The following item from the soon-to-be-published Fairfax County Register of Freed Slaves conclusively establishes that West Ford, whose desendants still live in the Gum Springs area near Mount Vernon, was the slave of Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister-in-law, until he was freed at her death. Ford, on whose farmland the black community of Gum Springs was built, was the great-great-great-grandfather of Judith Burton, who now lives at 2825 Joseph Makell Ct.
Register No. 121 Book No. 2 Virginia to wit:
The bearer hereof West Ford a yellow man about forty seven years of age five feet eight and an half inches high pleasant countenance, a wrinkle resembling a scar on the left cheek, a scar on the left corner of the upper lip, is a free man emancipated by the last Will and Testament of Hannah Washington as appears from an original Register heretofore granted by the County Court of Fairfax and this day surrendered the said West Ford has with him two children a boy by the name of Daniel with a scar in his forehead about fourteen years of age the other a Girl about eleven years of age, the children of Priscilla Ford a free woman manumitted by Isaac C. McPhereson, as appears by a certificate of George C. Washington on file in my office. Whereupon &c. Given under my hand this 17th day of October 1831.
The accidental discovery of a register of freed slaves in Fairfax County is being hailed as a "Roots"-like document that offers new details about emancipated blacks, some of whose descedants still live in the county.
The two leather-bound volumes, stumbled upon by county historian Donald Sweig in the county courthouse attic, will be published this summer under a $3,000 appropriation by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors.
"I think it's specular," Robert L. Secundy, president of the County-wide Black Citizens Association, said of the register. "There are a lot of families who have lived in Fairfax County for hundreds of years, and this is going to be very useful to some of them."
"It's the root not only of the black community in Fairfax," Sweig said, "but it says a lot about the roots of Fairfax County society at the time."
Sweig's discovery recalls some of the research of Alex Haley, who wrote the best-selling novel "Roots," which traces the black author's heritage back to Africa. The book was made into an eight-part movie that set new audience records when it was shown on ABC television late last month.
Historians familiar with the antebellum period will find the register an storehouse of useful information, Sweig said. On Oct. 16, 17 and 18, 1831, there were 70 slaves registered in three days, he said. The flurry, he speculated, might have been related to the Nat Turner uprising that had begun two months earlier in Southeast Virginia.
The two volumes - a third one, covering an earlier period, is believed to be somewhere in the attic among heaps of books and records still to be inventoried - include the registrations of 840 freed slaves.
The entries, besides providing information on who owned the slaves, their names and ages of their children and when they were freed, sometimes include physical details such as "copper colored hair," "a pleasing countenance," or "second finger of the left hand split."
Among the freed slaves listed is West Ford, the great-great-great-grandfather of Judith Burton, who today lives in Gum Springs, the black community near Mount Vernon that was built on Ford's farm.
Until the register was uncovered, there were no conclusive details on Ford's slave heritage. The will on Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister-in-law, freed "the lad West," but no surname was given in the document.
But the second volume of register refers to Ford as being a "free man emancipated by the last Will and Testament of Hannah Washington."
The register provides no information to reinforce some historians' speculation that Ford was the son of George Washington, or possibly his nephew Bushrod.
Mrs. Burton thinks historians have tended to gloss over the possibility in an excessive display of deference to the first President. She said that both West Ford and his mother, Venus, are buried in the graveyard at Mount Vernon where Washington was originally interred.
According to Mrs. Burton, there are about 10 families in the Gum Springs area who are descendants of freed slaves. The names of some of the families, such as Quander and Saunders, are among those listed in the register of freed slaves.
The register was kept after Virginia passed a law in 1793 requiring all free blacks in the state to register with the clerk of the county, town or city in which they lived.
Sweig said the purpose of the law was to stop slaves who are not free from pretending to be emancipated and to protect freed slaves from being bound again into slavery.
Until 1782 - well after the Declaration of Independence citing "certain unalienable rights" of "all men" - slaves could not be freed in Virginia, except for "meritorious service."
But the influence across the Atlantic of the Era of Enlightment, Sweig said, led to a law in Virginia permitting slaves to be freed. It was under that law that Washington freed the slaves he owned at his Mount Vernon plantation.
In 1806, another Virginia law - Sweig said it reflected the beginning of pressures of the abolition movement - required that freed slaves leave the state.
However, Sweig said, the law appears to have unevenly enforced in Fairfax, reflecting, perhaps, ambiguities of conscience in a jurisdiction only miles from the federal Capital.
Sweig, who works in the county's Office of Comprehensive Planning, noted that some of the freed slaves who were registered in the county not only continued to live there but prospered.
Among them was Ford, who farmed a parcel of land on Little Hunting Creek willed to him by Bushrod Washington. Ford, also a carpenter, was a member of Christ Church in Alexandria, where many eminent figures of the early United States worshipped.
John Whiting, who until last year was a professor of history at the predominantly black Virginia Union University in Richmond, said the Fairfax register would be "a tremendous research tool for historians as well as providing numerous links for families in the Gum Springs area."
Whiting, who worked with Mrs. Burton on historical research of Gum Springs' origin, said he had unsuccessfully sought for two years to establish that Ford had been a slave owned by Hannah Washington.
Whiting was told by various libraries that the Fairfax slave register was apparently lost or stolen.
"I was just ecstatic when I learned the register had been found," he said. "I was dancing around on my tippy toes. I knew this was a key document."