With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Did George Washington Have an Enslaved Son?

In Fairfax County, Virginia, two landmarks of early American history share an uneasy but inextricable bond. George Washington’s majestic Mount Vernon estate is one of the most popular historic homes in the country, visited by roughly a million people a year. Gum Springs, a small community about three miles north, is one of the oldest surviving freedmen’s villages, most of which were established during Reconstruction. The community was founded in 1833 by West Ford, who lived and worked at Mount Vernon for nearly sixty years, first as an enslaved teen-ager and continuing after he was freed. Following Washington’s death, in 1799, Ford helped manage the estate, and he maintained an unusually warm relationship with the extended Washington family.

Awareness of West Ford had faded both in Gum Springs and at Mount Vernon, but in recent years his story has been at the center of a bitter controversy between the two sites. His descendants have demanded that Mount Vernon recognize Ford for his contributions to the estate, which was near collapse during the decades after Washington’s death. They also argue—citing oral histories from two branches of the family—that Ford was Washington’s unacknowledged son, a claim that Mount Vernon officials have consistently denied. As that debate continues, Black civic organizations in Gum Springs are engaged in related battles to save their endangered community. They have resisted, with some success, Virginia’s planned expansion of Richmond Highway, which would encroach on the town, and they have embarked on the process of getting Gum Springs named a national historic site.

In the spring of 2021, a friend and I decided to take a drive through Virginia to explore the state’s complicated racial history. While researching the trip, I came across some articles about Ford and the patrimony debate. I wanted to learn more about him and the community he had started. Our first stop was Gum Springs, which today is home to some three thousand people. We visited Bethlehem Baptist Church, founded, in 1863, by a freedom seeker named Samuel K. Taylor, who served as its pastor for thirty years. We hoped to go inside, but a sign was taped to the door: “Space Is Uninhabitable.” The Gum Springs Historical Society and Museum was closed for the day. We found only one citation of West Ford, at a housing project on Fordson Road that was named for him. The historical marker for the town had been destroyed by drivers who, while speeding off the highway, had run into it. Replaced a few months later, it reads “Gum Springs, an African-American community, originated here on a 214-acre farm bought in 1833 by West Ford (ca. 1785-1863). A freed man, skilled carpenter, and manager of the Mount Vernon estate. . . . Gum Springs has remained a vigorous black community.”

Six days later, we completed our trip near its starting place, at Mount Vernon, set on an expansive lawn overlooking the Potomac River. The house, gardens, and outbuildings have been impeccably restored, and the estate includes a lavish library, along with a large museum and an education center. A guide escorted us and half a dozen other visitors on a “slavery tour.” We saw the slave quarters and the slave cemetery, where between ninety and a hundred and twenty people are believed to be buried in unmarked graves. A stone marker, laid in 1929, reads “In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family.” We stopped at the nearby Slave Memorial, opened in 1983—a striking truncated granite column, encircled by boxwood hedges and by a low stone wall.

When the guide asked for questions, I said, “What about West Ford?” She paused, then stammered, “We don’t talk about him.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker