Friday, February 6, 2009

Note from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Note from Old Lyme

Review: The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation
February 6, 2009

John F. Baker, Jr., in his history, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009, 357 pages) has compiled a wonderful tribute to his family and, in so doing, has provided an insightful, informative and sensitive history of what Abraham Lincoln referred to as that "peculiar institution" - slavery, a blight on the history of our Country. The book is a history of slavery at Wessyngton, a plantation in north central Tennessee, which during its apogee comprised over 13,000 acres and was the second largest grower of dark-fired tobacco in the world, second only to the khedives of Egypt. While his story is straightforward and leaves no uncertainty as to the pain and humiliation suffered by his slave ancestors, Mr. Baker, a descendant of Wessyngton slaves, makes his case without rancor or bitterness, concentrating, rather, on those elements of his ancestors that allowed his large family to remain cohesive and loving, despite difficulties most of us cannot imagine.

The story is told lucidly and is backed by thirty years of research, which includes the recording of remembrances from hundreds of family members who recall stories from their own parents and grandparents, some of whom were born into slavery. The reader is astonished at the number of relatives of Mr. Baker who lived into their nineties and a few who passed the hundred mark, including Ann Nixon Cooper who this past November voted for Barack Obama and to whom the President-elect referred, by name, when he spoke following his election on November 4th: “Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old. She was born a generation past slavery.” And he spoke about what "she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can." Mrs. Cooper, through adoption by an uncle, is the grand daughter of Granville Washington, a former slave, who likely was the progeny of George Augustine Washington, my great-great grandfather. John Baker's exhaustive research took him to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which houses 11,200 items from the Washington family now stored on sixty-nine reels of microfilm. It took him to several county seats in Tennessee, to Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington, D.C. DNA testing allowed him to trace his ancestors - in some cases representing ten generations of Americans - to their home countries and peoples in Africa. However, it is sobering to realize that, as a family, his ancestors were enslaved in America longer than the 146 years they have been free!

As my maternal grandmother grew up at Wessyngton and my own infrequent, but memorable, visits to the farm from 1962-1982, I can attest to some of the stories and to the rich sense of history emanating from the place, so my opinions may be prejudiced. The book opens a window on a part of our history largely hidden from view. John Baker writes of the complex relationship between the owners of the farm and those who labored in the fields, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. While the despicable injustice of slavery is omnipresent, a special relationship over the years existed between the "white" and the "black" Washingtons. According to John Baker, the Washingtons were known for not dividing families. When "Aunt" Henny Washington, a former slave, died in 1913, John Baker writes, "Her funeral was held in the front yard at Wessyngton and hundreds of people - black and white - attended." When the last of the former slaves, Gabriel Washington, died in 1932, my great uncle, George A. Washington 2nd, spoke. Mr. Baker writes, "He told the assembly that he had known the elderly Gabriel all his life, from the time he was a young boy, and talked about the relationship that existed between both Washington families."

More than 200 slaves lived and worked at Wessyngton during the years leading to the Civil War. John Baker has been able to identify a good number. The profusion of names and their relationships is a lot for the reader to ingest; however, the proliferation of names makes one appreciate even further the monumental nature of the task undertaken Mr. Baker.

Descendants of slaves who worked in the fields and the house at Wessyngton have become, as John Baker writes, members of virtually every profession - lawyers, doctors, poets, professional athletes, government workers, movie stars and, as we know, writers. Their success gives proof to the dream all Americans have always had that, no matter the hardships one faces, the future provides hope. One can only wish that somewhere somehow those men and women, who were enslaved, kept in ignorance and clothed in indignity, may peer down on the realization of their dreams in the success and lives of their descendants.

The reader reluctantly, but uplifted, closes the finished book with its vivid portraits of an antebellum South, the difficult early days of emancipation and re-construction and the subsequent years of evolvement. One re-shelves the book with a better understanding of a people who suffered egregiously, yet who maintained through those dark days a sense of dignity, a strong sense of family, faith without bitterness and a belief in a better future. A reader cannot ask for much more.