Radical Resilience: Mr. George Washington of West Point, Virginia

 Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. ~Zora Neale Hurston

 

Get on board. Mr. George Washington says we have lots of stops to make along this route.

Meet George Washington of West Point, Virginia. At one point, George was indeed a slave. He was bought and sold as though his precious human life was nothing more than a commodity. But this is not a story about George the slave. This is a story about Mr. George Washington the Councilman; the entrepreneur; the father, the husband, the friend.

In 1872, George Washington was elected to the West Point Town Council along with Beverly Allen, Sr. (we have lots of stops ahead in the future to tell you the full story of the Honorable Mr. Allen) West Point Virginia and King William County 1888

Mr. Washington built a house in what would become West Point Inc. in 1859 with his own earnings. It was at the corner of 4th and B Streets, Lot 186. George W. Washington vs. J.B. Slaughter, Trustee, etc.

Benjamin Robinson, formal owner of Mr. George Washington, deeded the property as a lien for a debt in January 1873.  He then died in December of the same year. George Washington filed a suit that took over ten years to settle and was eventually heard by the Virginia Court of Appeals. It was decided that in 1859, George Washington was a slave and therefore had no civil rights. The contract with Benjamin Robinson was considered invalid and the property George Washington had built, restored after the Civil War,  lived in, raised a family, and conducted a business for many years was sold to Hansford Anderson at auction.

for sale lot

By now, some readers are thinking, “Well, that was unfair but it was the law.” Legal and just are two completely separate concepts, especially in the Jim Crow South. If you read the case closely, you will discover that everyone in town knew that property belonged to George Washington. Ads in the local paper acknowledged it was George Washington’s restaurant as well.  In the sale ad, the property is referred to as “the property known as Geo. Washington’s.”

adgwrestaurant

Call Number Rare Books Newspapers AN47 .W47 Source

council1870andGW

taxGW

Source Citation: Census Year: 1880; Census Place: West Point, King William, Virginia; Archive Collection Number: T1132; Roll: 25; Page: 463; Line: 5; Schedule Type: Agriculture

At times, engaging in historical research does not feel like formalized curiosity at all. Instead, it is like boarding a train heading one direction on a specific set of tracks and then finding yourself blazing toward a destination completely unknown with your stomach in knots and tears in your eyes over what you are seeing. At some point, you learn to simply trust the conductor’s timing and hope your purpose will be there to greet and advise you when you arrive.

On this virtual journey with Mr. George Washington of the Town of West Point, Virginia, I had to constantly remind myself this is his story–not mine. It is a privilege and responsibility to let it unfold in ways that honor his journey without allowing my own to disrupt the narrative. He is driving this train. I am seated in the back gazing out of the window wondering where he will lead me next.

As a 21st century white woman attempting to tell the story of a 19th century black man living in the Jim Crow South, the potential absurdity of that is not lost on me.  Sure, I focused on African American History in college. I consider myself an authentic ally in the continuous fight for racial and social justice. But what can I do to develop the capacity to see through the same lens George Washington would use if he were here to convey his own story? The answer is nothing–I simply cannot.

I can however connect to Mr. Washington through time and space using empathy, my imagination, historical evidence and a committed passion to tell the story of an Invisible Man.  It sounds absolutely insane of course, but I have spent the last several weeks enduring many sleepless nights as I talk to Mr. George Washington while gazing out of my kitchen window in the direction of where his house once stood.  I have taken many walks down by the railroad tracks asking for guidance and promising to do my best as I attempt to tell his story.

This is at best a brief introduction. I explained to a friend that I was not ready to tell George Washington’s story yet because I need more time to do justice to this heartbreaking yet inspiring story of resilience.  This man, so many others like him, their families and their descendants deserve my best. Yet here I am listening to the rain, occasionally staring out of the kitchen window talking to George, and writing. This is not intended to be an academic or professional research article. It is a story. It’s a conversation on a small town front porch; an ever evolving journey. The urgency I feel however to begin the process of removing the veil of silence is the same way I felt as my children were about to be born—they wanted out!  It’s the same way I felt seven years ago when I first sent an e-mail to the Library of Congress and the Tidewater Review about the West Point 29.

This story has many layers, players, and there is much more to tell. The intent in introducing Mr. George Washington briefly is to honor him locally as part of Black History Month 2018 and send a message that history previously concealed will in fact be revealed. No healing in this community can ever take place until we have acknowledged the reality of our collective journey.  There is so much to celebrate—and there is so much to mourn. If we can find ways to do that together, then we are on the same track.

Stay tuned! Mr. George Washington has so much more to share with you. And he is bringing some friends along . . .

 

©REACH Consulting, LLC, 2018

tracks

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