Washington: The ‘Blackest Name’ in America

Jesse Washington, Comcast News, February 21, 2011

{snip} The 2000 U.S. Census counted 163,036 people with the surname Washington. Ninety percent of them were African-American, a far higher black percentage than for any other common name.

The story of how Washington became the “blackest name” begins with slavery and takes a sharp turn after the Civil War, when all blacks were allowed the dignity of a surname.

Even before Emancipation, many enslaved black people chose their own surnames to establish their identities. Afterward, some historians theorize, large numbers of blacks chose the name Washington in the process of asserting their freedom.

Today there are black Washingtons, like this writer, who are often identified as African-American by people they have never met. There are white Washingtons who are sometimes misidentified and have felt discrimination. There are Washingtons of both races who view the name as a special–if complicated–gift.

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In his final years on his Mount Vernon plantation, Washington said that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.”

This led to extraordinary instructions in his will that all 124 of his slaves should be freed after the death of his wife. The only exception was the slave who was at his side for the entire Revolutionary War, who was freed immediately. Washington also ordered that the younger black people be educated or taught a trade, and he provided a fund to care for the sick or aged.

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In contrast with other Founding Fathers, Chernow [Ron Chernow, author of the forthcoming “Washington A Life”] said, Washington’s will indicates “that he did have a vision of a future biracial society.”

Twelve American presidents were slaveowners. Of the eight presidents who owned slaves while in office, Washington is the only one who set all of them free.

It’s a myth that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner. Only a handful of George Washington’s hundreds of slaves did, for example, and he recorded most as having just a first name, says Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon.

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“Keep in mind that after the Civil War, many of the big planters continued to be extremely powerful figures in their regions, so there was an advantage for a freed person to keep a link to a leading white family,” says [Henry] Wiencek, author of “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”

Sometimes blacks used the surname of the owner of their oldest known ancestor as a way to maintain their identity. {snip}

Last names also could have been plucked out of thin air. Booker T. Washington, one of the most famous blacks of the post-slavery period, apparently had two of those.

He was a boy when Emancipation freed him from a Virginia plantation. After enrolling in school, he noticed other children had last names, while the only thing he had ever been called was Booker.

“So, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him, ‘Booker Washington,'” he wrote in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery.” Later in life, he found out that his mother had named him “Booker Taliaferro” at birth, so he added a middle name.

He gives no indication why the name Washington popped into his head. But George Washington, dead for only 60-odd years, had immense fame and respect at the time. His will had been widely published in pamphlet form, and it was well known that he had freed his slaves, Thompson says.

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“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. They had a very strong sense of politics and history,” says Adam Goodheart, a professor at Washington College and author of the forthcoming “1861: Civil War Awakening.”

“They were thinking about how they could be Americans,” Goodheart []Adam Goodheart, a professor at Washington College and author of the forthcoming “1861: Civil War Awakening.” says. {snip}

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But for black people who chose the name Washington, it’s rarely certain precisely why.

“It’s an assumption that the surname is tied to George,” says Tony Burroughs, an expert on black genealogy, who says 82 to 94 percent of all Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black.

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Coincidence or not, today the numbers are equally stark. Washington was listed 138th when the Census Bureau published a list of the 1,000 most common American surnames from the 2000 survey, along with ethnic data. The project was not repeated in 2010.

Ninety percent of those Washingtons, numbering 146,520, were black. Only five percent, or 8,813, were white. Three percent were two or more races, 1 percent were Hispanic, and 1 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.

Jefferson was the second-blackest name, at 75 percent African-American. There were only 16,070 Lincolns, and that number was only 14 percent black.

Jackson was 53 percent black. Williams was the 16th-blackest name, at 46 percent. But there were 1,534,042 total Williamses, including 716,704 black ones–so there were more blacks named Williams than anything else.

(The name Black was 68 percent white, meaning there were far more white Blacks than black Blacks. The name White, meanwhile, was 19 percent black.)

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One 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found that job applicants with names that sound white receive 50 percent more callbacks than applicants with “black” names.

The study responded to real employment ads with more than 5,000 fictitious resumes. Half the resumes were assigned names like Emily Walsh; the other half got names like Lakisha Washington. After calculating for the difference in resume quality, the study concluded that “a white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.”

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“I find it touching that freed blacks wanted to identify with the American tradition and the American dream,” says Chernow, the biographer. “It makes a powerful statement.”

“I have to think,” he says, “that George Washington would be very pleased that so many black people have adopted his name.”

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