Thanks to the work of archaeologists in Philadelphia and a very vocal group of scholars and community activists in the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) over the past 10 years, there have been more challenges to the prevailing discourse around Washington and those he enslaved.
Asked why they choose "avenging" in their organizational name they give this response:
The word "avenging" comes from the Latin word vindex ("defender, protector") (present active vindico, present infinitive vindicāre, perfect active vindicāvī, supine vindicātum). This passed through Old French to Middle English. As defined by leading etymological dictionaries, to avenge is to pursue "deserved or just punishment for wrongs or oppressions." It has little to do with "revenge," which implies the "infliction of punishment as an act of retaliation" and connotes personal malice and bitter resentment as the moving force. But that's not what ATAC does. That's not what ATAC seeks.
Instead, ATAC seeks deserved or just punishment — i.e., condemnation and correction — in regard to a wrong or oppression, e.g., President George Washington's enslavement of Black men, women, and children here in Philadelphia at America's first "White House."
Apart from that, I must mention something that I often wonder about when well-intentioned people ask me why ATAC uses the word "avenge." I wonder why these people express their concern or alarm about "avenge" but never express their concern or alarm — or justifiable horror — about the outrageously brutal violence of slavery itself. Slavery wasn't just the one-time loss of freedom; it was the centuries-long loss of culture, family, land, language, name, religion/spiritual expression, human status, limb, and life. To me, that hellish existence is much more of a concern than the use of the word "avenge."
Clearly, "avenging" is the perfect word.
In The "Black" Eye on George Washington's "White" House
we get a chance to meet some of the faceless "well-treated" slaves owned by the president from the plantocracy. So well-treated that some of them took the opportunity to escape to freedom, though Washington tried to circumvent the fact that in Pennsylvania they were free.
We learn details about Christopher Sheels, whose escape plan was foiled. Hercules—Washington's renowned enslaved chef who escaped on the night of the president's 65th birthday celebration—did not escape from Philadelphia, as had often been reported.
A birthday shock from Washington's chef:
Contradictory to long-held beliefs, the chef did not flee from his vaunted position in Philadelphia at the end of Washington's second term. He had landed in distinctly less comfortable circumstances that miserable winter. Washington was on guard to prevent another escape during his final months in Philadelphia, where in the spring of 1796 Martha's maid, Oney Judge, had run away. So when he returned to the capitol that fall, Washington left Hercules in Virginia. Runaways from Washington's estate weren't uncommon, and though some managed to flee to the British during the Revolution, most failed, writes Wiencek. Four men escaped in 1761, only to be recaptured. A slave named Sam was caught several times trying to run away. One named Tom was caught and sent away in handcuffs to be sold in the West Indies. Hercules' literate contemporary Christopher was caught when a note to his wife detailing his escape plans was discovered.
Oney Judge proved Philadelphia was a risk. But back at Mount Vernon, surely, Hercules would be secure. The once-trusted chef, also noted for the fine silk clothes of his evening promenades in Philadelphia, suddenly found himself that November in the coarse linens and woolens of a field slave. Hercules was relegated to hard labor alongside others, digging clay for 100,000 bricks, spreading dung, grubbing bushes, and smashing stones into sand to coat the houses on the property, according to farm reports and a November memo from Washington to his farm manager. "That will Keep them," he wrote, "out of idleness and mischief."
When Hercules' son Richmond was then caught stealing money from an employee's saddlebags, Washington made his suspicions of a planned father-son escape clear in a letter: "This will make a watch, without its being suspected by, or intimated to them . . ."
By February, after several days of working in the damp chill, Hercules had had enough. Before dawn on Feb. 22, 1797, he launched his quest for freedom.
Mentioned above as one of the reasons for Hercules having been sent back south, about whom we know the most, is Oney Judge
Philadelphia newspapers told her story, like this piece in the Inquirer:
A slave's defiance: The story of rebellious Oney Judge is finally being told, along with those of other slaves who lived with George and Martha Washington in Philadelphia.
"I was struck by just the sheer improbability of what she did," said Cheryl J. LaRoche, a historical and archaeological consultant who worked on the excavation of the President's House, Washington's Philadelphia home, during the summer of 2007.
"Women, and black women in particular, were so deeply limited by the whole society, and black women, of course, by slavery. They were the last people, you would think, who would have the wherewithal to attempt to escape."
"Oney's sense of her self and of her self-worth," LaRoche said, led the young woman "to make a claim for herself and for her freedom."
For decades Judge's story went untold at Independence National Historical Park, site of the President's House, where the Washingtons lived with Judge, eight other slaves, and a group of servants. But controversy fueled in 2002 by the park's silence revived the unspoken story of Judge and many others, giving voice to their narratives.
More details can be found at Enslaved Persons of African Descent in the President's House
Sadly we have no photos of Oney Judge, but there were several interviews with her in newspapers which were conducted in New Hampshire, where she lived, married, bore children and died—still a fugitive. We also know of Washington's attempts to have her kidnapped and returned to Mount Vernon, and other attempts at negotiation with her.
Oney (born c. 1773) was a dower slave, the daughter of Betty, a seamstress, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor who was an indentured servant at Mount Vernon in the early 1770s. Austin, about fifteen years Oney's senior, would have been her half-brother. Washington does not seem to have recognized Oney as being Judge's child, which may indicate that Judge himself did not admit paternity.
We do have a description of her at the time of her escape in Philadelphia from the advertisement Washington had his steward place to secure her capture and return:
ABSCONDED from the houshold [sic] of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age.
She has many changes of good clothes of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described—As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is;—but as she may attempt to escape by water, all matters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass as a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.
Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbour;—and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance, and in proportion to the distance.
FREDERICK KITT, Steward.
I almost laughed, though it is not funny, at the line "As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so"—as if being a slave isn't provoking enough to want freedom. We do know that Oney thought she was going to be given to Martha Washington's granddaughter after Martha's death
Judge fled when the Washingtons were planning to return to Virginia. She feared being given to the First Lady's granddaughter as a wedding present, and thought if she returned to Virginia, she would never be free. Judge said in an 1845 interview:
"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."
The much bandied-about kudos to Washington for having "freed his slaves" in his will, is a pile of merde
, to put it plainly. First—why praise anyone for gifting freedom after you die, and continuing to keep people in bondage while you are alive and benefiting from their enslavement? Second, his will stipulated that all his human property was to remain enslaved till after Martha died.
Have you ever given someone a wedding present?
I'm certain that on your wedding registry list you would never think of "gifting a Negro" to anyone. Have you written a will and left someone dear to you family items like quilts and candlesticks, and humans?
Having read through more than 5,000 summaries of wills from Virginia—including ones that named my own family—I cannot begin to describe to you the pain of finding the name of a family member passed on as chattel.
Will of Mary MARKS (widow of Abel MARKS)* A/I 3 Sept 1827:
awarding of slaves Mason Marks (given Negro James), Samuel MARKS (given Negros Dinah & infant Martha) Mary PEUGH (given Negro Hannah & infant Ury) Margaret HUMPHREY (given Negro Presley) Lydia HESSER (given Negro Lewis) Bennett MARKS (given Negroes Mahlon, Jenny and William) Abel MARKS (given Negro Eliza and Squire) Elizabeth WARFORD (given Negroes Thompson and Ralph) Thomas MARKS (given Negro Charlotte) Walt MARKS * (given Negroes Madison and Smith)
* these are her children who all got slaves as gifts
* I believe this should be Watts MARKS
That "Negro Presley" was my great-grandfather.
So you will have to excuse me if I refuse to excuse George Washington and his slave-holding missus for their life of comfort and ease built on the backs of black people.
Washington's hypocrisy about slavery and the lies he told publicly (contrary to the "I cannot tell a lie" myth we were told as children) are listed here: George Washington on Practical Slavery.
Here is George announcing that slaves are as good as cash, but only if you watch the prices carefully:
"I can have no idea of giving eighty or ninety pounds a head for slaves when I am well informed that for ready money the best common labouring negroes in this State, may be bought for less than sixty, and others in proportion. For this species of property I have no predilection nor any urgent call, being already over stocked with some kind of it; consequently can have no inducement to give 50 pr. Ct. more than the like property is offered for and doth actually sell at. A payment in negroes, if this was to take place, can be considered in no other light by either of us, than as ready money; it stops the payment of it, and is I presume a convenience."
-- Letter George Washington to John F. Mercer, December 19, 1786.
Here's George announcing with relief that that silly abolition of slavery motion by the ever-troublesome Quakers has been safely buried in Congress:
"The memorial of the Quakers (and a very mal-apropos one it was) has at length been put to sleep, and will scarcely awake before the year 1808."
-- George Washington
Here's another take on George celebrating the defeat of that Abolition nonsense:
"our reputation has risen in every part of the Globe; and our credit, especially in Holland, has got higher than that of any Nation in Europe (and where our funds are above par) as appears by Official advices just received. But the conduct we seem to be pursuing will soon bring us back to our late disreputable condition. The introductions of the (Quaker) Memorial respecting [the abolition of] Slavery, was to be sure, not only an illjudged piece of business, but occasioned a great waste of time. The final decision thereon, however, was as favourable as the proprietors of that species of property could have expected considering the great dereliction to Slavery in a large part of this Union."
-- George Washington
Here's George worrying that those damn Quakers are going to make it so decent God-fearing citizens fear to bring their slaves to town:
"Dear Sir: I give you the trouble of this letter at the instance of Mr. Dalby of Alexandria; who is called to Philadelphia to attend what he conceives to be a vexatious lawsuit respecting a slave of his, which a Society of Quakers in the city (formed for such purposes) have attempted to liberate; The merits of this case will no doubt appear upon trial. but from Mr. Dalby's state of the matter, it should seem that this Society is not only acting repugnant to justice so far as its conduct concerns strangers, but, in my opinion extremely impolitickly with respect to the State, the City in particular; and without being able, (but by acts of tyranny and oppression) to accomplish their own ends. He says the conduct of this society is not sanctioned by Law: had the case been otherwise, whatever my opinion of the Law might have been, my respect for the policy of the State would on this occasion have appeared in my silence; because against the penalties of promulgated Laws one may guard; but there is no avoiding the snares of individuals, or of private societies. And if the practice of this Society of which Mr. Dalby speaks, is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants, will visit the City if they can possibly avoid it; because by so doing they hazard their property; or they must be at the expence (and this will not always succeed) of providing servants of another description for the trip."
-- Letter George Washington to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786
But ... but ... but ..."everybody was doing this ... he was a man of his times ... why, you have to understand the historical context" I am told.
No. I. Don't.
Because true greatness at the time was found, in my eyes, in those who recognized slavery for what is was—evil, and fought against it. Yes, white people who found it to be morally repugnant. White people who fought for abolition. White people who saw the plantation elites for what they were—parasites, as were the northern businessmen who built their trade on slave blood which became rum and molasses.
Even before Washington there were men like Anthony Benezet:
From at least the 1750s, Benezet became a firm opponent of slavery. His campaign, very much a solitary one at first, took two forms. Firstly, he worked to convince his Quaker brethren in Philadelphia that slave-owning was not consistent with Christian doctrine. Secondly, he wrote and published at his own expense a number of anti-slavery tracts and pamphlets. Of these, Some Historical Account of Guinea, written in 1772, was by far the most influential on both sides of the Atlantic. The pamphlet was read and, to a certain extent, imitated by both Granville Sharp and John Wesley, both of whom corresponded with Benezet and distributed his works in England. Several years later, Benezet's works were instrumental in persuading Thomas Clarkson to embark on his abolitionist career, and Benezet's Some Historical Account of Guinea was reprinted several times during the height of the abolition campaign.
In 1688 the Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery
The 1688 petition was the first American document of its kind that made a plea for equal human rights for everyone. It compelled a higher standard of reasoning about fairness and equality that continued to grow in Pennsylvania and the other colonies with the Declaration of Independence and the abolitionist and suffrage movements, eventually giving rise to Lincoln's reference to human rights in the Gettysburg Address. The 1688 petition was set aside and forgotten until 1844 when it was re-discovered and became a focus of the burgeoning abolitionist movement in the United States.
There were the founders of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society
, in 1775:
As early as 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown near Philadelphia protested slavery in a resolution that condemned the "traffic of Men-body." By the 1770s, abolitionism was a full-scale movement in Pennsylvania. Led by such Quaker activists as Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, many Philadelphia slaveholders of all denominations had begun bowing to pressure to emancipate their slaves on religious, moral, and economic grounds.
In April 1775, Benezet called the first meeting of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in Bondage at the Rising Sun Tavern. Thomas Paine was among the ten white Philadelphians who attended; seven of the group were Quakers. Often referred to as the Abolition Society, the group focused on intervention in the cases of blacks and Indians who claimed to have been illegally enslaved. Of the twenty-four men who attended the four meetings held before the Society disbanded, seventeen were Quakers.
I've spent hours and hours wading through the amended research on the Mount Vernon website, a treasure trove of Washington apologia, presided over by their resident slave quarters historian, Mary V. Thompson
, who with scanty academic credentials and none in black historical research, has been touting the official line on Washington—his changing attitudes around slavery, his well-treated slaves, and she is even writing a book about it. It's not that Mt. Vernon ignores slavery like they used to. They don't. What they have done is cleaned it up and made it palatable for the thousands of tourists who visit there each year. I call this "slavery sanitation."
Thompson has passed on her "great whitewash of Washington" and was the principle informant for yet another mythmaker who wrote a children's book on Washington's slaves, titled Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and his Revolutionary Transformation.
All I can say is "spare me the BS." I've spent years reading chancery court and slave death records from Virginia, and have narratives from my own family, including some documented by the WPA, and whether it was Mount Vernon, or James Monroes's Oak Hill in Loudoun County (or any other planter's palatial estate), life for the enslaved was purgatory or living hell.
If I sound sarcastic about all of this, it's only because I'm really biting my tongue to keep from raging.
Perhaps humor is a better approach. Langston Hughes wrote "Laughing to Keep From Crying" so I'll just laugh along with Azie Mira Dungey in her portrayal of George and Martha Washington's slave Lizzie Mae "Ask a Slave":
Ask A Slave is based on the actress' time working as a living history character at the popular historic site, George Washington's Mount Vernon.
Rather than letting whitewashing folks tell our histories, better to just hear from those who were enslaved, in their own words.
Though there were thousands of slave narratives collected during the WPA project, many of them are suspect due to the fact that most of the interviewers were white, and in many cases former slaves told the interviewer what they thought they wanted to hear. Not so with the narratives from Virginia, which employed mostly black interviewers. I highly recommend Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves
for a slave's eye view of captivity and mistreatment.
Our ancestors were robbed of names in the census, to make us less than human. David E. Paterson has documented the Congressional debates that ultimately left us to be counted like cattle.
President Washington and many of those who followed him kept us listed in their estate books like horses or oxen. Who we were bred with, and how much profit they could make from our work, or our sale.
So, no—he is not my "Great White Father." He did help found a nation based on native extermination and removal. A nation of material wealth and votes for elites, stolen from the labor of a stolen people.
His birthday is celebrated during Black History Month.
As a black historian, in honor of my enslaved ancestors who can no longer speak to you, I will not be honoring him on the 17th of February. His legacy lives in the racism we still face today. As the first president he was first to have a shot at ending slavery.
He did not.
There are no excuses.
Instead I will honor Oney, and Hercules, who escaped on his birthday.
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