THE BESTSELLING book Roots, Alex Haley's historical reconstruction of how his family came from relative freedom in Africa to certain slavery in America, and then from slavery to relative freedom today, has spurred many black Americans to think about and search out their own roots.
A few years ago most blacks were either ashamed or afraid to tell the story of their struggle for survival against enormous odds.Their reticence derived in part from the frequent ugliness of their stories.
On these four pages are the true stories of eight Washingtonians who not only survived exploitation but went on to achieve prominence in a world dominated by whites.
Col. West Alexander Hamilton,90, is loved and admired in educational circles. He graduated from, as well as taught at, the now-famous Thaddeus Stevens School in Washington, and served on the District School Board for twenty-one years. Prior to that he spent forty-four years in the Army, rising from private to colonel.
On his mother's side of the family, both his grandmother and granfather were slaves for a Dr. Royals in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War started in April 19, 1861. During the war, his grandfather excaped from the Royals and, according to Hamilton, "under the cloak of darkness, he got a small boat from the Charleston border and he and another man - who became a congressman during Reconstruction - rowed out to the Union ships that were lying off the shore and they were welcomed aboard."
After the war, Hamilton's grandfather, Thomas Walter West, got a job as a headwriter in a large hotel in downtown Charleston. Later he bacame a messenger for the Army Corps of Engineers working for Colonel Peter C. Hains, who was in charge of harbor improvemtns in Charleston. In 1884 Hains was transferred to Washington (We can thank him for Hains Point) and Thomas and his wife moved with him. "My grandfather never had a day of education in his life," Hamilton says, "but he learned how to write. He taught himself." His daughter, Hamilton's mother, was Julia West Hamilton, an educator and leader in the Washington black community for years.
Hamilton's father was born in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1855 and told his son that he remembered hearing the guns when General Grant took Richmond and broke the black of the Confederacy. Hamilton never knew his father's family but speculates that they were a mixture of black and white, up from the West Indies. "He never knew who his father was," says Hamilton about his father, "but he must have been white because his mother was as black as the ace of spades."
Hamilton's father worked in Washington as a government laborer and messenger until he died in 1920.