Why are so many African Americans called Washington?

2011-02-26 00:00

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 theorise, 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 279 years ago on February 22, whose complex relationship with slavery echoes in the blackness of his name today.

••••••••••••

George Washington’s great-grandfather, John, arrived in Virginia from England in 1656. John married the daughter of a wealthy man and eventually owned more than 5 000 acres, according to the new biography Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.

Along with land, George inherited 10 human beings from his father. He gained more through his marriage to a wealthy widow, and purchased still more enslaved blacks to work the lands he aggressively amassed. But over the decades, as he recognised slavery’s contradiction with the freedoms of the new nation, Washington grew opposed to human bondage.

Yet “slaves were the basis of his fortune,” and he would not part with them, Chernow said in an interview.

Washington was not a harsh slave­owner by the standards of the time. He provided good food and medical care. He recognised marriages and refused to sell off individual family members. Later in life he resolved not to purchase any more black people.

But he also worked his slaves quite hard, and under difficult conditions. 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.

“Washington led a schizoid life,” says Chernow. “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, 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. The only exception was the slave who was at his side for the entire Revolutionary War, who was freed immediately. Washington also ordered that the younger black people be educated or taught a trade, and he provided a fund to care for the sick or aged.

“This is a man who travels an immense distance,” Chernow said.

In contrast with other Founding Fathers, Chernow said, Washington’s will indicates “that he did have a vision of a future biracial society.”

Twelve American presidents were slaveowners. Washington is the only one who set all of them 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, historian Henry Wiencek says many enslaved blacks had surnames that went unrecorded or were kept secret. Some chose names as a mark of community identity, he says, and that community could be the plantation of a current or recent owner.

“Keep in mind that after the Civil War, many of the big planters continued to be extremely powerful figures in their regions, so there was an advantage for a freed person to keep a link to a leading white family,” says Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.

Sometimes blacks used the surname of the owner of their oldest known ancestor as a way to maintain their identity. Melvin Patrick Ely, a professor who studies the history of blacks in the South, says some West African cultures placed high value on ancestral villages, and the American equivalent was the plantation where one’s ancestors had toiled.

Last names also could have been plucked out of thin air. Booker T. Washington, one of the most famous blacks of the post-slavery period, apparently had two of those.

He was a boy when Emancipation freed him from a Virginia plantation. After enrolling in school, he noticed other children had last names, while the only thing he had ever been called was Booker.

“So, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him, ‘Booker Washington,’” he wrote. Later in life, he found out that his mother had named him “Booker Taliaferro” at birth, so he added a middle name.

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, or 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 had a very strong sense of politics and history,” says Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: Civil War Awakening. “They were thinking about how they could be Americans. That they would embrace the name of this person who was an imperfect hero shows there was a certain understanding of this country as an imperfect place, an imperfect experiment, and a willingness to embrace that tradition of liberty with all its contradictions.”

Many black people took new names after the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the black power movement, says Ira Berlin, who has written books on the history of African-Americans.

“Names are this central way we think about ourselves,” Berlin says. “Whenever we have these kinds of emancipatory moments, suddenly people can reinvent themselves, rethink themselves new, distinguish themselves from a past where they were denigrated and abused. New names are one of the ways they do it.”

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

“It’s an assumption that the surname is tied to George,” says Tony Burroughs, an expert on black genealogy, who says 82 to 94% of all Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black.

“There is no direct evidence,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned it’s a coincidence.”

••••••••••••

Coincidence or not, today the numbers are equally stark. Washington was listed 138th when the Census Bureau published a list of the 1 000 most common American surnames from the 2000 survey, along with ethnic data. The project was not repeated in 2010.

Ninety percent of those Washingtons, numbering 146 520, were black. Only five percent, or 8 813, were white.

Jefferson was the second-blackest name, at 75% African-American. There were only 16 070 Lincolns, and that number was only 14% black.

Jackson was 53%. Williams was the 16th-blackest name, at 46%. But there were 1 534 042 total Williamses, including 716 704 black ones — so there were more blacks named Williams than anything else.

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

“Growing up, I just knew that only black people had my last name,” says Shannon Washington of New York City. Like many others, she 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.”

As the creator of advertisements, events and http://www.parlourmagazine.com, she works with many Europeans, who often ask how she got her name. “I don’t exactly love it,” she says of her name, “But I have to respect it.”

Marcus Washington never thought much about his name as one of the few black people 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 found that job applicants with names that sound white receive 50% more callbacks than applicants with “black” names.

The study responded to real employment ads with more than 5 000 fictitious resumes. Half the resumes were assigned names like Emily Walsh; the other half got names like Lakisha Washington. After calculating for the difference in resume quality, the study concluded that “a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.”

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.

When he moved to New Jersey in 1962 to teach at a college there, Larry Washington’s 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.

Over the years, his name made him sensitive to racism: “We just simply recognised these things, and had full sympathy with the people who were really black and getting the real treatment.”

His son Paul, who in the 1970s worked for a temporary agency in Long Island, New York, 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 eighties, but says that no longer happens. He is now a geology professor who sometimes wonders if his name helped him get interviews at colleges looking to recruit a rare black geologist.

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