Myth or truth…some things white historians just don’t want to be true. George Washington was a noble American figure. He proved this countless times in the early days of our country. However, he did not chop down a cherry tree, nor never tell a lie. He owned slaves, was very human and vulnerable and was not only the father of our country but also the father of a black child.
White historians, for the most part, deny, deny, deny that this is a truth. This historical denial was also evident in the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. White descendants finally took the DNA tests that confirmed the rumors they feared deep in their souls were true. So, in the liason between George Washington and Venus, we have history repeating itself. George Washington, the plantation owner, revolutionary general, one of the architects of our county, and the first President of the United States could never take a young black slave as a lover and father a mulatto child in the eyes of white historians. However, this truth is not a leap of faith for blacks…they understand the resistance to tarnish an American icon. It was quite simply the practice of the day. Many plantation owners had dual families. Thomas Jefferson swore on the death bed of his wife, Martha, to never remarry. That oath, however, did not limit his relationship with Martha’s half-sister, Sally Hemmings with whom he fathered many black children. Was George any different?
When I began accumulating research for my play, George Washington’s Boy, I discovered many facts about George. In, His Excellency George Washington, by Joseph Ellis, I learned that Billy Lee, George’s favorite slave, was his personal valet, carried his spyglass into battle, and was a great horseman. As I learned more about George, I went beyond the legend, and uncovered more of his humanity and personal preferences. I discovered facts about the slaves that comprised the Washington household. Martha’s favorite slave was Ona Judge. Hercules was their cook and Margaret Thomas was Billy’s wife. Venus, owned by his brother John Washington was a beautiful young slave girl. These historical footnotes became my passion and I combed the internet, book stores, and visited Mount Vernon to uncover little known facts pertinent to the early days of our leader’s life and the slaves that were part of the same journey.
On his death bed, Washington, decided to free Billy, grant him a pension, and provide housing for him for the remainder of his life. In his will, he requested that the rest of his slaves be freed upon Martha’s death. Of course, his slaves got wind of their future manumission and after a year, Martha freed them. I think Martha got a little nervous and was afraid to eat her dinners. He did not free his dower slaves, as that was under the jurisdiction of the Custis clan, Martha’s relatives. He was the only founding father to see the justice in manumission and this was a factor in his legendary status. So how could this humanitarian and married man, with such empathy for his slaves, make love to Venus?
Research, research, research. This is the story I uncovered. I do not think her name was an accident. She was a beautiful young slave and George had opportunity. Between 1784 and 1785, John visited George and he brought his family and slaves with him. Martha was ill and bed ridden during this time. After a wonderful evening of good food, strong drink, and lively conversation, John sent Venus to warm George’s temporary bed as he was not sleeping with Martha. Most historians contend that it was not possible for George to have children because he and Martha never conceived. He must have been sterile or impotent. Poppycock! The world is full of second time around husbands that have children with one wife and not the other. I think it is obvious that when George found the lovely Venus in his bed, she stayed the entire night and bing, bang, boom…West Ford was conceived. As the child grew, there were stories of George taking him fishing, riding, and even to worship at Falls Church Episcopal. This took place for seven years after the war and before his presidency. Once he stepped into the shoes of the President, he cut off all ties to Venus and West, avoiding the similar type of rumors swirling around Jefferson. So, how does history sweep those seven years under the rug and protect the noble Washington legacy?
Washington biographer, Ron Chernow, addresses the issue with hypotheticals that support the noble and gallant Washington as incapable of falling victim to his own desires and practices of the day. Chenow states that Venus contends that West Ford is Washington’s son, and then lists possible explanations that refute this statement without backup nor proof. However, Venus was never reprimanded for this statement, nor was she sold to another plantation or beaten for spreading this supposed lie.
In fact, West Ford, on his twenty-first birthday, was given his freedom and in 1829 was given one hundred sixty acres of land on the Mount Vernon estate. He farmed this land for many years. These benefits and rewards were certainly not granted to ordinary slaves of the day. West was granted this special treatment because of his lineage. For years, West’s heritage circled Washington DC’s society until a journalist from Harper’s Weekly sought out a thirty-one year old West for an interview. The reporter remarked that West was a “dead ringer” for George except that he was not as tall as George and was brown-skinned. The journalist asked West if he could bring an artist to Mount Vernon to draw his portrait and West agreed. When the artist arrived, West was dressed in a suit and tie. The artist asked West why he was not dressed in the typical famer’s attire. West replied, “I know you white folks want to catch me at my worst. I want you to see me at my best.” If you google West Ford, you will find two pictures of him, one as a young man and the other as an older balding gentleman.
The descendants of West Ford asked for DNA testing and even though the FBI did the test that proves that West was a descendant of the Washington family, historians have switched the game. They claim that West is an offspring to another Washington clan member and could be a product of John or Bushrod Washington certainly not George.
History is written by the victors and whoever writes the most books on the subject wins. Venus maintained that George Washington was West Ford’s father. Consider these words as one small drop in the ocean of time for my gal, Venus.