Asked to help, Post readers sent searing evidence about dozens more enslavers in Congress
There were handwritten wills, birth certificates of babies born into slavery and newspaper ads placed by congressmen seeking the return of Black people who fled captivity.
When The Washington Post published the first list of members of Congress who were slaveowners last month, the article included a call to action: Help us complete the database.
Ruette Watson was among dozens of readers who responded with searing evidence of enslavement. The outpouring included wills handwritten in the 19th century; birth certificates of babies born into slavery on congressmen’s plantations; newspaper ads placed by senators or representatives seeking the return of Black people who fled captivity; letters and book excerpts and journal articles. And in the case of Watson, an oral history project focused on Black women that included a 1977 interview with her remarkable grandmother, Esther Mae Prentiss Scott.
Thanks to Watson and scores of other amateur and professional researchers — who emailed from as far away as China and France and ranged from high school students to presidential historians — The Post’s tally of slaveholders who once served in Congress has grown from 1,715 to 1,795.
The list of congressmen still left to research remains long as well — it shrank from 677 names to 587. In other words: You too can help.
[How to help The Post identify members of Congress who enslaved people]
Watson, 67 and retired from a career in IT at Rutgers University, was reading The Post’s story about congressional enslavers when she was surprised to see a familiar name: Rep. Seargent Smith Prentiss of Mississippi. He was on The Post’s list of congressmen who still needed to be researched.
Prentiss, who served in the House of Representatives from 1838 to 1839, is known to historians as one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi in his time and as an exceptional orator. Daniel Webster is said to have called Prentiss the greatest speechmaker he ever heard. But Watson knows him for something else: She has Prentisses in her family, who took that name from the man who enslaved them.
Watson pointed a Post reporter to the oral history, in which a Radcliffe researcher recorded an interview with Watson’s grandmother 45 years ago. In the interview, Esther Mae Prentiss Scott remembered her grandfather Monroe Prentiss telling her about his brutal journey to America. He was smuggled in secret long after the U.S. prohibition on the importation of enslaved people took effect in 1808, kidnapped from Africa and taken first to Holland and then to Seargent Smith Prentiss’s Mississippi plantation.
“He said they were in the hull of the ship like sardines in a can,” Scott, who died in 1979, told the interviewer.
Heartbroken by his separation from his brother Jefferson, who was enslaved on a different plantation, Monroe named his son Jefferson — also born into slavery — in honor of his brother, Scott recalled.
The Black Prentisses understood the origins of their name.
“I’m wearing a slave name now,” she recounted. “My mother died with a slave name, Prentiss, and my grandfather died with a slave name. ... He got that Prentiss from Seargent S. Prentiss. ... Well, I’m not ashamed of it.”
Seargent Smith Prentiss is now on The Post’s list of slaveholders. And Watson said she’s proud to help preserve the memory of her grandmother’s grandfather.
[More than 1,700 congressmen once enslaved Black people. This is who they were, and how they shaped the nation.]
“We’re not that far out of slavery itself,” she said. “I could reach back one person away.”
Watson knew her grandmother, a gifted blues musician who performed with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as a young woman. Scott worked as a maid in Mississippi and then eventually followed her daughter to the nation’s capital, where she became the beloved “Mother Scott” of her Columbia Heights church. She recorded an album at age 79, which Watson recently digitized and made available on YouTube.
[Post obituary from 1979: Mother Scott, composer, one of the last survivors of the great era of Mississippi blues]
Watson knew her grandmother, and her grandmother knew Monroe Prentiss. Slavery feels not so far away sometimes to Watson, who lives in Princeton, N.J. “We haven’t been that long from that situation. People seem to think it was forever ago, and it wasn’t,” she said. “They not only survived, but I exist today because of their strength and their ability to cope and to make the best of what life gave them.”
[At 88, he is a historical rarity — the living son of a slave]
Watson was one of many readers who wrote to The Post about their families. Some were descendants of congressmen and others of the people the congressmen enslaved.
The research that Chris Pupke, who works in wildlife conservation and lives in Centreville, Md., had conducted on his family led him to a congressman. Pupke, 51, found that an ancestor of his had been a major slaveholder, leaving more than 100 enslaved people to his heirs when he died.
One of those enslaved people was Alfred Cooper. Pupke traced Cooper’s story — eventually he was enslaved by Rep. John Brewer Brown of Maryland, who gave Cooper his freedom when he joined the military to fight for the Union during the Civil War.
“I don’t find it an obligatory connection. There are members of the family that say, as Henry Louis Gates says, guilt is not inheritable,” Pupke said. “But I also feel like there’s a story here to be told that needs to get out there, and somebody needs to tell it.”
He gives presentations at libraries and churches about the Black soldiers from his Maryland county who fought for the Union. And he sent documents to The Post to demonstrate that Brown belongs on the list of slaveholders.
Mary Louisa Bacon Sturges saw her great-great-grandfather Augustus Octavius Bacon on The Post’s list of people to research. She had done some genealogy on her family, and sent documents showing that Bacon was a Georgia slaveholder as a young man — including letters that Bacon wrote home to his family during his time as a Confederate soldier, in which he wrote about an enslaved man named Richmond whom he brought to the battlefield with him and who became ill and died there.
Bacon’s addition to The Post’s database of slaveholders in Congress makes him one of the last former slaveholders to serve as a U.S. lawmaker — he represented Georgia in the Senate from 1895 to 1914. (He left his mark on the District by successfully campaigning to have the street named Georgia Avenue re-designated to its current location. In his home state, he has a county in his name.)
[The Senate’s first woman was also its last enslaver]
Other readers who wanted to contribute to The Post’s database researched congressmen who represented their home states. One Ramapo College class got to work researching several New York congressmen as a class assignment. Workers at Alabama’s state archives department searched for records from their state.
And for some, the database inspired their own projects. Sarah Cate Wolfson, a high school junior in New York City, started making a list of New York mayors who enslaved people, which she hopes to publish. Her father, who pointed out The Post’s article to Wolfson and inspired the 16-year-old to start her own project, once served as New York’s deputy mayor.
“It’s opened my eyes to how intrinsically linked New York and enslavement were,” Wolfson said. “I feel like you don’t need a street named after someone who owned slaves who you don’t even know about. There was a mayor named Richard Varick — I didn’t even know he existed before starting this. What’s the point of having a Varick Street if it’s tied to not a great person?”
Readers turned up many forms of records. Vera Cecelski, a 30-year-old manager of a historic site in Durham, N.C., sent wills and probate records demonstrating that several congressmen from her state were slaveholders. In one will, Rep. George Mumford’s aunt left him an enslaved girl named Flora. Mumford’s aunt left an enslaved woman named Dinah to another nephew. She wrote that if Dinah had future children, she wanted each of Dinah’s next four children to go to four different people among her beneficiaries.
David B. Mattern, a historian who lives in Charlottesville, said he spent more than 30 years editing the papers of James Madison, one of 12 American presidents who enslaved people. He pointed The Post toward a letter from Madison’s wife, Dolley, to her sister Anna, in which Dolley complained about her enslaved maid and asked about Anna’s.
“I would buy a maid but good ones are rare & as high as 8 & 900$— I should like to know what you gave for yours,” Dolley wrote. Along with an 1820 census that a Post journalist found, Madison’s letter helped demonstrate that Anna and her husband, Rep. Richard Cutts of Massachusetts, were slaveowners, adding Cutts to the database.
By far the most prolific contributor has been Luke Voyles, a 26-year-old pursuing his PhD in history at the University of Alabama, who has identified 39 slaveholders and counting.
Voyles was already well-versed in methods of combing censuses and historical journals for his own dissertation research, which focuses on the Confederate veterans who became congressmen after the Civil War and the influence they had on the course of American civil rights.
The thought of a list of all the slaveholders in Congress had crossed his mind as he worked on his list of more than 300 Confederates who served in Congress. When he was reading the news last month and saw The Post article, he joked that his first thought was, “Gosh darn it, somebody did it.”
Voyles got interested in civil rights as a child in rural Missouri reading biographies of presidents, then studied African history in college before turning his attention to the American South. He dove into helping with The Post’s project, often late at night after a day of teaching and working on his dissertation. He would turn on classical music from YouTube, then look at handwritten 19th-century documents until he found the name he was looking for.
“It was just a great way of trying to do the right thing, trying to do something ethical in my downtime,” he said. “When you do find the name, it’s a big rush. But also you know that you’ve done something that’s very meaningful.”
The Post’s original story said that slaveholders represented 37 states in Congress. Voyles has made that 38 states — he found an 1850 census demonstrating that Charles Debrille Poston, known as the “Father of Arizona” and its first delegate to Congress, was a slaveholder.
Adrian Blanco contributed to this story.