A descendant of Wessyngton slaves, Baker has written the most accessible and exciting work of African American history since Roots. He has not only written his own family's story but included the history of hundreds of slaves and their descendants now numbering in the thousands throughout the United States. More than one hundred rare photographs and portraits of African Americans who were slaves on the plantation bring this compelling American history to life.
Founded in 1796 by Joseph Washington, a distant cousin of America's first president, Wessyngton Plantation covered 15,000 acres and held 274 slaves, whose labor made it the largest tobacco plantation in America. Atypically, the Washingtons sold only two slaves, so the slave families remained intact for generations. Many of their descendants still reside in the area surrounding the plantation. The Washington family owned the plantation until 1983; their family papers, housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, include birth registers from 1795 to 1860, letters, diaries, and more. Baker also conducted dozens of interviews—three of his subjects were more than one hundred years old—and discovered caches of historic photographs and paintings.
A groundbreaking work of history and a deeply personal journey of discovery, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation is an uplifting story of survival and family that gives fresh insight into the institution of slavery and its ongoing legacy today.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Photo in My Textbook
As a young child in the 1960s, my maternal grandfather took me for a ride in the country nearly every Sunday afternoon after church. We would drive about ten miles northwest of Springfield, Tennessee, and would pass by an impressive mansion, which sat some distance off the road. My grandfather would say, "That's Washington, where your people came from on your grandmother's side."
I discovered the story of my ancestors by accident while flipping through the pages of my seventh-grade social studies book, Your Tennessee. At the beginning of the chapter "Black Tennesseans," I spotted a photograph of four African Americans. In the 1970s little was taught in public schools about black history other than the Civil War period, so the picture really intrigued me. I kept being drawn to this photograph and examined it carefully. The people were dressed well and looked dignified. I knew from their clothing that the photo was nearly one hundred years old. Each time I went to class, I would turn to the photo because the couple seated reminded me of some of my family members the woman and my maternal grandmother especially.
My grandmother Sallie Washington Nicholson moved to Indianapolis in 1941 and from there to Chicago. Each year she would come home to visit. On her visit, in 1976, when I was thirteen years old, she spent the weekend with her brother and sister-in-law Bob and Maggie Washington in Cedar Hill. She called my mother and told her to have me bring a camera when we came to pick her up because she had something she wanted me to photograph. When my mother and I arrived, my grandmother showed us an article from the Robertson County Times, published in Springfield. I immediately realized that this was the same photograph I had seen in my school textbook. The caption under the photograph listed the names of the former slaves, the owner, and the name of the plantation: Wessyngton. The caption read: "Another of the pictures from Wessyngton. Seated left: Emanuel Washington, Uncle Man the cook, seated right: Hettie Washington, Aunt Henny the head laundress (Uncle Man's wife), standing left: Allen Washington, the head dairyman, standing right: Granville Washington (George A. Washington's valet or body servant). Taken at Wessyngton ."
I remember to this day what happened next:
"Who are these people, Big Mama?" I asked.
"That's my grandfather and grandmother," she said, pointing to the seated couple. "My grandfather was the cook at Washington." I knew that she was really talking about Wessyngton because most black people in the area refer to the plantation as Washington. "And that is where we got the Washington name."
Although I had seen the photograph in the textbook many times, it assumed a different meaning once I knew that those people were my ancestors. I was in shock. I could hardly wait to get back to school and tell my classmates that my ancestors were in our history book. I looked at each person in the photograph carefully. I looked at Emanuel, Henny, Allen, and then Granville. Pointing to Granville, I asked, "Who is this white man? Was he the slave owner?" My grandmother and uncle replied at the same time, "He's not white, he is related to us too! Granville was our cousin. Papa used to talk about him all the time. He said George Washington who owned the Washington farm was his father by a slave girl. Granville's mother was kin to Papa on his mother's side of the family."
Sallie Washington Nicholson,
My Grandmother, 1909-1995
I was the youngest child in the family. My mother died having twins when I was three. My parents were Amos and Callie White Washington. My father was born at Washington in 1870, his parents were Emanuel and Henny Washington, who were born slaves on the Washington plantation. My grandfather died before I was born, and our grandmother died when I was too little to remember her, but Papa used to talk about them and our other relatives all the time. His daddy was the cook at Washington [Wessyngton] and when Papa was just a small boy he used to follow his daddy around the Big House and played in the kitchen at Washington while his daddy worked. Papa could make cornbread that was as good as cake. I guess he learned that from his daddy. Papa said he was taught to read and write by some of the Washington children he played with as a child.
Did they ever say how the slaves were treated at Washington?
Papa said they always treated his daddy like he was part of the family because he was the cook and used to tell all the children ghost stories. Papa said his daddy was the best cook there was. I don't know if they treated them all like they did him or not. They say the Washingtons never caused the breakup of families by selling slaves from the plantation. Our grandmother Henny was part Indian and so was our mother's father, Bob White. After our grandfather got too old to cook and went blind, John Phillips cooked at Washington. He married our cousin Annie Washington who was Cousin Gabe Washington's daughter. I think Cousin Gabe was the last of the slaves that stayed there after they were freed. I used to talk to him all the time when we went down there. The Washingtons were really fond of him too. When we were children just about all older people were called "uncle" or "auntie" whether they were related or not. This made it that much harder to tell how everybody was kin. We even had to address our older sisters and brothers with a title. You could not just call them by their first names. That is why I say Sister Cora.
I always wondered why you called Aunt Cora "Sister Cora" and she didn't say "sister" when she was talking to you.
That's because she was the oldest. I called my brother Baxter and sister Henrietta by their names because they were closer to my age.
A lot of our cousins lived down at Washington when we were growing up. Allen Washington that's on the picture with our grandparents was Guss Washington's grandfather. Guss married our cousin Carrie, and both of them worked down at Washington for years and years. You can probably talk to Carrie, because she can remember lots of things and so will Sister Cora.
When we were children Papa used to make sure we went to church. We went to the Antioch Baptist Church in Turnersville. Papa always sent us, but he never went there, he always said he belonged to a white Catholic church [possibly St. Michael's]. He later joined South Baptist Church in Springfield and was baptized when he was in his eighties. When I was a child Papa always told us to pray at night as if it was our last time to make sure we went to Heaven, and never go to bed angry with anyone without making things right. He said that's how his parents taught him to pray.
I went to school in Sandy Springs at Scott's School and some at Antioch School. Our cousin Clarine Darden was my first teacher. My mother died when I was small, so they started me to school early. I can't even remember what Mama looked like. When I first married your grandfather, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked toward the foot of my bed and there Mama stood. I was afraid and hid my head under the covers. I looked out a second time and she was still there. I could not wake your grandfather, so I was afraid to look out again. After I described her to my brother and sister they said it was our mother.
After Mama died, my father married Jenny Scott, she was the daughter of Mr. Joe Scott and Mrs. Fannie Scott, who lived down by Scott's Cemetery. Mr. Joe Scott was a Washington slave too.
My mama's mother lived near us. Her name was Fannie Connell White Long. She was a midwife who delivered black and white babies. We called her Granny Fanny. She died in 1920 during the flu epidemic. A whole lot of people died with the flu back then and tuberculosis. My sister Henrietta died from tuberculosis one month before your mother was born in 1928. Henrietta always looked after me after Mama died, and so did Bob. Some of our family was buried in White's Cemetery, which was owned by our family. My great-grandfather Henry White bought that property right after he was freed.
On the fourth Sunday in May they hold Antioch Baptist Church's homecoming. There would be people from everywhere. I used to go often to get to see our relatives and friends who had moved up North.
They used to have a hayride in town in Springfield that used to go down to Washington when I was young. When I was carrying your mother, we went down there and a boy fell off the wagon, Curtis "Six Deuce" Meneese, and had to have his leg amputated. I never went on the ride after that. Several of our cousins still lived at Washington then.
Our family came here with the first Washington that started the plantation. I don't know what year it was, but I think our family was there the whole time or close to the start of it. Most of our family stayed there after they were set free.
Bob Washington, My Great-uncle,
I remember my granddaddy and grandmamma. Everybody called my granddaddy 'Uncle Man,' but his name was Emanuel. Our grandmother was named Henny. Our sister Henrietta was named after her. Our mother died having twins in 1913, and Grandpa Man's sister, Aunt Sue, stayed with us to help Papa out with the children. I remember her burning the toast when she cooked and wanted us to eat it anyway. She was born a slave down at Washington and was older than our grandfather. She was probably close to one hundred when she died. Grandpa Man had another sister, Clara Washington; she died in 1925 and was nearly one hundred when she died; she was Jenny Hayes's mother. Most of our people have lived to get pretty old. Papa had a brother named Grundy Washington who lived in Clarksville, Tennessee. He had ten or twelve children too. We have relatives everywhere. Many of them moved up North. Our oldest brother, Willie, moved up North, then our brother Baxter and your grandmother later moved up there. Some of them tried to get me to move, but I never did.
Our father said our family came from Virginia with the Washingtons. They were some kin to the president, and that's where we got our family name. Some of the family still lives down in the old Washington house. If you call down there and tell them who you are, they may be able to help you find something. They still have some of the old slave houses and everything else down there. [My great-uncle told me the plantation was not far from his house. My great-aunt Maggie confirmed what my grandmother and great-uncle said about the family. Her maternal ancestors also came from the Wessyngton Plantation.]
I questioned them all I could about the people in the photograph that night. My mother finally interrupted and told them I would keep asking questions as long as they would answer them and that I should be a lawyer. This ended my first of many interviews. I had heard bits and pieces about our family growing up as I always hung around older relatives. I suppose the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is really true. Now I was determined to get every shred of information I could to find out more about our distant past. Copyright © 2009 by John F. Baker Jr.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Photo in My Textbook
Chapter 2: That's Washington, Where Your People Came From
Chapter 3: We Walked Every Step of the Way from Virginia to Tennessee
Chapter 4: We Built That Big House Brick by Brick
Chapter 5: By the Sweat of Their Brows: The Largest Tobacco Plantation in America
Chapter 6: It Takes a Whole Village
Chapter 7: Working from Can't to Can't
Chapter 8: I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray
Chapter 9: Wessyngton Rebels
Chapter 10: Follow the North Star
Chapter 11: On the Road to Freedom: Wessyngton Under Siege
Chapter 12: No Longer Under Washington Control
Chapter 13: August the 8th
Chapter 14: In Their Own Words
Chapter 15: The Church in the Hollow
Chapter 16: Digging for the Truth
Chapter 17: Generations in Transition
Chapter 18: Back Through the Centuries with DNA
Epilogue: To Honor Our Ancestors
Selected Bibliography of Primary Sources