That’s just 10 names of the more than 300 people enslaved by George and Martha Washington. They worked and traveled most closely with our nation’s first First Family as chamber maids, postilions, cooks, waiters, laborers, seamstresses and valets.
Did you know that George Washington had only one tooth in his mouth when he became president in 1789, thanks to bad health and 18th-century dentistry? But his false teeth were not made of wood, as is often described in folk songs and lore. His dentures were made from the pulled teeth of slaves.
Roll that around in your head for a minute.
Did you know that the president was often unwell, having survived two wars and a nasty bout with a cutaneous form of anthrax? He was tended to by Richmond and William Lee during long stretches when he was unable to sit or stand.
Did you know that some of the names belong to people who were “dower slaves,” legally controlled by Martha? She had the money in the family as a widow who was left with thousands of acres and hundreds of people when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died.
Did you know that when Ona Judge escaped, Martha insisted that George do everything in his power to track her down so she could gift her to a granddaughter as an attendant (thus avoiding the need to reimburse her first husband’s estate for loss of property)? And yes, the correct word is “property,” because next to acreage (as in real estate), the enslaved composed the greatest source of wealth for families such as the Washingtons.
And let’s not forget that one of the reasons that our nation’s capital was moved to Washington, D.C., was it was closer to Virginia, where slavery was practiced and protected under law. When Washington traveled to New York — or, later, to Philadelphia — to preside over a newly formed government, he left all but a few of his slaves behind at Mount Vernon. Once Washington moved north, he was legally at risk of losing his slaves in the City of Brotherly Love.
Did you know that Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 held that if you lived in that state for more than six months with enslaved people, they could successfully petition for their freedom?
Correspondence shows that Washington thought he was exempt from that law because his work required that he reside in the state for an extended period. His attorney general, Edmund Jennings Randolph, cleared up that false impression when he knocked on Washington’s High Street door in Philadelphia one day to say that Randolph’s own slaves had familiarized themselves with that law and were packing up to leave.
So the Washingtons came up with an elaborate shuffling plan to cycle in and out of Pennsylvania so their slaves would never hit the legal threshold for freedom. Sometimes they would take a trip back to Virginia. Sometimes they would just make an excuse to go across the river to New Jersey. The schedule was complicated and burdensome, but Washington kept it up because he and Martha were determined to keep the people they owned in bondage.
Washington explained in a letter to his secretary Tobias Lear that the scheme was meant to deceive the enslaved and the public, said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history at Rutgers and author of the book “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge.”
The man who supposedly never told a lie figured out how to stretch the truth.
Did you know that Washington’s cook, Hercules, also escaped? He did so on Washington’s birthday, a departure with an unmistakable message.
These are just some of the stories. (Many others are in Dunbar’s book, which ought to be on Americans’ reading list about our real history.) The Washingtons had hundreds of people on their official slave census. Mostly, we don’t know their names or their stories. There are no buildings named for them. No statues. Yet their toil and their torture helped to build a new nation.
Many say Washington deserves some measure of grace because he arranged to free some of his slaves upon his death. So, he did in death what he would not do in life? We must own up to the fact that he owned people, that those people were separated from their loved ones, made to work without pay, made to live without dignity, made to suffer whippings, made to disappear. Because of that their names are monuments unto themselves.
Names we should remember.
. . . And so many more.
An earlier version of this column said that Tobias Lear knocked on Washington’s door in Philadelphia to alert him that his own slaves were planning to leave in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. It was Edmund Jennings Randolph. This version has been updated.