In 2010, an archive of rare documents passed down in my family for over 250 years arrived at my home in Austin. Reading them I came face to face with my family’s role in both creating democracy and denying freedom.
I’m the 5x great-granddaughter of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington. Although the President freed his slaves in his will, his brothers and heirs continued using slave labor to maintain their lives of privilege until the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
My own life has followed a different cultural current of American history. I’ve been a professional blues musician for over 40 years. I launched my career playing with blues legends, learning authentic styles from those who grew up in the Jim Crow era.
I’ve been looking for linked descendants, and specifically those who share a life in music. Soon after I began my search I found Coming To The Table. Susan Hutchison, one the founders, helped me to come to terms with my family’s legacy. I’m forever in her debt – thank you, Susan!
I’m outlining my search – so far! – In three parts, as a Bittersweet blog post – “Redrawing a Community”.
Part One, “Paper” deals with the impact of learning about my family’s past as slave-owners.
Part Two “People”, tells the story of connecting to the living descendants of Solomon Thompson and Reuben Hatter.
Part Three “Music”, talks about the impact of African-American music on my life, and my search for linked descendant musicians.
I’m telling the whole story in my upcoming book “The Washingtons and The Blues”.
Redrawing a Community
Part One – “Paper”
My family sold their plantation and farmlands in Jefferson County, West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, and headed west around 1905, to start over. They resettled in Eastern Washington State, where my mother was born and raised. Her father, grandfather, uncle and aunt claimed adjacent homesteads in arid country along the Columbia River. The cabins and corrals they built are long gone, but the land remains in the family, home now to low brush and a few chimney stones. They never returned to West Virginia. Claymont, their West Virginia home, is now owned by the Claymont Society for Continuing Education, which offers it, among other things, as a meditation retreat.
I grew up knowing the 20th century story of my family. My mother, aunt and uncle told me of their ranch land childhoods, and shared what they remembered of their father, Nathaniel Willis Washington. There were only a few scattered stories of their grandfather, Bushrod Corbin Washington II. He died of influenza in 1919, living his last days on the ranch he hoped would become “a new plantation in the West’ – a phrase my uncle always repeated with an ironic lift of his chin. Bushrod’s son Nat Washington was interested in dams, not plantations. The Grand Coulee Dam was built within a few miles of the ranch; my grandfather was part of a group that proposed it.
One day in 1926, during a swimming excursion with visiting cousins, my grandfather Nat, his brother James, and his sister Peachey were all drowned in the rain-swollen river, witnessed by my twelve-year-old uncle, Nat Washington Jr.. Stories of earlier life in West Virginia, those that would have been told to children when they were old enough to be interested, disappeared in The Tragedy, when an entire generation was swept away by the Columbia.
I’m starting my story here, because this was my initial vantage point for the work I’m doing now. I was disconnected from my West Virginia ancestors, not concerned with them. The Tragedy – the drowning -was our own family story, and contained enough grief and drama to keep me from looking much farther back.
It wasn’t until 2010 that I was able to read through a family archive that had been passed down for generations. The papers had traveled west with the West Virginians, by train to Spokane, and by horse cart to the ranch on the Columbia, contained in a trunk. In my lifetime they had been kept by my Uncle Nat, who occasionally took them out of a sideboard in his dining room to show them to family (oddly, I could be the only family member with no memory of this.) The archaic handwriting was hard to read, but they looked impressive, and certainly historical.
When Uncle Nat died, his will stipulated that the archive should be auctioned, a surprise to all of us. He knew an auction would draw interest because of its connection to George Washington; we are descendants of George’s brother, John Augustine Washington. The archive arrived at my house en route to the auction. By then the documents had also been transcribed from the original, impossibly stylized, script.
As I read through each page I was emotionally slammed by the significant and disturbing role of slavery in my family. There were wills listing hundreds of enslaved people, denied surnames; documents drawn up for the division of assets – cattle, tools and humans; a letter about hunting for runaways; hate mail from an abolitionist; references to the American Colonization Society, dedicated to freeing slaves on the condition that they colonize Liberia.
I was unprepared for the shock of meeting the issue face-to-face. I felt betrayed.
I knew we had owned slaves, of course. The subject rarely came up, but it wasn’t forbidden. I had asked about it and been answered, but it seemed very far away. Slave owning was acknowledged, but remained invisible, banished like a bad dog. Not overtly avoided, but empty of detail. Much of our oral history had been lost. What was left of our back-home stories had no gauzy references to “beloved servants”, let alone deeper and darker tales. My broadminded mother, Glenora Washington Brown, would have shared the specifics if she had them. As it was, our family baggage consisted of old papers that were hard to decipher, and she knew little of their substance.
There were warm and loving letters from parent to child also, describing privileged lives complicated by early deaths and other hardships; women who were constricted by the times they lived in; men comfortable as entitled “gentlemen farmers”, seemingly uninterested in broader horizons. What bearing did these people have on my life? Could I recognize the Western family I knew, in them? To what extent was I tied to their legacy, especially the glaring brutality of slavery? How would I address the acts of my ancestors?
Who were the individuals my ancestors regarded as property, visible only as shadows on inherited sheets of paper?
Slavery’s legacy is as alive as it is chilling. The Washington family retained custody of the people we formerly held in bondage by virtue of owning what I assumed were the only records existing of their lives.
I began to work on what I called a “table”, as a way to memorialize the people enslaved by my family. The table is comprised of ten columns, each representing a will or inventory containing names of those enslaved. Each row represents one enslaved individual. Completed it traced seven generations; about 50 members of my family were supported by over 538 people they held in bondage.
The entries create a timeline, describing paths through the generations whenever possible. I included salvaged information on where people had lived, and which Washington family member had “inherited”, bought or sold them. I tried to determine if their children had remained with them, or been taken away. I included references in letters, shedding slivers of light on daily lives. The table was my first step toward returning history to the families to whom it belonged.
I had originally planned to print it out as a long scroll, a monument in paper, but it’s way too long to be manageable. Visually, the table might be a massively tall tower with a tiny footprint, 10 columns wide and 538 rows tall; there’s no way it could ever stand. And indeed, it fell, but not until 1865, when the Washingtons and their planter neighbors were forced to emancipate the community they held in bondage.
At one point, while handling these lists of names, I was chilled by the thought that I was perpetuating the sickening tradition of inheritance – that I was merely the latest custodian of human property, now in the form of wills rather than flesh and blood. It’s easy to take on ever increasing doses of guilt in this kind of project. But it’s better to deal with this tradition than to hide it. Those of us who have the details of their family’s involvement in slavery have a responsibility to share it, and learn by it.
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Scott Casper’s Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon; The Forgotten History Of An American Shrine, comprises the most extensive research to date on people who were enslaved by George Washingtons and his heirs at Mount Vernon. Scott Casper based some of his research on our archive (which had been loaned by my uncle to the library at Colonial Williamsburg.) He created a web site: http://www.unr.edu/cla/history/casper.html, and a spreadsheet on the people he wrote about, and I depended on it a great deal while constructing my own table. I extended his research by concentrating on my own branch of the family.