Photo by Dan Chung
Reminiscing about her mother, Mount Vernon supporter Una Davis recalls a woman with a deep passion for history and a keen interest in genealogy.
“She liked to tell her children whom we were related to. The most exciting person on that list was George Washington,” she explains.
Indeed, in tracing her family’s roots back to the 1600s, Davis’s mother, Anita Ball Dawson Claeboe, discovered a direct link to Mary Ball Washington, the first president’s enigmatic mother [see story, page 36]. Despite her proud personal connection to George Washington, Claeboe passed away in 2013 without ever having visited Mount Vernon.
After Claeboe’s death, Davis—a Boston-born history lover who now resides in San Diego—knew that she needed to honor her mother’s memory with a visit to the home of their famous relative. She and her husband went to Mount Vernon while in Maryland visiting a sister and brother-in-law.
For Davis, the deep-dive into early American history was thrilling and inspiring. Shortly after her visit, Davis began to explore possibilities of honoring her mother through a philanthropic gift. On a subsequent visit, she toured the Washington Library, where she learned about an opportunity to support research on the Washington family—including her own family’s branch.
Davis’s donation endows the Washington Papers Project Suite, which will become the permanent office and archive of the Papers of George Washington. Launched in 1968, the Papers of George Washington is a collaboration between the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the University of Virginia to publish print and digital editions of Washington’s entire correspondence. In 2015, the project’s scope expanded to include the Washington Family Papers, which will publish the surviving documents of the members of Washington’s family, including Mary Ball Washington. Davis’s gift will help support these important publications, expected to be completed this decade.
The idea of inspiring further scholarship on George Washington’s mother is particularly meaningful to Davis, who takes note of some common family threads.
“She lived a tough early life with many personal losses, but when she married Augustine [George’s father], she found her rock. I am fascinated by her; she was a strong woman. My mother was a strong woman, and I’m often told that I am as well. It’s time we pay more attention to the women behind the scenes.”
A plaque displayed outside the Papers Project Suite, dedicated on Washington’s birthday earlier this year, bears Claeboe’s name. Davis and several members of the family traveled to Mount Vernon to take part in the plaque’s unveiling.
“It was the perfect family reunion. My mother was so proud of her history, and this was the ideal way to honor her. She would have been so happy,” remarks Davis.
Davis hopes that her gift will inspire more study—both of American history and genealogy—as well as additional philanthropy.
“My mother started the flame, but I’m fanning it. It’s so important to understand our past, and it’s so important to give back. What Mount Vernon does is simply incredible,” she notes. “There are many people who can give more than I did, and I hope they will be inspired to do that.”