Washington the ‘Blackest’ Name in America

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Photo: Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. Painting by Gilbert Stuart

On the eve of George Washington's birthday, Associated Press writer Jesse Washington investigates why the founding father's surname now belongs predominantly to African-Americans. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 163,036 people with the last name Washington, 90 percent of whom were black — a far higher percentage than any other name. Writes Washington:

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.

By choosing the name, he says, Reconstruction-era blacks might have been showing pride in the nation's history, as George Washington, who died in 1799, was still hugely popular at the time. Alternately, the name could have been a way to maintain ties to plantation owners who continued to be powerful regional figures after the Civil War. Then again, "It's a myth," writes Washington, "that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner."

For instance, "only a handful" of George Washington's slaves had his name. According to Mary Thompson, a historian at Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, the president recorded most as having only a first name — and despite the abolitionist writings he left behind, he owned hundreds of slaves. "Washington was leading this schizoid life," says biographer Ron Chernow. "In theory and on paper he was opposed to slavery, but he was still zealously tracking and seeking to recover his slaves who escaped." (Martha Washington's maid, Oney Judge, ran away while the family was living in Philadelphia. Washington abused his presidential powers by asking the Treasury Department to kidnap Judge from her new life in New Hampshire, says Chernow, but the plot failed.)

In the end, any assumption that the name is tied to George may be a faulty one. "There is no direct evidence," says Tony Burroughs, an expert on black genealogy. "As far as I'm concerned it's a coincidence."

But the coincidence is a marked one. According to Jesse Washington, the name is so heavily African-American that many present-day Washingtons are "surprised to learn" that white Washingtons exist, having never met one. In 2000, only 5 percent (8,813) of Washingtons in the U.S. were white. (The surname study was not repeated in the 2010 Census.) By comparison, Williams was the sixteenth "blackest" name, at 46 percent black, even though the name is much more popular, and there were 716,704 black Williamses overall.

Washington: The 'Blackest Name' In America [AP via HuffPo]