Washington: the 'blackest name' in America

Associated Press | 2/23/2011, 5:28 a.m.
George Washington’s name is inseparable from...

George Washington’s name is inseparable from America, and not only from the nation’s history. It identifies countless streets, buildings, mountains, bridges, monuments, cities — and people.

In a puzzling twist, most of these people are black. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 163,036 people with the surname Washington. Ninety percent of them were African American, a far higher black percentage than for any other common name.

The story of how Washington became the “blackest name” begins with slavery and takes a sharp turn after the Civil War, when all blacks were allowed the dignity of a surname.

Even before Emancipation, many enslaved black people chose their own surnames to establish their identities. Afterward, some historians theorize, large numbers of blacks chose the name Washington in the process of asserting their freedom.

Today there are black Washingtons, like this writer, who are often identified as African American by people they have never met. There are white Washingtons who are sometimes misidentified and have felt discrimination. There are Washingtons of both races who view the name as a special — if complicated — gift.

And there remains the presence of George, born 278 years ago on Feb. 22, whose complex relationship with slavery echoes in the blackness of his name today.

In the beginning George Washington inherited land and 10 human beings from his father, and gained more of both as he grew older. But over the decades, as he recognized slavery’s contradiction with the freedoms of the new nation, Washington grew opposed to human bondage.

Still, “slaves were the basis of his fortune,” and he would not part with them, says Ron Chernow, author of the new biography “Washington: A Life.”

By the standards of the time, Washington was not a harsh slaveowner. He recognized marriages and refused to sell off individual family members. But he also worked his slaves quite hard. As president, he shuttled them between his Philadelphia residence and Virginia estate to evade a law that freed any slave residing in Pennsylvania for six months.

While in Philadelphia, Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s maid, learned Martha was planning one day to give her to an ill-tempered granddaughter. Judge disappeared. According to Chernow’s book, Washington abused his presidential powers and asked the Treasury Department to kidnap Judge from her new life in New Hampshire. The plot was unsuccessful.

“Washington was leading this schizoid life,” Chernow says. “In theory and on paper he was opposed to slavery, but he was still zealously tracking and seeking to recover his slaves who escaped.”

In his final years on his Mount Vernon plantation, Washington said that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.”

This led to extraordinary instructions in his will that all 124 of his slaves should be freed after the death of his wife. Washington also ordered that the younger black people be educated or taught a trade, and he set aside money to care for the sick or aged.

Twelve American presidents were slaveowners. Washington is the only one who set his black people free.