Author: Ann Bay Godin

Ann Bay Goddin worked at the Smithsonian Institution as both a writer and administrator, including as executive director of what was then the Center for Education and Museum Studies. In addition, she served as Mount Vernon’s first vice president for education until 2010. She was a 2019/2020 research fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, where she studied the papers of Ann Pamela Cunningham, of whom she is writing a biography.

Ann Pamela Cunningham (August 15, 1816–May 1, 1875)

Ann Pamela Cunningham was the founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which helped set in motion the historic preservation movement in the United States. Cunningham was born on August 15, 1816, at Rosemont Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina. A serious, deeply patriotic, and ambitious young woman, Cunningham became an invalid after a riding accident in her late teens. She found the cause of her life when her mother wrote to her in 1853 about the dilapidated condition of Mount Vernon, the former plantation home of George Washington, which had long suffered from neglect and an overabundance of eager tourists. Writing in the Charleston Mercury, Cunningham challenged the women of the American South to save “the home and grave” of George Washington in the face of male politicians’ unwillingness to act. The campaign to raise $200,000 to purchase the property quickly gained momentum throughout the South and soon spread to the North despite objections from some abolitionists that it inappropriately memorialized what was still a site of enslavement. In 1856, the Commonwealth of Virginia authorized the establishment of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), with Cunningham as its leader. In 1858, the MVLA signed a contract to purchase Mount Vernon from John Augustine Washington III. Cunningham spent the American Civil War (1861–1865) in South Carolina as efforts to restore Mount Vernon languished. She returned to the estate in 1867 and guided it through the immediate postwar years. She resigned from the MLVA in June 1874 due to her declining health and died in South Carolina on May 1, 1875.