How 'Washington' Became America's 'Blackest Name'

Were former slaves honoring George, embracing America?
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 21, 2011 12:55 PM CST
How 'Washington' Became America's 'Blackest Name'
Portrait of the first United States President George Washington. (1732-1799)   (Getty Images)

George Washington’s name is synonymous with America—and of the people who bear his surname today, 90% of them are African-American, according to the 2000 census. How did “Washington” become, as Jesse Washington, writing for the AP calls it, the “blackest name" in America? It could be that blacks chose the name to honor George himself, an odd prospect when you consider that the first US president, while opposed to slavery on paper, owned 124 slaves and worked them hard. But perhaps not so odd when you realize that Washington also freed all 124 of those slaves upon his and his wife’s deaths; of the eight American presidents who owned slaves while in office, he was the only one to do so.

Some of his former slaves may have chosen to take his surname as a mark of their community; others may have wanted to maintain a link to a powerful family after being freed. Or the choice could have been random: Booker T. Washington, for example, has never said why he chose his last name 60 years or so after George Washington’s death. Some may even have picked the name to signal their devotion to their new country: "There was a lot more consciousness and pride in American history among African-Americans and enslaved African-Americans than a lot of people give them credit for,” says one professor and author. But one black genealogy expert, who says 82% to 94% of Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black, disagrees. "As far as I'm concerned it's a coincidence." Click here for more from the article. (Read more George Washington stories.)

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