The African American History of Wessyngton Plantation by John F. Baker

African American History of Wessyngton Plantation

Seated Left: Emanuel Washington (1824-1907), the cook; Seated Right: Henny Washington (1837-1913), the head laundress; Standing Left: Allen Washington (1825-1890s), the head dairyman; Standing Right: Granville Washington (1831-1898), valet of George Augustine Washington (1815-1892). Photo taken in 1891 at Wessyngton Plantation.

Wessyngton Plantation, located in Robertson County, Tennessee was founded by Joseph Washington (1770-1848) of Southampton County, Virginia.  Washington brought enslaved Africans and African Americans with him to Tennessee in 1796.

Joseph continued acquiring land and slaves until 1842.  At the time of his death, the plantation encompassed 3,700 acres and held 79 slaves.

In 1848, Joseph’s son George Augustine Washington (1815-1892) inherited the plantation.  By 1860, Wessyngton contained 13,100 acres and held 274 slaves (the largest number in the state of Tennessee).  The slaves produced 250,000 pounds of dark fired tobacco, making Wessyngton the largest producer in the United States and the second largest producer in the world.

The outbreak of the Civil War brought operations at Wessyngton to a halt.  During the war, many of the enslaved ran away or were held in contraband camps in Nashville.  Others were conscripted to work on the military fortification (Ft. Negley) and the Northwestern railroad in Nashville.  Several men from the plantation enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their freedom.

African American History of Wessyngton Plantation

Emanuel and Henny Washington and family at Wessyngton Plantation late 1890s.

After the close of the war, some of the freedmen returned to Wessyngton to work as sharecroppers, day laborers, and domestics.  Others stayed in Nashville or moved out west and to northern cities, where many of the descendants remain.  Some freedmen purchased their own land, some of which was once part of the plantation. Today, there are thousands of descendants throughout the United States.

In 1869, freedmen from Wessyngton and others in the community established the Antioch Baptist Church.  The former Wessyngton slaves met there to determine for whom they would vote when they were first given voting rights.   Every male on Wessyngton over 21 years old was registered to vote.  The church was also used as a school.  Many children as well as adults as old as 40 from the plantation attended school there.

After emancipation, the majority of the freedmen from Wessyngton used the Washington surname; however, many of them chose to use other surnames including:Blow, Cheatham, Gardner, Green, Lewis, Scott, Terry, White, and many others.

African Americans of Wessyngton Plantation

Sarah Jane Scott Harris (1840-1925), Emanuel Washington (1824-1907) and Henny Washington (1837-1913)

After more than thirty years of research, John F. Baker Jr., a descendant of Wessyngton slaves, wrote The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.  The book chronicles the lives of the enslaved community of Wessyngton and the plantation owners.  His work included examining thousands of documents, DNA testing, and interviewing descendants ranging from 80 to 107 years old.

In 2014, the Tennessee State Museum hosted an exhibit “Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation,” which had nearly 70,000 visitors.  Later Nashville Public Television produced a documentary “Wessyngton Plantation: A Family’s Road to Freedom.”

In 2015, a memorial monument was erected in the African American cemetery at Wessyngton to honor nearly 450 individuals once enslaved on the plantation.  More than 200 individuals who were descended from the slaveholders and the enslaved participated in a moving dedication service.  The Wessyngton Plantation African American Preservation Association supports the preservation of the African American cemetery and the history of the plantation.

For more information, visit www.wessyngton.com.

African Americans of Wessyngton Plantation

 

John F. Baker Jr. was born in Springfield, Tennessee near Nashville.  Baker is the author of The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom. *

Home’s Hard History – A Presentation from the Slave Dwelling Project Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of presenting with Lorenzo Dickerson at the 4th Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference.  We talked about the places we call “home” and how those landscapes are or are not available to the descendants of the people enslaved there.

Here is my slideshow from that presentation, including images of the Bremo Plantations, where I grew up and where over 250 people were enslaved.

A Word to White Plantation Owners

A Word to White Plantation Owners

Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash

Over the years, I have done research on the enslaved communities at a number of plantations here in Central Virginia.  Sometimes, I am hired by the people who own the plantation to do the research; sometimes, I do it on my own.

In every case, my hope is the same – that the owners of the plantations, who are almost always white because of historically-based inequities – will make the information I find available to the public so that the people descended from these communities can find their ancestors.

Sometimes, It’s Great; Sometimes, It’s Heart-Breaking

Most of the time, the owners are quite happy to oblige, eager to know the descendants, aware of the way these relationships to the community of African American people who built their homes come with responsibility.  Often, the descendant communities become involved in the way their ancestors are remembered in that place. Often, they become as connected to that place as they want to be.

Often, but not always.  Sometimes, the white owners become too focused on their own desires, on their own gains for being “the good white person” who does the ancestors and the descendants the favor of remembering them.  Sometimes, white owners become overcome by their own shame or the fear that they will be asked for financial reparation that they shut down the access to the places that African American people created for them.  Sometimes, white owners act as if these people – the ones who literally built the place, who lived on it for generations, who also view it as home, hard as that may be – have no right to the place.  It breaks my heart.

My Strong but Kind Word for White Plantation Owners

You will only be enriched by connecting with the black people who built the places you love. You will find people who love these places, too – differently than you do but just as strongly. You will find stories about your home places that help you understand and appreciate them more. You will make friends. You will understand history. You will know – first-hand and real – the way history has been unfair and unkind to people of color, and you will be better people for that.

I’m not saying this is easy – not suggesting that at all. It will take a humility that has not yet been required of you in this life. It will require that you take ownership of the privilege you inhabit because of your skin color and because of this place you own. It will require that you acknowledge racism as real and systemic and meritocracy as a myth perpetuated by elite, white people. It will not be easy, but it will be so worth it. 

A Few First Steps if You Own a Place where People Were Enslaved

So if you own a historic home where people were enslaved, do research about the people who were enslaved there. Here a few first steps:

  • Contact your local historical society and see what they know about enslaved communities in your area.
  • Visit sites like Our Black Ancestry to see if anyone is looking for the owners who enslaved their ancestors.
  • Share anything you know about the history of your place and the people who owned it before 1865 as publicly as you can. (You are welcome to use this space for that work if you’d like)
  • Invite the descendants of the enslaved community to your place and let them walk the land of their ancestors. You’ll find them – as I always have – to be gracious and respectful of your privacy.

Imagine what it would mean to ALL of us if we had these stories, these lineages, these places in common. Imagine if we weren’t afraid. Imagine we shared our history truthfully and fearlessly.  Oh, imagine, friends, the road we could walk together.

If you’ve worked with plantations owners to learn more about your ancestors, what has your experience been like? Or if you are a white plantation owners, what are your experiences or fears or hesitations about connecting with the descendants of enslaved people?  

Relentless in Love: The Amazing Women who do African American Genealogy

Relentless in Love: The Women of African American Genealogy

Photo by Olayinka Babalola on Unsplash

The further I go into the world of African American genealogy, the more I realize how much we owe to the women who have kept our families alive and strong and to the women who have searched tirelessly to tell those stories.

Today, I want to pay tribute to these relentless genealogists who dig and miss sleep and share information, all without account for themselves.  These women have taught me much about research but also about perseverance and fortitude.  They are, in every way, walking in the steps of our foremothers.

Shelley Murphy Shelley was the first person I met who did genealogy as the heartbeat of her life. I attended a session she taught at our local library about using unusual record types to find information, and her insights helped me find a great deal of information about the people enslaved at the Bremo Plantations. She is kind, tireless, and dedicated.

Angela Walton-Raji – Through Shelley, I had the honor of meeting Angela Walton-Raji, a genealogist who specializes in African American and Native American genealogy and who has a VAST knowledge of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  I attended a session that Angela taught about using Freedmen’s Bureau records and felt like a whole new avenue of research was now available to me.

Toni Carrier – Toni Carrier is a specialist in the Lowcountry of the U.S., and she is part of the brand-new Center for Family History at the International African American Museum.  Toni’s continuous posting of new resources, relevant articles, and important research about African American history and genealogy on social media make her one of my most-often-cited sources of information about our folks.

Bernice Bennett – Bernice has an amazing podcast about African American history and genealogy called Research at the National Archives and Beyond. I have had the honor of being on Bernice’s show twice, and she is an insightful interviewer, a thoughtful researcher, and a truly kind person.  Her podcast is one I never want to miss.

Stacey Adger – Stacey and I met because our genealogical research intersected. She thought that, perhaps, one of her ancestors was enslaved at Bremo, and so she came from Ohio to Virginia to visit. We haven’t found that connection to be there – yet – but we have remained dear friends. Stacey is a trustee of the Ohio Genealogical Society, and she co-coordinates the Ohio Genealogical Society conference, which is a stellar event.

Cinder Stanton – Cinder is the most humble, most generous historian I know. She helped form the Getting Word Project at Monticello, and that project has successfully located the identities, family lines, and descendants of many of the people enslaved at that presidential plantation. She leads the Central Virginia History Researchers and continues to tirelessly research and share what she finds about African American people in the Central Virginia area.

Hannah Scruggs – I have known Hannah for all of her life, literally, and she always impresses me with her passion, her fervor, and her willingness to stay in struggle when necessary to find the truth. She is coordinating the descendants’ project at Montpelier, and she is, by far, my favorite person to talk with about the intersections of justice/injustice and history.

Niya Bates – Niya is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello, and she is a fierce fighter for historic and current-day justice.  She has a background in historic preservation, and so her knowledge of how landscapes and people interacted is rich and deep. Plus, she’s just a generous, vibrant person.

True Lewis – True is one of those women who always has a kind word or a tip to help, and she never seems pushy or aggressive in her advice. She is a wise researcher and a good ally in this work.  She and I share stories of our ties to Harrisburg, PA quite often.

Jane Smith – Jane is my best resource for all things Charlottesville, Virginia history, and since we know all genealogy roads lead through Virginia, she is just a superb resource in general. She’s kind and generous with her work, which she does out of love and commitment to her city and the African American people who were foundational to it.

 

These women carry on the long, heavy tradition of our foremothers with grace, with resolve, and with ingenuity, and it is because of them that we know so much about our ancestors.  If you don’t know their work, please get to know it. You won’t be sorry.

I know I missed important women who do African American genealogy in this list, so please inform me by sharing their names and links to their work in the comments below.  

 

Walking the Land with Everyone Who Has Gone Before Me

Walking the Land with All Who Have Gone Before Me

Photo by Dogoff Zambrano on Unsplash

Yesterday, two of my friends died in a plane crash, leaving their five children orphans. The husband in this couple was someone I had known since I was 14 years old and my family moved to his family’s plantation that would become my physical and heart-space home.

It was his home, too. His family had owned it since a hunting lodge was built on it in 1725.  This was a place that his family had dug roots for almost three hundred years. He will never see that place again.

That man and I lived very different lives. His family employed mine, and the economic differences between our experiences sometimes created rifts so wide that I felt like he and I didn’t speak the same language.  But still, we shared a space, a place we each treasured and knew deeply, if differently.

**

The places of enslavement are home to many people: the enslaved community who came to live there, to love there, to work there, to grow there against their own will, the enslaver’s family who chose the place – at least initially – and grew it and their own families alongside the people they enslaved, the free workers who came and went during the days of enslavement, and then those of us who have lived and loved and grown there in the centuries since.

Each place where people were enslaved speaks differently to these various groups. For me, Bremo is a place of peace, a place I used to see with two lenses – the one of home and the one of slavery – but that I now see as rich and broken and true in a single place.  We would not have the gorgeous stone walls and the rolling fields of cleared hills without enslaved people, and they wouldn’t have been enslaved without the system of slavery that the owners subscribed to.  Yet, it is beautiful – I know Primus and Minerva knew that as well as my father and I do.

So when my friend returned to his ancestral home, I can’t say I know all of what he saw because, sadly, I never asked him. (I will surely ask his brothers though.) But I suspect he saw lush trees and virgin timber, the shadows of his ancestors walking these hills, and I expect he saw the legacy that enslaved people left him in that land, a land he shared with them.

**

I never walk the land at Bremo without thinking of the people who were enslaved there – Ben and Lucy, Jack and Phillis, Jesse and Malvina, and all the other enslaved people I am honored to know –  and I never walk it without the thought of the owner’s family that brought my family to that precious place when I was a jaded, grumpy 14-year-old.

Now, I will always think of Byron and Catherine and remember them walking the land, strides wide, centuries of history beneath their feet.

Rest in peace, my friends, all of you.

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction – Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash

Slave-Breeding, Truth-Telling, and Fiction - Margaret Wrinkle's WashI met Margaret Wrinkle a few years ago when she was speaking at the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville.  (Even for me, who knows the city, it’s name carries more weight now.)  I introduced myself after her talk, telling her about a mutual friend and that I was so excited to read her book because it is fact told in fiction.

Wrinkle wrote her novel Wash after hearing a rumor that an ancestor of hers might have been involvedin the practice of slave-breeding.  The novel explores that horrific but all too common practice, where men and women were used to build the “people wealth” of their owners.  Men were sent out to “stud,” women to “be bred.”  The practice was not at all unlike the way livestock was bred, and it was abominable.

Wrinkle’s novel explores the story of Wash, a man who is used as a stud for his master.  She does so with great respect for Wash and the other people whose lives his path crosses, and her prose is beautiful.

Today, Margaret has given me two copies of her novel to share with you, so if you’d like to enter to win one, please just leave a comment below about why you’d like to read this book, and I’ll randomly choose two winners on Friday, August 25 and contact them by email for shipping information.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but then, it shouldn’t be. It’s well-worth your time.

 

You can learn more about Margaret Wrinkle’s work as an author and a filmmaker at her website.

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

3 Experiences that Have Taught Me about Us

I’ve been much quieter here than I had intended when I began this journey several months ago, and I apologize for that. My husband and I have been fighting a battle with infertility, and that battle took most of my energy.  Now, I’m still pretty low energy, but it’s for a glorious reason – I am pregnant.

So for now, my activities are a bit curtailed and involve a lot more things close to home and close to my couch.  I miss research trips and speaking, but I’m trying to take advantage of this quiet time to learn more, to educate myself, to let myself be broken open over the history and legacy of slavery.

How I’ve Been Learning

Today, then, I want to share three experiences that have taught me a great deal in these quiet days.

  1. First, I attended the opening of the new exhibit at Montpelier Plantation, “The Mere Distinction of Colour.” This exhibit focuses on the stories and experiences of people who were enslaved at President James Madison’s family plantation, and it is truly beautiful.  The exhibit includes stories of descendants, artifacts from where enslaved people lived and worked, and a great deal of research about the individuals and families that were enslaved.  It’s WELL WORTH a visit to Virginia to see it.
  2. Secondly, I watched the powerful documentary Traces of the Trade, which tells the story of 10 members of the DeWolfe family, the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, as they trace the route of their family’s business in buying and selling human beings.  The film is powerfully-honest, and not everyone in the film is “enlightened” all the time – but I particularly appreciated seeing each individual’s journey. Plus, Tom DeWolf, the executive director of Coming to the Table, is one of the travelers, and I take great joy in knowing that this experience was a great part of his important work of healing the legacy of slavery.
  3. Finally, I am absolutely committed to W. Kamau Bell’s AMAZING CNN series United Shades of America. In the series, Bell visits places in the U.S. that he doesn’t understand or wants to know more about – from the KKK (a BRAVE act for an African American man) to gentrifying Portland to, most recently, Puerto Rico.  He asks hard questions and listens so well to everyone he speaks with, and since he’s a stand-up comedian, he brings truth to light with humor.

Sometimes, our days of activism and direct action have to be limited, and sometimes, that’s a very good thing because it means we do our own work in ourselves, which – of course – has to be the first work anyway.

Have you seen any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about the work that they do? 

 

I’m finishing up a book with two other authors about racism in the Christian church, and I’m very excited about the possibility that a publisher will pick that up. I’ll share more as soon as I can.  

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in Their Place

Slave vs Enslaved: The Way We Use Words to Hold People in their PlaceWhen I moved to the Bremo Plantations when I was 14, I met my friend Anna.  She and her sister rode the school bus with my brother and I, and because we were the last four people on the bus, we became fast friends – two hours together a day will do that to people.  Anna and I talked about most everything – from the boys we liked to the teachers we didn’t to the town we lived in. She taught me what it meant for someone’s skin to be “ashy,” and I suspect I taught her nothing about being white because, as a black girl, she already knew the lingo there.

After we’d gotten to know each other a bit, Anna told me about her friend Coffee, who had worked as the cook on the plantation that I lived on (the one my dad managed.)  He was a black man, she said, and the owners at the time hadn’t treated him very well. He’d lived in the apartment over the garden room, and he was expected to be on hand whenever the owners needed him to be, even when he had family obligations of his own. He had left by the time we moved there.

But Claudine hadn’t. Claudine was the housekeeper, and her face lit up with joy every time I walked in the room, her almost toothless smile a beam of light.  Claudine, too, was expected to be on hand for her regular hours and then also for any special occasions, holidays, and weekends when the family wanted to visit the 9 bedroom, 4.5 bath house.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that the owners thought they were “helping Claudine out” by giving her work, and along that same way, I realized that they thought Claudine and Coffee were “in their place” as black people working in domestic situations.

The owners were not terrible people – they loved my family, and I loved them like grandparents – but they were acting out of the racism and upbringing that was true (is still true) for many wealthy and middle class whites in the South. (You’ve read The Help, right?) Their behavior was wrong and hurtful.

So this week, when I read “The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola,” I went back to those days just 28 years ago and thought of Coffee and Claudine.  Lola is Claudine is every other black women who was expected to nanny, nurse, clean, and cook for white people because “that’s just the way it’s done” or, perhaps even more menacingly because “those good white people” are helping black people by giving them work, as if it’s a favor to their employees rather than to them.

Slave vs Enslaved

I am a huge proponent of using the term enslaved person to refer to an individual who lived and toiled under the institution of slavery because, as the article suggests, it places the emphasis on the person and something done to them and separates the person’s identity from their societal status.  But since I wrote the piece that is quoted in The Atlantic article, I’ve also come to understand that sometimes we have to take the terminology of the oppressor and use it to break down the oppression. Hence, the title of my book The Slaves Have Names.  I’m trying to make a point there – about identity, about the power of words to dehumanize. I’m trying to co-opt a word for a purpose.

I don’t know if I do that well.

I do know, though, that we can get all caught up in language and miss the people. . . we do it all the time. Back in the day, we did it by calling enslaved people “servants,” as if they chose their work and their home. Now, we do it by calling people “thugs” or “criminals” as code for our own racism about black people.

So when I talk about individual human beings that I know – Ben and Minerva, Lucy and Nelson – I say they were enslaved – a system was placed on them that held them in bondage, but that system did not make them become what it hoped it could – slaves.  No, these were strong, talented, courageous, perseverant people. PEOPLE.  Always, in every way.

The Legacy

A few years into our friendship, I invited Anna and her family to revival at our church. Her dad was a Baptist minister, and I went to a Baptist church . . . it seemed right.

I sat with them, and after the service, I was all excited to introduce them to the pastor. We all went to the front of the sanctuary to shake my pastor’s hand.  He looked at Anna’s father, scanned his eyes over the rest of the family, and then turned away to shake the next white person’s hand.

His gaze – as much as any other action or word – told me all I needed to know: he thought Anna and her family were out of place, they were not worth seeing, they were not people.

Sometimes, we don’t even need words to oppress.

 

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

Plantation Papers for Genealogical Research on Enslaved People

My “tattoo” expresses just how I feel about the honor of doing this research

This past weekend, I had the total honor of presenting at the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. . . the people there were so enthusiastic, and I loved all the conversations that happened around the space.

But mostly, I was thrilled to give a talk on my favorite topic: how to find out more information about our enslaved ancestors.  In this presentation, I focused on how to use plantation papers – i.e. collections of documents from the white slaveholder – as a way of finding genealogical, demographic, and personal information about people who were enslaved.

You can find the slides from my presentation here if you are interested.

And if you’ve used plantation documents to find information about your own family, I’d LOVE to hear what you’ve found and any tips you have to share about those resources.  Thanks.

 

I’m always eager to share this forum with you if you have a story to share, want to reach out and ask people for help, or have a topic about African American history or genealogy that you are passionate about. Please email me at andi_at_andilit.com, and we’ll get your words out to as many people as we can. Thanks. 

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

Saving the Dunbar Rosenwald School in Fluvanna County, Virginia

At the “back” side of the Bremo plantations, there’s a community of African American families, many of whom have ties back to the days of slavery on those plantations.  If you’ve read my book The Slaves Have Names, you know many of those families – the Creasys, the Thomases, the Smiths, and many more.

Within this community, there is a beautiful school called Dunbar. Dunbar was an original Rosenwald School, built in 1923-24, using funds from the local community, the Rosenwald Fund (started by Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck, Inc.) and the local government.  These schools were often the ONLY source of education for African American children in rural areas of the South.

Dunbar was open until the 1950s, and so many people I know attended this school up through 8th grade or so before moving over to the local black high, Abrams, for the final years of their education.

As you may know, many Rosenwald Schools are in danger of collapse due to neglect and disuse, but my friends Carmen and Stanley Smith are working hard to save Dunbar. For the past few years, they have been tirelessly cleaning the school, shoring up its structure, and working to make it a community center for everyone in the area.  (You can see some phenomenal pictures of the school here.)

We Can Help

Carmen and Stanley are in the midst of a major fundraising campaign so that they can complete the restoration and the transformation of this building. If you would like to contribute – and I hope you will – please follow this link and make your donation. (Please note – there is a problem with the site at this moment, so please keep trying if you’d like to donate.)

If you’ve read my book Charlotte and the Twelve, then you know I believe these important pieces of history and community story are vital in our process of healing and knowing one another as a nation.  I cannot wait to see what Carmen and Stanley do here, and I hope you will join me in being part of this great work.

Make your donation here.