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The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's… (edition 2009)

by John F Baker

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Member:mcbridelw
Title:The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom
Authors:John F Baker
Info:Atria Books (2009), Hardcover, 432 pages
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The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom by John F Baker

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Indeed this is some fine work, what I call a book of many historical books condensed and framed around descendants of Washington and Wessyngton.

WoW!

Moreso than the collection of historical accounts and stats, and the abundance of photos to support the work (astounding!), but it is the presentation that wins this work over. It's as if, and I'm almost sure the author did, painstakingly and meticulously pieced together the research done, letter by letter.

I honestly stopped trying to figure out who was related to who; when, where and how...but instead watched how America unfolded clear to present day, right before my eyes. It hardly will take DNA to see the Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation isn't just about them. It's about All of Us!

Most times I fear picking up books like this one, thinking I'm going to get the lengthy hog-tied switch, but I took my chances, similar to the way the author was lured by the photo on the cover...to inspect further. I'm glad I did. Mr. Baker presented a truth I can live with, though too, I clearly see now why this part of history is not one many jump up and down to talk, or write about.

A Phenomenal Read. ( )
  OEBooks | Jul 27, 2010 |
In 1796 Joseph Washington, Jr., thought (wrongly) by his descendants to be a close cousin of the first President, established Wessyngton Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. It grew into America's largest tobacco farm, and the Washington family became the wealthy owners of nearly 300 slaves. The history of those slaves is the primary focus of this book, written by the great-great-grandson of Emanuel Washington, known as "Uncle Man", the plantation cook. The author had two strokes of fortune: The white Washingtons left a treasure trove of family and business records, many of which naturally included information about their human chattels, and the black Washingtons had a knack for longevity, so that, when young John Baker began his researches nearly 40 years ago, he could record memories that went back almost to the era of slavery itself. His great-uncle, Bob Washington, as a boy had known Uncle Man. Other relatives could recount his cooking wizardry and fondness for telling ghost stories.

The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation is at heart a family chronicle, a product of the genealogy boom, and suffers some of the weaknesses of that genre, such as a tendency to record miscellaneous facts of no interest to anyone not on the family tree. The overall quality is, however, very high, and the best chapters, on the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, would do credit to a professional historian. As it approaches the present, the narrative grows diffuse. The 20th Century is so hazy that it might as well have been omitted. This reader would gladly have seen instead more details of Mr. Baker's DNA testing of his relatives.

Wessyngton and its two satellite plantations (one nearby, the other in Kentucky) don't fit the stereotypical image of the ante bellum South. The slaves were relatively well treated. Families were kept intact, there was minimal risk of being sold (only two sales are known during the entire period), sexual mistreatment appears to have been rare, and slaves could even earn money by tending their own tobacco plots or hiring out their labor on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. If slavery was tolerable anywhere, it was in enlightened enclaves like Wessyngton. In point of fact, it was not tolerated. The Wessyngton slaves hated the system and yearned to be free. Their benevolent Washington owners had to put up with malingering, escape attempts, insubordination and petty thievery, just like their callous counterparts in the Deep South. When the Union army invaded Tennessee, trusted field hands ran off to join it.

Ironically, it is not at all clear, in the case of Wessyngton at least, that slavery, with its burden of discontented labor, was in the best economic interest of the slave owners. After the Civil War, when Wessyngton was worked by free labor, the white Washingtons prospered as never before, easily recouping their immense wartime losses.

Of great interest is the picture of the post-war black Washingtons. We read about how former slaves bought farms, set up businesses, founded churches and schools, and demanded that their children get educations. There were obstacles to success: anti-black terrorism during Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws afterward. But failure was neither inevitable nor commonplace. Again, Wessyngton was not the whole South, but this slice of experience shows how simplistic it is to assume that the legacy of slavery pre-programmed black Americans for underclass status.

These observations are mine, not the author's. He refrains from drawing any but the most obvious conclusions. His self-chosen task is to tell us about his ancestors, their lives and their world. In that he has succeeded admirably. ( )
1 vote TomVeal | Mar 7, 2009 |
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Traces the author's thirty-year research into his slave ancestry, describing the history of the massive tobacco plantation where his ancestors worked and his family's extensive genealogical legacy.

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