It is ironic that February, the month designated to celebrate black history, is also the birth month of George Washington. Washington remains among the most respected presidents, still known as “the father of our country.” But black people must always be wary of joining in the lionization of white figures in American history. There are far more lies told about this nation than there are truths, and black Americans are always at the epicenter of the lies.
If white Americans are to be held up as paragons of nobility, then black Americans must by necessity be excluded from those narratives. The truth of our history in this country is too awful to be told if white supremacy is to be accepted without question.
As revealed in historian Clarence Lusane’s recently published book, The Black History of the White House, Washington was among the quarter of American presidents who were slave holders. Those who were not did nothing to end this horror, and in fact were subservient to the slave holders’ political power. The decision to create a capital city in the midst of slave holding states is evidence of that fact.
While the president’s official residence and city that would bear his name were under construction, Philadelphia was the temporary site of the nation’s capital. President Washington resided there along with some of the men and women he held in bondage.
In order to legally keep slaves in the state of Pennsylvania, Washington could not hold them there for more than six months. In order to evade the spirit and letter of this law, he deliberately rotated his slaves, allowing none of them to stay in Philadelphia for more than the six months which would have given them their freedom. A 1788 law was meant to close this loophole and prevent slaveholders from doing as Washington did, but it was not enforced and the president deliberately engaged in law breaking.
He wrote to an aide,
“In case it shall be found that any of my slaves may, or any of them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you should send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse [sic] to keep, home — for although I do not think they would be benefited by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. ... If upon taking good advice, it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them and the public.”
Washington and his wife Martha were intent on keeping their human property and allowed none to flee without giving chase. A young woman named Oney fled from the Washingtons and successfully arrived in the state of New Hampshire. The Washingtons did not permit even one young woman to escape them without cost, attempting many ruses to get her back. Oney remained free, but in spite of the Washington’s efforts to recapture and re-enslave her.
When Washington died, he and his wife Martha owned nearly 300 human beings, over 100 of whom were “dower” slaves, owned by the estate of Martha’s first husband. Martha freed his slaves before her death, but these dower slaves were not included amongst them and were willed to her heirs.
Washington was indeed the father of the country, completely enmeshed in one of the evils upon which it was founded. Some of the founding fathers were less interested in freeing themselves from British rule than they were in freeing themselves from the prospect of Britain abolishing slavery. The story of American independence is itself the story of an effort to maintain the “peculiar” institution.
George Washington is just one of the presidents who profited from trafficking in and ownership of human beings. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant all owned slaves at some point in their lives.
When we are told to venerate and respect these men, we must not succumb to the temptation to join in the celebration. The celebration is not for anyone who is committed to truth telling. If we are to commemorate and remember the nation’s past, we must remember Oney, who took the opportunity to free herself. For anyone interested in honesty, joy must come from venerating the true heroes of that era, not the people who subjugated them, even when presidents are among them.
Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR (http://www.blackagendareport.com), and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.com.