Interviewing Ms. Ruth Washington

It is my pleasure to share with you my interview with Ms. Ruth Washington, the descendant of a Civil War Hero, and former slave, John M. Washington, whose newly published civil war narrative is the subject of two recent books: first, David Blight’s A Slave No More, and second Crandall Shifflett’s John Washington’s Civil War which focuses exclusively on John M. Washington’s life, while Blight’s book looks at two narratives, one by Washington and the other by Wallace Turnage. Ms. Ruth Washington is a member of the church that my parents attend, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Tampa, Florida, and I was most inspired by reading Shifflett’s work. I said to Ms. Washington in a personal note that reading about the lives of her great grandmother Sarah and her great great grandmother Molly was interesting, and reminded me of how Paul encouraged Timothy in II Timothy chapter 1, verse 5 to think about his grandmother Lois and his mother Lois in order to be inspired. While the entire narrative of just Washington’s life presented by Shifflett is inspiring, the details of Sarah and Molly’s life presented by Blight is as interesting, particularly because of their acts of defiance of slavery, which is part of a much longer, stronger, extensive narrative of the myriad ways that blacks defied their own enslavement. This duty of remembering one’s ancestors in order to encourage oneself has been highly demonized by a few racist, religious Europeans as “idol worship.” Too often, racist Europeans who claim to be Christian too often exaggerate the African tradition of respecting one’s ancestors as idol worship and really do a disservice during the colonization of African peoples, by cutting them off from their heritage. I recently got into a very dynamic yet important confrontation with two members of Epiphany Fellowship Church in Philadelphia because they suggested that one should not remember one’s ancestors, but just call on Jesus alone. That is wrong. We can call on, or remember our ancestors, for encouragement as Paul shows us. I think these two members were so preoccupied with idol worship that they essentially forgot their ancestors and fell into the trap of considering it “idol worship.” I did tell them that we should not be getting encouragement from all ancestors, as some of them just can’t provide such encouragement, but that we should not ignore them altogether. There are always lessons to learn from other peoples’ lives. One of these members suggested I be more careful when I say “call upon,” as though it is dangerous to call upon your ancestors and not call upon Jesus. That, I agree with. I do need to be more careful about that. However we can always use the work of our ancestors as encouragement, and we can call upon them without necessarily excluding Jesus Christ, whom we can call upon at all times. This is what John Washington teaches and you see how this legacy of spiritual life was passed to his son and his granddaughter, Ms. Ruth Washington. It is my pleasure to share this interview with you.
Interview with Ruth Washington on May 8, 2008, by Rhone Fraser
My personal footnotes are in italics and in square brackets. Numbers in parentheses are page numbers in Crandall Shifflett’s text John Washington’s Civil War or David Blight’s A Slave No More.

FRASER: In 2007, David Blight wrote A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom. One of these stories in this book A Slave No More, is that of John Washington. In 2008, Virginia Tech University Professor of History Crandall Shifflett wrote the book John Washington’s Civil War. It is my pleasure to speak with the granddaughter of John Washington, Ms. Ruth Washington who happens to attend the church of my parents in Tampa, Florida, St. Mark’s Episcopal. This afternoon it is my pleasure to talk with Ms. Ruth Washington about her grandfather, John Washington. Ms. Washington, thank you for joining me.

WASHINGTON: My pleasure.

FRASER: My first question is to ask you to describe to our listeners [and readers] the children of John Washington and how you fit into his narrative.

WASHINGTON: Well my father was named after John Washington, a slave, about whom the book A Slave No More is written. I am the youngest of five girls that were born to one of the sons of John Washington. My father was John Washington, Jr. I am the youngest and the only survivor. There were two older sisters who were…stillborn but only three of us survived. And as I say, I am the last survivor. The other two sisters, who were older, have both been deceased for a number of years. I heard about the book A Slave No More, through my niece who also lives here in Tampa. She was contacted by one of the researchers of Dr. David Blight who is the author of the book A Slave No More. This young lady, her name is Christine McKay [Blight’s researcher] called from the Philadelphia area, I believe and contacted my niece to find out if she was a relative of a person named John Washington. And my niece said ‘yes I am. I would be his great granddaughter. But there is someone here in Tampa who is even closer in relationship and that is my Aunt Ruthie.’ And so she gave this lady my phone number and the lady called and that’s how we were located. They had been looking for a number of years trying to research relatives of the slave John M. Washington and they found out that there were some survivors and they tried very hard to locate us.

FRASER: I’m wondering, how’d they contact…[your niece, Barbara Anne Hinksman] in Tampa?

WASHINGTON: My niece Barbara was located through an obituary that Mrs. McKay saw in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, newspaper. She had heard that there might be a connection of a person [with the] last name of Martin, who would have been a connection to John Washington the slave. So she just happened to look in a newspaper and saw an obituary of a lady who had passed away. Her name was Harriet Martin Lampkin. So Mrs. McKay said that this name Martin looks a little familiar, let me look at the obituary, she read the obituary and she saw the name of my niece, Barbara Anne Hinksman. She had also in her research heard about Hinksman and she said that is such a strange name, I will try to locate her. My name also was in the obituary, Ruth Washington. But she wanted to contact Hinksman because that was the more interesting name. Washington could have been a common name, but Hinksman she wanted to investigate. That’s how she called my niece. And then my niece referred her through to me who was also in the obituary, Ruth Washington. And that’s how after a number of years, of doing research, Dr. Blight and his research team were able to locate the only survivors of John M. Washington, a slave.

FRASER: Thank you. In this new work by Crandall Shifflett, he said that he found out about John Washington while working in the collections of the Library of Congress on Civil War Fredericksburg. And he said that he came across an index entry on John Washington, Memorys of the Past. And basically, he goes through an in-depth look at just his life. He provides the text that Blight also provides…and [after reading both analyses of texts by Blight and Shifflett] Crandall Shifflett, I believe compared to David Blight… seems to have more emphasis on the perspective of the slave. And I’m not saying that Blight ignores this or Blight belittles this but Crandall Shifflett has an expressed and stated interest in trying to capture as much as possible the perspective of the slave. In the preface of this text he says “the slave angle of vision, sometimes makes familiar historical questions appear simplistic, irrelevant, or condescending” (xiii-xiv). One of the questions that I think Blight brings up is the issue of memory. How we remember things, and how bias can appear in memory, and not just by the slaveholder in trying to present slavery as overall a benevolent institution, but also how memory from the slave’s perspective can kind of caricature the slaveholder. However Shifflett says the slave’s angle of vision sometimes makes familiar historical questions that I think personally Blight asks, makes seem simplistic, condescending, or irrelevant, especially when it comes to memory. But I must say, upon reading both narratives of John Washington, from Blight and from Shifflett—Blight [seems to] challenge more of how its remembered and Shifflett [seems to] challenge more of how much of the slave’s perspective we’re getting [which I personally think is the most important question when reading a nineteenth century slave narrative]. Both have different challenges. Just before Washington’s actual text where we get Memorys of the Past, this is what Professor Shifflett says about Washington: “John Washington is at the center of this book. Contemporary diaries, local histories, public records, manuscript collections, and scholarly works guide the annotations that I write and provide supporting evidence for Washington’s recollections. I have tried chosen titles [for chapters 6-11, as they are not named, unlike the first five chapters] based upon a central theme or event covered in each and my own sense of what words Washington might have used to capture the essence of this part of his life” (xxxiii)…What is striking in the first chapter of Washington’s memoir is the similar observation that John Washington makes to what Frederick Douglass makes. Frederick Douglass has a very popular narrative that is antebellum, before the Civil War, however John Washington’s is critically important because [it takes place] before, during and after the Civil War. Basically on page 3 of Memorys of the Past, Washington describes a corn shucking and he says: “A corn shucking is always a most lively time among the slaves. They would come from miles around to join in singing, shouting and yelling as only a Negro can yell for a good supply of Bad Whiskey, corn Bread, and Bacon and cabbage” (3). Right at that line, Crandall Shifflett has a footnote. And in that footnote, he said: “Washington reveals that he is not unaware that masters use these occasions such as corn shucking to curry favor of the slaves. Likewise, Douglass contended that slaveholders used whiskey…to keep the slaves from thinking about earning money through independent industry lest they do so in hopes of buying their freedom—or running away”(9). Then Shifflett later says: “Masters deceived themselves when they encourage their slaves to play the happy darkie and then interpreted their singing and dancing as signs of satisfaction with their masters and their lives as slaves” (9). And then finally he writes: “from the slaves’ point of view, in Washington’s recollections, these were celebrations of community and freedom despite the transparency of the owners’ intentions” (10). And so like Douglass, he could see through the Master’s intention even in their use of religion, and just after I talk about what Washington says about religion, seeing that my parents and myself met you in the church and religion is a very important question that will lead me to my second question, but your grandfather has a very striking phrase to me about religion. He says: “Now the result of all this compulsory church attending was just the reverse of what was desired” (12). And here he’s referring to how his female master, Catherine Ware…forced him to attend church.

WASHINGTON: He was young at that point, he was not even in his teens. And maybe early teens when he was forced to go to church. Because he mentioned that he would rather have been swimming and down at the water hole than to go to church on many occasions. But he had to go because he was forced by his mistress to attend church. And at that point he had no deep feeling for religion. He was young and I guess he thought that there were other things that were more important at that time, because of his age. I remember him saying that in order to prove to his mistress that he had been at church, he would just stand outside of the church area and listen and get the substance of what was going on, and then he would run to the watering hole and swim. Then he would report back to his mistress about what had happened simply because he was eavesdropping. In other words, he really did not attend the service. That was at a young age. That was how he felt about the church at that time. But subsequently later on, as he grew and matured, he did have a feeling for religion. Because attended, it was a Baptist church, I believe, and he became a clerk of the church which shows that he had a great interest in religion at that point. So his un-interest was when he was a youngster, but he did mature into a religious man.

FRASER: Yes, he was clerk of the African Baptist Church.

WASHINGTON: Yes, and subsequently my father, during his lifetime, was clerk of his church in Jersey City, so he inherited that trait I guess from his father and did a very, very fine job. I remember seeing this big ledger that he used to write in, the events of the church, and the church history and whatever recordings he had to make as a clerk, in this big ledger that he kept in his desk, so my father inherited that trait from his father and they were both religious men.

FRASER: And if I may say, you seemed to have inherited that trait from your father.

WASHINGTON: Oh, definitely. As a family, as I say, there were three of us girls. I was the youngest. It was then my mother and my father. And we all attended the Episcopal Church in Jersey City where we lived. My oldest sister was very musically inclined. She was the church organist. My father was a great tenor. He had a beautiful voice. And he was the lead tenor in the choir. My mother was alto. My sister and I were both sopranos. And so we grew up in the Episcopal Church, and as church persons, my family living today, most of them are Christians who attend churches. Not all Episcopalians, but they do attend.
FRASER: However, you like your father, like John Washington (Senior) attended the Episcopal Church.

WASHINGTON: Yes, I was born, raised, and still am an Episcopalian. Although, as I said, my grandfather turned to the Baptist church when he matured. But my family, we were all Episcopalians.

FRASER: It is striking to me how that experience he had with Catherine Ware where he would eavesdrop on the church and then report to her without exactly attending [laughing together].

WASHINGTON: That was in a portion of A Slave No More. I’m using the term eavesdrop, but he [Blight] didn’t use that term. He just said he would stand outside and listen. But I’m using the term of eavesdropping.

FRASER: Right, because that’s technically…

WASHINGTON: That’s exactly what it was, but he [John Washington] probably didn’t know, or had not heard of that word to use in his memoir.

FRASER: And Shifflett didn’t seem to use that in his text, and so we get the importance of that in Blight’s text. What Shifflett does say, and he really articulates what Washington does with religion more than Blight, he says: “slaves rejected the owners’ narrow version of Christianity and its one-dimensional message of obedience and docility. Instead, they blended their own cultural heritage of African religion with conventional beliefs and what might be called ‘emancipation [or liberation] theology’”(14). So it seemed like Shifflett just interprets what Washington did with religion instead of what many people might do, which is just give it up. Emancipation Theology. I could not help but think of the recent media uproar right now over Jeremiah Wright and his statements that have to do with what he calls a liberation theology. And I’m wondering if what he believes…of course we live in a very different time period, it’s the post-1980s era, but I’m wondering how similar Jeremiah Wright’s theology would be to John Washington’s.

WASHINGTON: I have not followed Jeremiah Wright too strongly because I am not an Obama supporter. But I know there’s been a controversy between him and Obama. But I have not followed it through to be able to discuss in detail about what remarks were made…I’m a Hillary person so I, as I say, I’ve not followed that through on Jeremiah Wright. So I really can’t speak intelligently on the remark that he has made. But I’ll have to go on from there.

FRASER: Just what is important is how they saw Christianity in a different way. The third chapter is titled Left Alone, and this is the separation part, where he’s separated from his mother who was sold off to R.H. Phillips and about this John Washington writes: “I slept in the white people’s house and [she, his mother] laid down on my Bed by me and begged me for her own sake, try and be a good boy, Say my prayers every Night, remember all she had tried to teach me, and always think of her.” Could you talk about this?

WASHINGTON: I remember reading that in the memoirs. I certainly do. And he said ‘who is going to do that [lay beside him]?’ After they had to separate. He had to separate from his mother and siblings. And it was very very tragic for him to go through such a period. I do remember reading about that. All of this comes to me as such surprise because I knew nothing about this grandfather until reading David Blight’s biography. I just was not aware of all of this and this was so enlightening to me.

FRASER: In the next chapter, Washington writes: “having never had a regular course of Spelling taught me, I am in consequence very defficent,” (18) deficient is spelled d-e-f-f-i-c-e-n-t…

WASHINGTON: Oh yes, he misspelled many words. He wrote phonetically, he wrote according to how the alphabet sounded to him.

FRASER: And Shifflett has a very sympathetic footnote, when Washington ends his sentence saying “in every branch of a common and education” (18), Shifflett has a footnote right after that that says: “Washington’s handwriting, choice of words, and syntax are really quite remarkable, and he is being overly critical of himself” (18). Especially considering his situation, his status, and how he took the initiative to learn, for instance, from the friends of William Ware. He says that they taught him how to write. He took that initiative. Did you have that same initiative? Was education stressed among your family?

WASHINGTON: The initiative to write?

FRASER: Yes.

WASHINGTON: Oh yes, indeed. It has been handed down through generations. My older sister who passed at the age of fifty four, was a teacher. She had her master’s in music education. And she composed many wonderful speeches. She was a good speechwriter and she delivered very well. And I have a presentation that I’m going to make—this is just a personal aside. I told you that David Blight is coming to Tampa next week to appear in St. Petersburg, and he mentioned that we might be asked to have a few words to say. So I am going to present an article, its really a poem, that my niece, the same Barbara Anne Hinksman had composed years ago before she ever thought anything about her [great] grandfather. And the writings would be somewhat similar, about the same period of the year, Easter. My grandfather mentioned in the book [Memorys of the Past] about Good Friday. It was a Good Friday where I believe he was to move on, I’ve forgotten just what…something was happening good on that Good Friday [on page 45 of Shifflett, Washington writes: “April 18th 1862, Was ‘Good-Friday,’* the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun shining brightly and every thin unusually quite [sic]. the Hotel was crowded with boarders who was Seated at breakfast a rumor had been circulated amoung them that the Yankees Was advancing, but nobody seemed to believe it, until Every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon.” Shifflett writes in a footnote about this point that “Washington correctly recalls the date when Union forces arrived on Stafford Hills for the first occupation of Fredericksburg, which lasted from 18 April [Good Friday; Good for slaves who saw the Union Army as rescuers in a sense] to 31 August 1862. Some historians give a date for the troops’ arrival several days later, but other first-hand accounts support Washington’s memory” (51)]. My niece’s poem is about Easter which is two days later. So I’m going to surprise, she doesn’t know anything about this, but she’ll be surprised to hear her poetry read at the group we appear before next week. So writings have gone down the way. Nothing public, but just on a small scale I would say, intimate scale, before groups. But nothing public, to that degree. But my father [John M. Washington, Jr.] was a fine writer. He liked to write and so that’s passed down through generations.

FRASER: And you also said that you noticed your father writing in a ledger when he was a clerk in the church.

WASHINGTON: Yes. The church ledger, this big ledger. He was a church clerk. He had a fancy handwriting very distinct handwriting. It was more like a drawing, the formation of letters, and he used to write in this ledger and he enjoyed doing it [Here I meant to ask if her father’s handwriting is seen in the family Bible, which is a family heirloom that Ms. Washington showed me when I visited her home in January 2008].

FRASER: We also get John Washington’s actual handwriting in Blight’s book. If you look in the margins [behind the book flaps] we have the actual transcript of what Blight first saw in Memorys of the Past and we also see ornate handwriting.

WASHINGTON: He gave me original copies also of the original writings in my grandfather’s handwriting and how he and his staff could decipher some of the words was remarkable because the spelling was so remote from actually what the word should be, that they had to really do a little thinking about what the word should be…[if it was] written in correct form.

FRASER: So we get already that not only writing is important but spiritual life is important. Later on, in chapter five he talks about—or chapter six—he mentions that he was concerned about the salvation of his soul. And in about the 25th of May he writes: “I was converted and found the Saviour precious to my Soul, and heavenly Joyes Manefested, and began to be felt at that time,” this is [around] 1855, when he is just about fifteen [or] in his late teens, “Still burning like coals: fanned by the breeze…and is to this day the precious assurance of my life. God grant me more faith and a better understanding, for these things let rocks and hills their lasting Silance break” (29), and then he said later “I became a close reader of the Bible. And wrote many comments on different Chapters which has been lost” (29). Once again, we go back to the writing that was important. You said he was a writer. And he articulated, I guess, his faith through his writing. Later on he says, “but to me the change was very agreeable indeed all Sunday and night restrictions were removed except what was very agreeable indeed all Sunday and night restriction was removed except what was really necessary. He’s talking about the work he had to do for Mr. Ware until August of 1869, and then what happened when he had to live with, when he was working on his own, how the time that he could spend writing was reduced. Chapter seven was when he started talking about the war but before we get there I just wanted to note how his faith was important to him. When we talk about themes in John Washington’s life, one of them is writing. Another that we get from Blight and Shifflett is the river.

WASHINGTON: The Rappahannock River.

FRASER: Yes. And how that represented not only a passage into freedom, when he’s working with the Union and when he has to cross the river to escape the Confederate forces, but also it’s the same river in which he was baptized [which for him, represented a passage into salvation]. Have you visited that area?

WASHINGTON: Yes. My niece, Barbara Anne was not able to make the trip but her daughter Maureen Ramos, who would be the great great granddaughter of John Washington, and I were invited to the city of Fredericksburg last November by Dr. Blight. We were guests of the city, you might say. We had a tour of the areas that my grandfather lived in and we walked the ground that he walked on, and were taken to the Rappahannock River, and its not that wide. You could cross it easily. I doubt if its very deep. But I think they could swim in it, so its deep enough for swimming. But it is not a wide river, it could be longer because we couldn’t see the end of it but we could see from one bank to the other, across to the other bank. And we stood on the bank of the Rappahannock and the tour guide told us that was about where John Washington, my grandfather, crossed, at about that point. And we visited two of the places where he lived, we visited the Farmer’s Bank [which Washington mentions in his memoir and which Shifflett includes in his illustration of downtown Fredericksburg on page 15] where he worked and lived in the upper quarters. The owner of the bank lived in the upper quarters. And there were rooms designated to each side and nice sized rooms, where the tourists said my grandfather, those were his quarters. And so we visited the City Hall where they had the picture of my grandfather on the wall. And they really honor him in Fredericksburg. And we visited the house. A brick built house, a small house that a man had just purchased and he’s going to use as a storing space for some of his memoirs and different things that he wanted to show for the public. And so we had quite a nice visit, we spent the night in Fredericksburg, and we were on the front page of the next day’s paper. And so we, my grandniece and I, had a fine visit, a very fine visit to the areas where my grandfather once lived.

FRASER: In Shifflett’s text he has a map of the Rappahannock along with the city. It’s like a city map. He has landmarks that Washington mentions in his memoir and I’d like you to tell me [if] you were able to see any of these [landmarks]: the African Baptist Church?

WASHINGTON: Yes, we stood outside of that church. And the tour included that church. And he pointed the church out to us, yes he did.

FRASER: Ficklin’s mill? [Washington mentions this mill in his eighth chapter. Shifflett writes that J.B. Ficklin, the mill’s probable owner, was a worshipper at the same St. George’s Episcopal Church that John Washington writes that Catherine Taliaferro made him attend paid a rental fee of $450 for a pew in this church (24).]

WASHINGTON: Same street, a narrow street, and that’s where his church was located.

FRASER: And his mother’s house? Did you get to see where Sarah Washington [or Ware] lived?

WASHINGTON: This brick house that I mentioned, that the man has just purchased. I’m not sure if that was the house where his mother Sarah was. I think it must have been because we went inside and it was very crudely built inside, it had an open fireplace where a big cauldron hung and that’s where they cooked, in their big pots. Mother would make stew and you could see the open fireplace, they didn’t have a stove, and then there was a ladder, a wooden ladder that would lead upstairs to an upstairs attic where they would use as a bedroom area. We didn’t climb the ladder because it had to railings and we wouldn’t dare. But we could peek up and see where the ladder, [we]would see the area, a bit of the attic. And that was behind, that was a small house adjacent to the owner’s house. I guess that was the Ware, where Thomas Ware, I believe, it must have been his home. That was a larger area. But the small area is where my grandfather and his family lived at that time. Very crude inside, no wallpapers, just brick. You could see the brick. And it was something to see, it really was. Very historic.

FRASER: He says later in the next chapter, called The War Comes, that when he returns when the Union Army’s approaching Fredericksburg, and he goes to his previous master, the Taliaferros, he writes: “my master was well satisfied at my apparent disposition” but before then its very interesting to hear what he writes (39). The proprietors of the Shakespeare, (which is he worked at the time) now told me the house would have to be closed very soon in consequence of the approach of the near Yankees and that I would have to go to Saulsbury, North Carolina to wait on Captain Payton for the balance of the year. He later says, “When I was told that I would have to go to Saulsbery I became greatly alarmed and began to fear that the object in Sending me down there, Was to be done to get me out of the reach of the Yankees. and I Secretly resolved not to go But I made them believe I was Most anxious to go” (39).

WASHINGTON: Yes, he told them that, but within himself, he knew that he was not going.

FRASER: [Washington later says:] “In fact I made them beleive I was terebeley afred of the Yankees, any Way. My Master was well satisfied at My appearant disposition and told Me I was quite Right, for if the Yankees were to catch me they would Send me to Cuba or cut my hands off or otherwise Maltreat Me. I of course pretended to believe all they said but knew they were lieing all the while” (39).

WASHINGTON: Yes, he did, because he knew that he was going to try to get to the Yankees himself. So he told a little white lie.

FRASER: And then Shifflett says about this, “it was common for masters, especially in areas close to the front lines, to try and frighten slaves into loyalty by spreading rumors about how horribly the Yankees treated captured slaves. Many slaves did believe that Union soldiers were “devils” come to devour them and their children. Yet many other slaves routinely pretended to believe what whites told them, an attitude historians have labeled ‘wearing masks.’ It is evident from Washington’s experience,” Shifflett writes, “that some enslaved people had their own idea of what the arrival of the Union army meant for them. Ironically it was southern whites’ accusations against northerners that gave many slaves the sense that the U.S. Army was a beacon of liberty for them before U.S. officials decided to use the threat of emancipation as a war measure” (43-44). So we see already that [some] slaves saw the coming Union troops as an opportunity for freedom.

WASHINGTON: Yes, well he knew that he was going to try to get to the Yankees. Now he didn’t know quite how he would be received. He didn’t know when he crossed the Rappahannock whether he’d be received as a runaway and shot, or if they’d receive him cordially. So that was the risk that he took but he was willing to take that risk. And I believe one factor that helped my grandfather go as far as he did with his freedom and not be as ill treated as some of the slaves was the fact that he was so fair complexioned, that they treated him, they treated him differently. That has been something that I have just learned about slavery. Because when I was raised in New Jersey, we were taught in school that slavery was so ugly that it demeans the individual. They were beaten, they were raped, they were so mistreated. They were ill-fed, they were ill-clothed. We had a terrible, terrible picture in our school system of what slavery was. The book written by Dr. Blight about my grandfather, reveals that my grandfather was not as subject to that kind of treatment as a lot of the slaves were. So it gave me a different outlook on what slavery was. Slavery was, according to your appearance, your color, your skin color, your owner treated you differently. There was a racial problem there as far as the color of your skin [was concerned]. My grandfather could pass for a Caucasian. And he was treated more humanely as a result of that. Now when he decided to cross the Rappahannock, he realized that he was going to be seeing a lot of Caucasian soldiers. And being of the same complexion, I think is what encouraged him to take that risk because when he approached them, as they asked him who he was, he said ‘I’m a slave.’ I’m John M. Washington, a slave. I may not be quoting exactly, but this is the substance. And one person said “Are you a slave?” and he [John Washington] said “yes sir, yes sir, I am a slave,” which means they doubted him because he did not look like a slave…

FRASER: He was lighter than what they would expect…

WASHINGTON: Yes, and so that is one feature that enabled my grandfather to succeed as he did in his freedom. Had he looked like a slave [with a darker complexion] they may have shot him on the spot. So he took that chance and used his appearance as a plus in making that crossing of the Rappahannock River, and hoping that, they will treat me [John Washington] fairly, and they did. They did.

FRASER: That’s right. Because in the next chapter eight, he writes that Shifflett names First Night of Freedom, Washington writes: “After we had landed on the other Side,” just like you said Ms. Washington, “a large crowd of the Soilders off duty, gathered around us and asked us all kinds of questions in reference to the Whereabouts of the ‘Rebels’ (those are the Confederates). I had stuffed My pockets full of Rebel Newspapers and, I distributed them around as far as they would go greatly to the delight of the Men, and by this act Won their good opinions right away” (48). So we see how Washington, not only his skin color helped him, but his distributing the Rebel newspapers. Very intelligent.

WASHINGTON: Yes, he certainly did. His pockets were stuffed. You’re absolutely right.

FRASER: Very intelligent.

WASHINGTON: He became an ally to the Yankee army, he certainly did. And an asset. And he was able to tell them things they [the Union army] wanted to know about the enemy so that’s the way it works.

FRASER: And he put down their guard by distributing the newspapers. If he didn’t have them, like you said, he just might have been shot on the spot.

WASHINGTON: He had enough intelligence to know that at some point those papers might come in handy. And to give evidence that would be needed so he had the presence of mind to say, ‘well I’ll just stuff these in my pocket.’ So he was a wise man.

FRASER: And apparently knew the power of the written word, being a writer himself. And knowing how to not only write, but understand writing in order to continue his writing. He knew that they knew the power of the written word and presented that power that the Union used to know where the Confederates were. He later says in that chapter: “I now ascertained that I had been brought along to act as a guide in identifying the prominent Rebels of the Town [this is Fredericksburg], and after they had crossed the Rappahannock River and Entered the Town was proceeded directly to the Post-Office, then kept by one R.T. Thom [R.T. Throm]” (51). So he basically proceeds to tell the Union soldiers where the powerful, prominent people, Confederates of Fredericksburg, were.

WASHINGTON: Yes, he did.

FRASER: One of Shifflett’s interesting footnotes in this chapter is when he describes his old mistress, Catherine Taliaferro who is visibly packing to leave her residence because the Union soldiers are arriving. Shifflett writes: “This extraordinary scene speaks volumes about the two different worlds that slaves and owners occupied. One of the first concerns of slaveowners faced with imminent invasion was property. Typically silver and slaves. Notice,” Shifflett writes, “as Washington does, that Taliaferro reminds Washington of his status as a child in her care and how she attempts to scare him into her control” (55). This is when she’s telling him ‘you may want to avoid the Union presence because they might be as much harm to you as they are to me, but he, just like everything else [not everything else, a lot of other things] just reads that differently, reads the Union presence much much differently. He later works for Rufus King, and I think the final chapter…or the second to last chapter actually is called “On the Move with the Union Army,” once again this [chapter] was named by Shifflett [who] titled chapters six through ten, and he later works with the [Union] as a mess hall cook and after he is settled with them, as you say—having his lighter skin color be an advantage, but also having his proof that he will work for the Union army—Shifflett writes about his time with the Union Army: “Washington’s account gives ample evidence that as the Union Army advances in the South, slaves and their families took the opportunity to escape behind Union lines. The men often attempted to join the military forces, while the women and children followed along as ‘contraband of war’”(70). So we see how his work has helped increase the presence of the Union and have that be a method through which then slaves in the Confederacy could escape to their freedom. The final chapter is a chapter called Unwelcome Home. In it, he talks about his time specifically with the Union Army: “they [Confederates] regarding me in the light of a Spy or traitor to their cause” (74). This is when he notices [there’s] Confederates looking at him during one of the battles. He writes: “I had intended now to Stay at home and make a living and after a While, perhaps, to go North Some where, When My Wife Would possible be able to go With me,” and he does in fact do that (74).

WASHINGTON: And his mother also joins. He was able to get his mother away from slavery. I think David Blight said he does not know exactly how he arranged that but somehow or another my grandfather did arrange to get his mother free, and his sisters, siblings, I believe. Because they had not seen each other in a length of time, and he was able to show them their freedom, help them with their freedom, also.

FRASER: And this issue of finding freedom, not only for one’s self, but for one’s relatives is a theme not only in John Washington, but also in his mother Sarah and John Washington’s grandmother Molly. David Blight writes that Molly and Sarah who had been runaways, provided a deep layer of silent inheritance embedded in his, John’s spirit if not, his memory [David Blight writes in A Slave No More of John Washington that “his maternal grandmother was a slave named Molly who was born in the late 1790s and owned by Thomas Ware [whose family also owned his mother Sarah]. Molly, called “my Negro woman,” is acknowledged for her “faithful service” in Ware’s 1820 will, in which he bequeathed her and her children (valued at $600) to his wife, Catherine (who would eventually be John’s owner). By 1825 Ware’s estate inventory lists Molly and four children; John’s mother, Sarah, was the oldest at age eight. Molly would have another four children by the 1830s. In June of 1829 this strong-willed mother misbehaved (perhaps running away) in such a manner that Catherine Ware arranged with a punishment house to execute a “warrant against Molly and for whipping her by contract $1.34. Perhaps Molly’s defiance was sparked because her sister, Alice had just been sold away for $350. We can only imagine the sorrow and scars in Molly’s psyche, a woman whose life was spend nursing white children as well as her own and serving the extended Ware family. But she would live to join her grandson on their flight to freedom in 1862. She died a free woman hear her daughter, grandson, and great grandchildren…Sarah Tucker, John’s mother was likely born in January 1817. Who the men fathering all these children were remains a researcher’s mystery. Sarah probably also had a white father; she is described in various documents as being “bright mulatto” and short in height…On February 19, 1841, Thomas R. Ware, Jr. advertised in a Fredericksburg newspaper for a “NEGRO WOMAN SARAH.” She is described as ‘about 20 years of age, a bright Mulatto, and rather under the common size.” Clearly she had fled some distance and for some length of time, because the notice offered a twenty-dollar reward if Sarah was captured “more than 20 miles from this place.” But she [like Molly and her son John] was surely a woman of unusual intelligence and resourcefulness if she managed to escape and remain on her own for a period of time” (Blight 18-21). These accounts by Blight provide rich evidence for what he calls a deep layer of silent inheritance that is embedded in John’s memory and spirit.] Shifflett also reminds us of this when he tells of Washington’s defiance to slavery, the different ways [from the different interpretations of: the corn shucking gatherings, faith, and the presence of the Union Army] that he thinks about it, but also the ways that we’ve seen that John rescues his wife and [how he] is able to bring his relatives to the D.C. area. I remember in our first interview I talked to you about the rebellious nature of certain slaves when it came to having their relatives sold. You know, after relatives had been sold from them, they would rebel by going away and Blight writes of an account where Molly, John Washington’s grandmother was whipped because her close relatives were sold off [because she ran away, probably because she was separated from family members who were sold off].

WASHINGTON: Yes, she was whipped. They paid a dollar and some sense, I believe the quote was to have someone whip her. Yes, she was.

FRASER: This last question I’d like to ask you, and I hope we can meditate for about the next ten minutes on it, is [the] questions: what do you think future generations should learn of this story of John Washington?

WASHINGTON: Well, I guess one thing would be determination. The belief in what you’re doing is whole substance, and you have to work very hard in the direction in which you want your life to go. If you’re living in substandard conditions, there should be no stopping you in obtaining, in trying to obtain better circumstances, conditions, benefits. Life, in general, can be improved if you put a mind to it, and use every ounce of your intelligence to gain ground upon which you would be more proud than what you are at the time of consideration. So I think youngsters today should realize, to attain a future, they have to concentrate and be diligent in their concentration and endeavors to gain whatever their aim is in life. That would be the only way I could put it into words at this point.

FRASER: Yes. Diligence, and…

WASHINGTON: Determination. Fortitude. Education, of course. Belief. Religious belief plays a great part, I do believe, in helping you attain your goals. You must believe in some one, some power greater than yourself. And that will help, I do believe.

FRASER: This is what John Washington’s mother did in telling him to read the Bible when he was a young boy. [And that belief in the Bible is represented I believe by what Ms. Washington showed me in their family heirloom, which is a family bible that might include, the distinctive handwriting of her father John M. Washington, Jr.]

WASHINGTON: And it has played such an important part in my family’s life: my son, my relatives, my siblings, although they were all deceased, they had a belief that there was a superpower, and God is a superpower. And it helped in their short lives to make them know that they were doing the best they could, and would attain their final goals.

FRASER: And that comes out through education. Education is that groundwork. Its hard to get to that determination, that level of high literacy that John Washington had without being determined, and making sure that your experience is told. Ms. Washington I thank you so much for your time.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.