Monday, February 21, 2011

Singapore: Washington as slave owner

Straits Times

PJ: At the time of President Washington's death, there were 317 slaves working on his estate. Slavery was an accepted practice in America at the time of the country's Founding Fathers, although many believed the practice was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is known for being against slavery but he owned more than 150 slaves, including a woman who he is reported to have fathered a child. Other founders such as Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry, traded and whipped their slaves. And James Monroe, who, as governor of Virginia in 1800, after reportedly rushed trials, executed nearly 30 slaves after an attempted revolt.

The reason for this post is to acknowledge a mixed time in American history that many in the US want to ignore. In their hero worship of the Founding Fathers, many Americans wish to rewrite history. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann for instance, recently made a speech praising the Founding Fathers as more god-like than the actual statesmen, business owners, farmers and scholars that they were; men who lived in a time of prejudice, in a world far different than what exists today. In her speech, Bachmann claimed that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to rid the new country of slavery. Not so says history. Trying to rewrite the past does not change the truth. But to accept history in its factual content does more to help future generations know mistakes to avoid. The Founding Fathers can be credited with vision for a country based on freedom from tyranny. They can and should be credited with wisdom and their desire for knowledge and change. But to rewrite reality only diminishes the lessons people should learn from history.

Washington the 'blackest name' in America

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 US 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.

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.

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

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, born 279 years ago on Feb 22, whose complex relationship with slavery echoes in the blackness of his name today.

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