningham’s mother wrote of passing Mount Vernon, “It was a lovely moonlit night that we went down the Potomac. I went on deck as the bell tolled and we passed Mount Vernon. I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”

Cunningham put her mother’s words into action. At a time when women were only mentioned in newspapers at their birth, marriage and death, Cunningham wrote a letter to the Charleston Mercury in December, 1853 asking the women of the south to help save Mount Vernon. Her appeal was published in both southern and northern papers and less than a year later, in 1854; the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union was formed.

Originally, Cunningham’s plan was to collect donations and then turn them over to the Commonwealth of Virginia which would then buy the property. With the country headed toward Civil War, Virginia declined the offer.

Cunningham then approached John Augustine Washington III, Washington’s grand-nephew and owner of Mount Vernon, to purchase the property for the Association. Washington refused. After Cunningham met with his wife, Washington agreed to sell Mount Vernon in 1858. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association took possession of Mount Vernon on February 22, 1860, George Washington’s 128th birthday.

Cunningham retired from the Association in 1874. Less than a year later, she died and was buried in the churchyard of the First Presbyterian Church on Marion Street in Columbia.

Today, Mount Vernon is one of the most visited Presidential sites in the country. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association was the first historic preservation group in the nation and is credited with inspiring the preservation of thousands of other sites.

Please check the list for brief biographies of other famous women from South Carolina


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