The blackest name in America: Why are 90pc of Washingtons  African-Americans?

George Washington's name is inseparable from America, and not only from the nation's history. It identifies countless streets, buildings, mountains, bridges, monuments, cities - and people.

In a puzzling twist, most of these people are black. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 163,036 people with the surname Washington.

Ninety per cent of them were African-American, a far higher black percentage than for any other common name.

Famous surname: New Yorker Shannon Washington who says: 'Growing up, I just knew that only black people had my last name'

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

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

Jackson was 53 per cent black. Williams was the 16th-blackest name, at 46 per cent. 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 per cent white, meaning there were far more white Blacks than black Blacks. The name White, meanwhile, was 19 per cent black.)

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.

Play acting: Dean Malissa as General George Washington meets visitors at Mount Vernon, Washington's historic home in Virginia as the nation celebrates the President's Day weekend

Even before Emancipation, many enslaved black people chose their own surnames to establish their identities. Some historians theorise, 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.

President Washington: He had over 100 slaves, but he ordered that they all be freed on the death of his wife

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.

And there remains the presence of George Washington, born 279 years ago on Feb. 22, whose complex relationship with slavery echoes in the blackness of his name today.

His great-grandfather, John, arrived in Virginia from England in 1656. George married the daughter of a wealthy man and eventually owned more than 5,000 acres

Along with land, he inherited 10 human beings from his father. He gained more through his marriage to a wealthy widow, and purchased still more enslaved blacks to work the lands he aggressively amassed.

But over the decades, as he recognized slavery's contradiction with the freedoms of the new nation, Washington grew opposed to human bondage.

Washington was not a harsh slave owner by the standards of the time. He provided good food and medical care. He recognized marriages and refused to sell off individual family members. Later in life he resolved not to purchase any more black people.

But he also worked his slaves quite hard, and under difficult conditions. As president, he shuttled them between his Philadelphia residence and Virginia estate to evade a law that freed any slave residing in Pennsylvania for six months.

While in Philadelphia, Oney Judge, Martha Washington's maid, moved about the city and met many free blacks. Upon learning Martha was planning one day to give her to an ill-tempered granddaughter, Judge disappeared.

According to Ron Chernow's new biography, Washington: A Life,  the president abused his presidential powers and asked the Treasury Department to kidnap Judge from her new life in New Hampshire. The plot was unsuccessful.

Celebration: The estate in Virginia of George Washington. The story of how Washington became the 'blackest name' begins with slavery

Mr Chernow said: 'Washington was leading this schizoid life. In theory and on paper he was opposed to slavery, but he was still zealously tracking and seeking to recover his slaves who escaped.'

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.

In contrast with other Founding Fathers, Chernow said, Washington's will indicates 'that he did have a vision of a future biracial society.'

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

Mary Thompson, an historian at Mount Vernon said: '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.

Hollywood star Denzil Washington

Historian Henry Wiencek says many enslaved blacks had surnames that went unrecorded or were kept secret. Some chose names as a mark of community identity, he says, and that community could be the plantation of a current or recent owner.

The author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, added: 'Keep in mind that after the Civil War, many of the big planters continued to be extremely powerful figures in their regions,

'There was an advantage for a freed person to keep a link to a leading white family.'

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

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.

Adam Goodheart, a professor at Washington College and author of the forthcoming 1861: Civil War Awakening, said: '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.'

'They were thinking about how they could be Americans. That they would embrace the name of this person who was an imperfect hero shows there was a certain understanding of this country as an imperfect place, an imperfect experiment, and a willingness to embrace that tradition of liberty with all its contradictions.'

'It's an assumption that the surname is tied to George. There is no direct evidence. As far as I'm concerned it's a coincidence.'


Many black people took new names after the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the black power movement, says Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland history professor who has written books on the history of African-Americans.

Mr Berlin added: 'Names are this central way we think about ourselves. Whenever we have these kinds of emancipatory moments, suddenly people can reinvent themselves, rethink themselves new, distinguish themselves from a past where they were denigrated and abused. New names are one of the ways they do it.'

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

Tony Burroughs, an expert on black genealogy, who says 82 to 94 per cent of all Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black.

He said: 'It's an assumption that the surname is tied to George.There is no direct evidence. As far as I'm concerned it's a coincidence.'

Many present-day Washingtons are surprised to learn their name is not 100 per cent black.

'Growing up, I just knew that only black people had my last name,' says Shannon Washington of New York City. Like many others, she has never met a white Washington.

New biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow

She has no negative feelings about her name: 'It's a reflection of how far we've come more than anything. I most likely come from a family of slaves who were given or chose this name.'

As the creator of advertisements, events and, she works with many Europeans, who often ask how she got her name.

She plans on keeping it when she gets married, and likens her attachment to that of some black people for racist memorabilia like mammy dolls and Jim Crow signs.

'I don't exactly love it,' she says of her name, 'But I have to respect it.'

Marcus Washington never thought much about his name as one of the few black people working in the overwhelmingly white William Morris talent agency.

That changed after he filed a $25 million lawsuit in December accusing the company of racial discrimination.

'I'm sure that for some people there, my name triggered the thought that I was African-American, and automatically triggered biases that resulted in me not being given a fair shot,' he says.

One 2004 study by researchers at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found that job applicants with names that sound white receive 50 per cent 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.'

But what about those 8,813 white Washingtons? What is their experience?

For the family of 85-year-old Larry Washington, who traces his family tree back to England in the 1700s, the experience has changed over the years. (He says he is not related to George, who had no children.)

When he moved to New Jersey in 1962 to teach at a college there, Larry Washington's family tried to scout housing over the phone, but nothing was ever available.

Washington: Named after the president who treated his black slaves well, but over the decades, as he recognized slavery's contradiction with the freedoms of the new nation, Washington grew opposed to human bondage

'When we showed up, there were plenty of houses,' he recalls. After that, he taught his six children to always apply in person.

Over the years, his name made him sensitive to racism. He said: 'We just simply recognized these things, and had full sympathy with the people who were really black and getting the real treatment.'

His son Paul, who in the 1970s worked for a temporary agency in Long Island, says people in the offices where he was assigned always betrayed their relief when he turned out to be white. He experienced housing discrimination into the '80s, but says that no longer happens.

He is now a geology professor who has lived in ten states from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. Sometimes he wonders if his name helps him get interviews at colleges looking to recruit a rare black geologist, and if it hurts him when the college discovers that he is white.

Paul's children have had much different experiences - like his 25-year-old daughter, an English professor who teaches foreign students, whose new pupils are always amazed to meet someone with 'the ultimate American name.'

When Paul's brother Larry Jr. was recently travelling through customs in Japan, the inspector looked at his passport and said, 'Oh, Mr. Washington!'

'His politeness and the number of times he bowed clearly indicated that he thought I was the member of a very important family,' Larry Jr. recalls.

His sister Ida, a veterinarian who lives in Seattle, says she has never experienced discrimination due to her name as an adult. She is married, but uses Washington as her professional name.

'It's very distinctive. I use it with a certain amount of pride,' she says.

Back in high school, she became fascinated with black history. 'I think my name has made me much more aware of what African-American folks struggle with. I feel in tune with them.'

Perhaps her sentiments bring the name full circle - from blacks making a connection to the greatest white Washington to a white person choosing a name associated with blackness.

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

'I have to think that George Washington would be very pleased that so many black people have adopted his name.'


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