Donald Rumsfeld played a major role in our American politics, and yet there is so much that is unknown about him. He once said that there are the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. Most people’s understanding of Rumsfeld would fall into the unknown unknowns.

He never shared why he would find it a great venture and honor to purchase a house named Mount Misery on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay. This is one visitor’s description of the entrance to Rumsfeld residence: “At the end of the Rumsfelds’ private drive is a small bronze sign with ‘Mount Misery 1804’ denoted next to a small American flag. Across from it on the other side of the drive is a duck house on a pole. The duck house is four times as big as the blue bird house.” Mount Misery was given that name because it was at one time truly a house of misery for thousands of slaves.

If you have read any of Frederick Douglass’ writings, therein you will be introduced to the house of misery. Many slaves were not easily reduced to state of chattel. In that area, those slaves who were not flogged to death because breaking them was next to impossible were sent to another plantation or farm on which the owner was ruthless and harsh beyond measure.

One such man was Edward Covey, who advertised that he could break any slave by taking away all of his humanity. He had a way to reduce them to a state of nobodiness. When Douglass was sent to Covey, his master knew that he would have to kill him in order to break him. There might have been other underlying reasons, since Douglass stated that it was rumored his master was actually his father.

But, whatever the reason, Douglass was sent to the slave breaker Covey. Covey’s place later became known as Mount Misery.

In Douglass’ writings he mentioned the many near death whippings that he witnessed for minor infractions. He recorded the whippings of a servant girl named Missy. The madam entered the kitchen and noticed that a biscuit was missing, and she asked the servant what happened to the biscuit. The girl hesitantly said, “I do not know.”

Madame asked her again what happened to the biscuit. This time Missy answered with the truth. “Ma’am, I et it.”

According to the writings of Douglass the Madame grabbed the whip and began wailing Missy with it. But this time Missy was caught off guard and “lost her state of mind” and grabbed the whip. The Madame called to her house boy and he came running in. When he saw Missy handling the Madame, he grabbed the whip away from her.

The Madame said “I order you to beat her.” And beat her he did, according to Douglass. He said he stood motionless, watching all that he could stand. He did not see Missy for weeks after that.

During that time, he was thinking about his condition. He had a spirit that could not be broken easily. He had been handed down to many slave owners, but he concluded that ”For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason.”

At Mount Misery Douglass stated that he was beaten daily.

He said one day he fell out with a heat stroke and could not move. Covey found him and began kicking and beating him. He bashed a hole in Douglass’ head and when he managed to drag himself up, he made it to his master’s house to tell how Covey was treating him. His master told him that he had better go back to Covey or else.

Douglass hid out until he got his strength back and returned to get the same treatment again at Mount Misery.

With Rumsfeld being such an astute learned politician, why would he want to own and live in a place with those kinds of memories when he could have bought a house any other place? Unknown of the unknowns is probably Rumsfeld’s title or category.

According to one of his speech writers, Rumsfeld was one of the last of the old-school public servants who was kind to people in small, quiet ways and did not boast about what he did for them; he had a loved one whom he helped to cope with crippling drug addiction while at the same time he was managing a war.

Rumsfeld was friends with people ranging from the Kennedys to the Cheneys to Sammy Davis, Jr. He knew how to put politics and policies aside to value people as people.

He played squash with great energy well into his 70s and skirted around the Pentagon with ease. He was in good physical shape and was able to run laps with younger and envious aides. He formed a foundation to support entrepreneurs in developing nations.

And yet, on the other hand, what was it about him that caused him to approve torturing prisoners, including waterboarding?

As I was writing this, my mind went to one of William Shakespeare’s characters in “Julius Caesar.” Mark Antony said at Caesar’ funeral, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”

What do you think — was he telling the truth according to your yardstick?

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright, founder and director of the African American Connection of the Performing Arts Inc. and a 2020 Heart of the Community Award recipient. She can be contacted at

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