By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 12, 2002
c.2002 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ In his years as a genealogist with the National Archives, Reginald Washington has often been asked if he has ever met a white person named Washington. He has not.
Neither has Edwin B. Washington Jr., webmaster for the Washington-based Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, though he once talked with one by phone in response to a genealogical query. “When he found out I was black, that was just about the end of the conversation,” said Washington. “It had nothing to do with his attitude, we were just kind of really looking for two different people.”
Name some famous people named Washington, aside from George. There are Denzel and Dinah, Harold and Grover and Booker T. _ all black.
As the 270th anniversary of our first president’s birth approaches, a question arises: Where are all the white Washingtons? Or, put another way and perhaps more to the point, why are most people named Washington black?
The answer is both straightforward and intriguing.
Few and far between as they may be, there are, in fact, a modest number of white people named Washington sprinkled across the American landscape. But there are droves of black Washingtons because of ancestors who, on emancipation, chose the name for themselves.
With the end of the Civil War, slaves _ whose surnames, if they had one, indicated their ownership _ were able to choose names of their own. At the time, Washington was probably the best-known and revered name a person could take.
“Washington was practically a demigod, the overwhelming hero of the whole country. He was at the absolute peak of his fame and worship,” said John Augustine Washington, an investment counselor in Washington and himself that rare breed, a white Washington, rarer still because he is actually related to our first president.
“They took the name for its great symbolic resonance,” said Henry Wiencek of Charlottesville, Va., who is writing a book, “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America.”
The modern legacy of those countless choices is that better than 90 percent of all Americans named Washington are black, according to David Word, a Census Bureau demographer who took it upon himself to figure this out. It is the common American name whose bearer is most likely to be black, Word said. Jefferson is next, followed by Banks.
The rush to choose the name Washington began even before 1865. When the African American Civil War Memorial, which lists the names of the more than 200,000 United States Colored Troops who served in the war, was unveiled in Washington in 1998, Edwin Washington of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society calculated that 1,885 of those soldiers were named Washington. Nearly half of them were named George Washington. Another 15 were named General Washington.
“I’ve got some second cousins that are named George Washington,” Edwin Washington said.
George B. Washington, a civil rights lawyer in Detroit, said people are surprised on meeting him. He is white.
“Certainly,” he said, “it is common for people who don’t know me to assume I’m black.”
Some years ago, John Augustine Washington, a direct descendant of George Washington’s brother of the same name, sat in the National Archives night after night poring over the 1900 Census. He counted 3,000 white Washington households, including an Irish immigrant day laborer and a family of coal miners from Pennsylvania who had immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and did not speak English.
There were many times that number of black Washingtons, he said. When he moved to Washington in 1955, he counted 500 Washingtons in the D.C. phone book.
“I figured I could spot out 25 people I knew about or who were living in clearly white neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the other 475 were black.
Growing up black in Washington, Edwin Washington, a retired Boeing computer analyst now living in the Maryland suburbs, was no stranger to other black Washingtons. His teachers included Bennetta Washington, the wife of Washington’s first elected mayor, Walter Washington. Edwin Washington had two uncles named Booker T. Washington.
In his autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” the original Booker T. Washington, who was born in 1856, described how he adopted the famous name as a boy starting school.
“From the time I could remember anything, I had been called simply Booker,” he wrote. “When I heard the school-roll called, I noticed that all of the children had at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him Booker Washington, as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known.” When he later learned that his mother had already given him the last name Taliaferro, he made that his middle name.
Contrary to common belief, according to Howard University historian Edna Medford, slaves rarely took their masters’ names.
As Booker T. Washington put it, “in some way a feeling got among the colored people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners.” Better, he wrote, a fresh start with a name like Lincoln or Sherman. But those would have been provocative choices, while taking the name Washington, as he did, marked the bearer as someone both proud and prudent.
A generation earlier, in 1841, a slave named Madison Washington, who had escaped to Canada but was recaptured returning to free his wife, led a successful slave revolt aboard the Creole, a ship carrying slaves from Virginia to Louisiana. The origin of his name is lost in the mists of history.
Mary Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home, said she knows of only three Washingtons thought to have been Washington’s slaves. One, Henry Washington, escaped during the Revolutionary War to find freedom with the British.
The father of his country had no children with his wife, Martha, though she brought to their marriage children from her previous marriage. Washington descendants would have to look to George Washington’s siblings for ancestry, and this many generations later, most of them would not bear the surname Washington.
Justin Glenn, a classics professor at Florida State University active in the National Society of Washington Family Descendants, has compiled the names of 40,000 descendants of George’s great-grandfather, John Washington, who arrived from England in 1657. Among the well-known Washington kin are Gen. George Patton, the actor Lee Marvin and the historian Shelby Foote.
Some descendants of West Ford, a slave on the plantation of George Washington’s brother, John, say their family’s oral history indicates that Ford was fathered by George Washington with a slave named Venus.
“We think the chances are slim to none that he was George Washington’s child,” said Thompson, the Mount Vernon researcher, explaining that Washington’s time was too closely accounted for, and that he was probably not even back from the Revolutionary War when Ford was conceived.
But, Thompson said, based on West Ford’s appearance and special treatment, “we think it’s pretty likely he’s descended from another Washington,” perhaps one of John Augustine Washington’s sons. If so, that would still make Ford’s progeny as closely related to George Washington as anyone, and mean that America’s first family tree has always had both white and black branches.
George Washington, the Detroit lawyer, does not know if he is related to that most famous bearer of his name, though, “my father was named George, his father was named George and his father was named George.” He named his son Eric. “I’ve broken the chain and I’m very glad I did, it carries too much baggage,” he said.
But one time he met a Turkish man who laughed with what seemed genuine empathy on learning his name. The man introduced himself as Kemal Ataturk, named for the man known as “the George Washington of Turkey.”