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Washington: the ‘blackest name’ in America

Jesse Washington
Washington: the ‘blackest name’ in America

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.

It’s a myth that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner. Only a handful of George Washington’s hundreds of slaves did, for example, and he recorded most as having just a first name, says Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon.

Still, many enslaved blacks had surnames that went unrecorded, says historian Henry Wiencek, author of  “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”

Some chose names as a mark of community identity, which could be the plantation of a current or recent owner, Wiencek says, and those names could have provided some advantages or protection after the Civil War. Sometimes blacks used the surname of the owner of their oldest known ancestor, as a way to maintain their identity.

Last names also could have been plucked out of thin air.

The famous ex-slave Booker T. Washington was a boy when Emancipation came to his Virginia plantation. He had been called only “Booker” until enrolling in school. “When the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him, ‘Booker Washington,’” he wrote in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery.”

He gives no indication why the name Washington popped into his head. But George Washington, dead for only 60-odd years, had immense fame and respect at the time. His will had been widely published in pamphlet form, and it was well known that he had freed his slaves.

Did enslaved people feel inspired by Washington and take his name in tribute? Were they seeking some benefits from the association? Did newly freed people take the name as a mark of devotion to their country?

“We just don’t know,” Weincek says.

But the connection is too strong for some to ignore.

“There was a lot more consciousness and pride in American history among African Americans and enslaved African Americans than a lot of people give them credit for … they were thinking about how they could be Americans,” says Adam Goodheart, a Washington College professor and author of “1861: Civil War Awakening.”

But for black people who chose the name Washington, it’s uncertain precisely why.

“It’s an assumption that the surname is tied to George,” says Tony Burroughs, a black genealogist, who says 82 to 94 percent of Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black. “As far as I’m concerned it’s a coincidence.”

Coincidence or not, today’s numbers are equally stark. Washington was listed 138th when the Census Bureau published the 1,000 most common American surnames from the 2000 survey. The project was not repeated in 2010.

Ninety percent of those Washingtons, numbering 146,520, were black. Five percent, or 8,813, were white. Three percent were two or more races, 1 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.

Jefferson was the second-blackest name, at 75 percent. Lincoln was only 14 percent black.

Many present-day Washingtons are surprised to learn their name is not 100 percent black.

Like many others, Shannon Washington of New York City has never met a white Washington. She has no negative feelings about her name: “It’s a reflection of how far we’ve come more than anything. I most likely come from a family of slaves who were given or chose this name.”

She plans on keeping it when she gets married, and likens her attachment to that of some black people for racist memorabilia like Jim Crow signs.

“I don’t exactly love it,” she says, “But I have to respect it.”

Marcus Washington never thought much about his name as one of the few blacks working in the overwhelmingly white William Morris talent agency. That changed after he filed a $25 million lawsuit in December accusing William Morris of racial discrimination.

“I’m sure that for some people there, my name triggered the thought that I was African American, and automatically triggered biases that resulted in me not being given a fair shot,” he says.

One 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found that job applicants with names that sound white, like “Emily Walsh,” receive 50 percent more callbacks than applicants with names like “Lakisha Washington.”

But what about those 8,813 white Washingtons? What is their experience?

For the family of 85-year-old Larry Washington, who traces his family tree back to England in the 1700s, the experience has changed over the years. (He says he is not related to George, who had no children.)

When he moved to New Jersey in 1962 to teach at a college there, his family tried to scout housing over the phone, but nothing was ever available. “When we showed up, there were plenty of houses,” he recalls. After that, he taught his six children to always apply in person.

His son Paul, who in the 1970s worked for a temporary agency in Long Island, N.Y., says people in the offices where he was assigned always betrayed their relief when he turned out to be white. He experienced housing discrimination into the ‘80s, but says that no longer happens.

Now a geology professor, he sometimes wonders if his name helps him get interviews at colleges looking to recruit a rare black geologist — and if it hurts him when the college discovers that he is white.

Paul’s children have had much different experiences — like his 25-year-old daughter, an English professor who teaches foreign students, whose new pupils are always amazed to meet someone with “the ultimate American name.”

When Paul’s brother Larry Jr. was recently traveling through customs in Japan, the inspector looked at his passport and said, “Oh, Mr. Washington!”

“His politeness and the number of times he bowed clearly indicated that he thought I was the member of a very important family,” Larry Jr. recalls.

His sister Ida, a veterinarian who lives in Seattle, says she has never experienced discrimination due to her name as an adult. She is married, but uses Washington as her professional name.

“It’s very distinctive. I use it with a certain amount of pride,” she says.

Perhaps her sentiments bring the name full circle — from blacks making a connection to the greatest white Washington to a white person choosing a name associated with blackness.

“I find it touching that freed blacks wanted to identify with the American tradition and the American dream,” says Chernow, the biographer. “It makes a powerful statement.”

“I have to think,” he says, “that George Washington would be very pleased that so many black people have adopted his name.”

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.