Recently while going through some old photographs, I ran across this one taken with childhood friends Wanda Gardner, Drextel Bowling, Teresa Gardner, Charles Gardner and Kim Bradley. The photo was taken in 1981 at Greater South Baptist Church during a Black history lesson. I was quite surprised when I noticed the blackboard behind me had part of the subtitle to my book Journey to Freedom in the background nearly thirty years before the book was published. My publishers at Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster selected the subtitle for The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation.
Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category
On May 3rd, I had the honor of giving a presentation on The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation to the Austin Peay Women’s Book Club in Clarksville, Tennessee. To my surprise, one of the book club members presented me with a photo of Washington Hall taken in 1965 a few months before it burned.
George Augustine Washington Jr. and his wife Marina “Queenie” Woods, began construction on the magnificent home in 1896. Washington Hall was a three-story white brick mansion with forty-four rooms. In its heyday Washington Hall was one of the showplaces in the South, where some of the crowned heads of Europe had been entertained.
In 1965 the Washington Hall mansion burned to the ground. The grand entrance gate is the only remnant of its former glory.
The entire Court Order book collection of the Southampton County, Virginia Court from 1749 through the early 1880s has been digitalized. This includes 57,000 pages, involving approximately one million names. This information is free online at: www.wiki.familysearch.org/en/Southampton_County,_Virginia. This collection is a goldmine for African Americans tracing their ancestors who once lived in Southampton County. Many of the books that have been digitized were 300 to 700 pages. Court Order books from the 1700s to the end of the slave trade lists the names of Africans when they were first brought to the area, their ages, owner’s names, and in a few cases the ships on which they were brought over. Wills and estate settlements lists the names of slaves, descriptions and family relationships. If your ancestors came from Southampton County, Virginia, you must check out this collection. Thanks go to Southampton Circuit Court Clerk, Richard Francis, and the volunteers of the Brantley Association of America who undertook this huge project in 2009 and 2010.
In August 2010 the Gardner family celebrated their 76th annual family reunion. The festivities included a tour of Wessyngton Plantation. Aaron Gardner born 1804, his wife Betty born 1814, and their three sons Daniel Gardner 1829-1911, George Gardner 1830-1906, and Jackson Gardner Washington born 1831 were enslaved on the plantation from 1839 to 1865. After emancipation George Gardner purchased 169 acres of land, which he willed to his nephew Will Gardner. Daniel Gardner and his wife Melissa Boisseau Gardner were the parents of eighteen children. Many of their descendants remain in the Robertson County area. There are more African Americans carrying the Gardner surname than any other surname in the county. Two original portraits of Daniel and Melissa Gardner were revealed to descendants at the 76th Gardner family reunion.
Washington Surname Most Common among African Americans in America—and in Robertson County, TennesseeWednesday, March 2nd, 2011
According to an interesting article by Jesse Washington of the Associated Press entitled “Washington Named the ‘Blackest Name’ in America,”
Based on the 2000 U. S. census, Washington is the most prominent surname among African Americans. 90% of 163,036 individuals with the Washington surname are African Americans, a far greater percentage than any other name.
The descendants of African Americans once enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation are part of this group. Before and after Emancipation, they chose to use the Washington surname—the surname of the slaveholding Washington family (were distant cousins of the president).
At the onset of the Civil War there were nearly 300 African Americans on Wessyngton Plantation. In 1870, 212 former slaves and their descendants from Wessyngton in Robertson County carried the Washington surname. This was nearly 5% of the total number of African Americans in the county.
In the years following the Civil War hundreds of Washingtons from Robertson County migrated out of the area. Today there are still African Americans in the area who carry the Washington surname (although far fewer than decades earlier), and some African American Washingtons throughout the country are descended from the Wessyngton Washingtons.
Elijah Smyth or Smith was originally owned by Joseph L. D. Smith on his plantation in Florence, Alabama. When Joseph Smith died in 1837, Elijah was inherited by Smith’s minor daughter Jane, who later married George Augustine Washington of Wessyngton Plantation.
Between 1850 and 1860, Elijah Smyth made his escape from slavery in Alabama most likely using the Underground Railroad. He made it to freedom in Buxton, Canada. Buxton, was established in 1849 by the abolitionist Reverend William King, and was one of four settlements in Canada which offered refuge for fugitive slaves. Buxton was located between Lake Erie and the Great Western railway, and consisted of approximately 9,000 acres of land. The logging industry provided an income for most of its residents.
Reverend King had strict guidelines for the settlers: land could not be leased, and could only be purchased by African Americans for $2.50 per acres. Once the land was purchased it had to be held for ten years. Houses had to be built that were at least 24 x 18 x 12 feet with a porch, and picket fence and flower garden in front. The town had four churches, three schools, a hotel and its own post office. In 1860, Buxton’s population was its largest with about 700 residents.
Elijah Smyth was literate. Since educating slaves was forbidden by law in Alabama, he probably was educated at the Buxton school.
Between 1850 and 1860, Elijah Smyth wrote a letter to Jane Smith’s aunt, Anne Pope. He sent the letter from Buxton, Canada.
Will you be so kind as I do not know who my young Mrs. is married to or where she lives. The least she will take for my papers of liberty as I am ready to pay a reasonable price. It is better for her to get a half loaf than no bread. If she will take a reasonable price write to me and then I will write to you and let you know what day to have a man in Detroit with my papers and will send the money by a friend to meet him. Be so kind as to write to me in haste.
No more but kindness,
Yours truly Elijah Smyth
[Washington Family Papers]
In the letter Elijah Smyth offered to purchase his freedom. It is unknown why he made the offer since he was already free. He might have wanted to purchase the freedom of other family members who were still enslaved. It also is not known whether Jane Smith responded to his letter or accepted his offer.
On June 19th members of the Washington family visited Wessyngton Plantation as part of their family reunion. The tour included a visit to the mansion, Washington family cemetery, and a restored slave cabin. Family members descend from Temperance Washington born 1795, who was enslaved on the plantation along with her son Sam and daughter Jane in 1815. Sam Washington born 1812 married Jane Hadley 1835-1916. After emancipation the Washington family remained in the Cedar Hill, Tennessee area. Members of the family were instrumental in establishing the St. James Baptist Church in Cedar Hill. On June 20th the church celebrated its anniversary where numerous Washington descendants still worship. These members descend from Sam and Jane’s children: Nelson Washington, Irvin Washington, Temperance Washington Sherrod, and Betty Washington Smothers.
National Black Arts Festival Study Group Walks in Footsteps of Baker’s Ancestors on Wessyngton PlantationSunday, June 13th, 2010
In addition to touring the grounds surrounding the Wessyngton mansion, National Black Arts Festival members and guests walked in the footsteps of Baker’s ancestor in the slave cabin area of the plantation. The group went inside a restored slave cabin built ca. 1830. In 1860, there were 274 enslaved African Americans on the plantation, housed in forty log cabins. At the onset of the Civil War, Wessyngton held the largest African American population in the state of Tennessee and was the largest tobacco producer in America.
Today I had the honor of conducting a study group tour of Wessyngton Plantation for Dr. Collette Hopkins, Director of the National Black Arts Festival of Atlanta, along with a number of her colleagues and distinguished guest. The tour included a visit to the Wessyngton mansion, Washington family cemetery, and a former slave cabin. Participants were told about the lives of enslaved African Americans on the largest tobacco plantation in America and walked in their footsteps.
The above photo was taken at the entrance gate to Wessyngton Plantation where I was told as a small child by my grandfather that was where my ancestors came from. The interest in my family’s history led me on a thirty year journey of discovery and the writing of The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.
The following story sheds light on the impact of the Transatlantic slave trade on the lives of native Africans. Some of these slaves ended up on the plantations of the Blow families.
I found this story while searching through a Sussex County deed book looking for genealogical information and noticed the names of several slaves. What stood out most were the names of some of the slaves: August, September, June, April, Caesar, and Quaco. I then thought these were likely Africans. Some slave owners gave Africans the names of the months of the year or days of the week. Planters did not realize in some African cultures children were named for the days of the week they were born on, thereby continuing an African tradition. Names such as Samba, meaning born on Monday, which was later, corrupted to Sambo.
The plight of the Africans was revealed in detail in a Virginia court case that lasted eighteen years. The story began in 1781 during the Revolutionary War. John Wigfall owned a large plantation at Wambaw on St. Thomas Parish in South Carolina. During this time, Wigfall was a Loyalist to Britain and was banished from the colony and had his property confiscated which included his slaves. At the same time, Captain John Singletary was issued a commission as a privateer in his cutter Victory. His commission ordered him to take as prize any British property. Captain Singletary and a small crew set out in rowboats up the Santee River and landed at Wigfall’s plantation, where they captured thirty-four of his slaves: April, Will, August, Dolly, September, Wally, Philander, Philis, Caesar, Horah, Scipio, Cloey, Daniel, Santon, Will, Neppy, June, Dianah, Pegg, Binah, Jenny, Peter, Cyrus, Duke, Flora, Limbrick, Pharo, Toby, Nanny, Sabina, Rosanna, Carolina, Wallis, and Quashilla. The slaves at first were taken to Beaufort, North Carolina.
Although Wigfall was to be banished, he was granted leniency because he pleaded poor health and a large family to support and was allowed to remain in South Carolina. Thus, Wigfall made immediate application for the return of his slaves, as a Court of the Admiralty convened in New Bern and ruled that the slaves were a fair prize. They were declared property legally condemned by the court.
After discovering that Beaufort was threatened by the British, Singletary took the slaves to Virginia and sold them to four planters: Richard Blow of Sussex County, who was the nephew of Colonel Michael Blow, Colonel Benjamin Baker of Nanesmond County, Captain Sinclair in Smithfield, and William Hines of Southampton.
Wigfall was informed of the whereabouts of some of the slaves and managed to steal back a few of them, although some of their names had been altered to conceal their identities. Wigfall and his son and the plantation owners had several heated disputes over the ownership of the slaves.
In 1792, John Wigfall gave his friend James Warrington of Richmond power of attorney to recover his property, to no avail. In 1798 his son Joseph, who was the executor of his estate pursued the case. The judgment in all matters of the case except the ownership of the slaves was in favor of the defendants. However, each purchaser had to pay Wigfall for the use of the slaves during the time they were in Virginia.
Some forty years later some of the Africans were still living on Richard Blow’s plantation in Sussex County called Tower Hill. An 1830s register of slaves for Tower Hill lists August, Tember (September) and April, who was also called Joe, (possibly a shortened version of the African day name Cudjo) as being African Negroes. They died in 1832, 1826, and 1829 respectively, ranging in age from 60 to 80. Their names first appeared on tax lists for 1784 for Richard Blow when they were purchased.
August probably suffered the greatest loss of all the Africans. According to descendants of the Blows, after August learned English he and the other Africans related the story of their capture and voyage from Africa. August informed the Blow family that his father was an African king and he was next in line to succeed him to the throne but was betrayed by a jealous uncle who sold him to slave traders so he could rule as king. Instead of living the life of African nobility, August was condemned to a life of American servitude.
 Power of Attorney from John Wigfall to James Warrington 1792 to recover slaves taken from his Wambaw plantation in South Carolina, Sussex County Deed Book G pages 723-725. Federal District Court case, Richmond, VA Wigfall Vs Blow 1799, Virginia State Library and Archives.
 Register of slaves on the plantations of Richard Blow 1832. 1838 register of slaves of George Blow. Manuscripts Department of Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Register contains the slaves’ names, parents’ names, dates of birth and death, if the slave was acquired by inheritance, purchase or gift.
 1784 Tithables for Sussex County, VA for Richard Blow. Virginia State Library and Archives.