On returning to South Carolina after a summer visit with her daughter in Philadelphia, Louisa Byrd Cunningham observed the dilapidated state of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. From her sickbed Ann Pamela Cunningham immediately penned an appeal to the “Ladies of the South!” to raise funds to purchase and renovate Mount Vernon.
Preservationist. Born on the Rosemont plantation in Laurens District on August 15, 1816, Cunningham was the daughter of the upcountry planter Robert Cunningham and Louisa Byrd of Virginia. As a young girl Cunningham was educated by a governess, and she later attended the South Carolina Female Institute at Barhamville. She distinguished herself with her riding ability and keen intelligence. At age seventeen Cunningham was thrown from her horse, an accident that permanently injured her spine and left her an invalid. She was sent north by her parents in hopes of receiving better medical care.
On returning to South Carolina after a summer visit with her daughter in Philadelphia, Louisa Byrd Cunningham observed the dilapidated state of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. From her sickbed Ann Pamela Cunningham immediately penned an appeal to the “Ladies of the South!” to raise funds to purchase and renovate Mount Vernon. The Charleston Mercury printed the letter, and soon thereafter a meeting to raise funds was held in Laurens County. Women in the North and the South formed “Mount Vernon Associations,” and in 1856 the Virginia legislature granted a charter to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, with Ann Pamela Cunningham as its first regent. After much negotiating, John Augustine Washington, Jr., great-grandnephew of George Washington and then owner of Mount Vernon, agreed to sell the property to the organization, contingent on their success in raising $200,000. The money was raised, and in 1860 Washington relinquished the property to the association. Throughout her life Cunningham maintained that Washington’s house and grounds must be “preserved with sacred reverence . . . in the state that he left them.”
Family obligations and ill health kept Cunningham in South Carolina throughout the duration of the Civil War. She returned to Mount Vernon in 1866, but her declining health and increasing use of laudanum led the board to doubt her ability to preside. In 1872 the Board of Vice-Regents asked Cunningham to “refrain from all interference with the administration of finances and the management of the estate.” At its next meeting, Cunningham announced her intent to retire as regent. Unable to attend the Grand Council’s meeting of 1874, Cunningham sent a farewell address, which declared, “Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge. . . . Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from ‘change’! Upon you rests this duty.” Her address has been read at the openings of the annual meetings of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association every year since 1907. Just as Cunningham envisioned, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association remains governed by a board of regents comprised solely of women. In one of the most successful historic preservation programs in the country, Mount Vernon is maintained solely by funding from sales and from private donations and is the only historic site in the country that is open to the public 365 days of the year. Cunningham died on May 1, 1875, at Rosemont and was buried at the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia.
Alexander, Edward P. Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1983.
King, Grace. Mount Vernon on the Potomac: History of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. New York: Macmillan, 1929.
Thane, Elswyth. Mount Vernon Is Ours: The Story of Its Preservation. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1966.