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.
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.
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.
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. *