Black family seeks place in Washington's kin

White descendant agrees to investigate their claim

October 03, 2004|By James Janega | James Janega,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - When relatives of George Washington convene this weekend in Georgia, the reunion might be missing a branch of the family - black descendants of a Washington family slave who say they have as much right to attend the event as any of his white kin.

The descendants of the freed slave, West Ford, are heirs to a long verbal tradition claiming Ford was born of a union between the first president and a slave named Venus.

But despite increasing support from historians for the idea that Ford might be a blood relation to Washington - if not his son - the claimants continue to be excluded from the formal society whose members descend from relatives of the officially childless Founding Father.

According to the group's bylaws, eligibility for membership is open only to "persons who can prove their lawful lineal descent."

Ford's heirs say that rule is inherently unfair because the term "lawful" makes recognition of any black Washington descendants virtually impossible. Although white slaveholders often fathered children with slaves, interracial marriage during that era was illegal.

But it is on that basis, say Ford descendants and sisters Janet Allen and Linda Allen Bryant, that the society has rejected their appeal to join.

"The old saying in our family is that if you're not invited, you're not welcome," said Janet Allen, of Peoria, Ill. "We are not welcome."

Leaders of the National Society of the Washington Family Descendants, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of forming as a "benevolent and social" organization, said there will be no official comment on the claims of Ford's descendants at its meeting in Washington, Ga.

Still, the leadership plans to quietly consider the claims of Ford's descendants, said James R. Westlake, 77, president-general of the society.

"I think we need to see what the communications [between families] have been and go from there," he said.

In the touchy confluence of American history, race relations and Founding Fathers genealogy - where DNA evidence has all but settled the connection between Thomas Jefferson and children of his slave Sally Hemings - even that small nod to Ford's descendants is remarkable.

The dispute has played out in public since Ford's descendants revealed their family secret in 1996, with their claim gaining some support since then.

The issue now seems poised to enter a new chapter as Ford's heirs try to gain admittance or at least recognition from the annual family convocation of white Washington relatives. They are also seeking DNA samples from Washington's known relatives to bolster their claim.

The family "stands by our history, that we descend from George Washington. We will not waiver from that fact," said Linda Allen Bryant. Her mother, 83-year-old Elise Ford Allen, said she knows the oral history from her grandfather, George Ford, who heard it straight from his grandfather, West Ford.

No one disputes that West Ford's mother was a plantation slave named Venus. Though her husband was another slave named Billy, it is less certain whether Billy fathered West Ford.

Some historians now say it appears that Ford's father was in fact a Washington - if not George then likely one of his nephews, who lived on the plantation where Venus did and had more contact with her.

"I don't think that there's any doubt that they are related to George Washington," said author Henry Wiencek, whose 2003 book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America addresses the question. "I think that they're related to him through one of his nephews."

Wiencek said the father might have been the president's nephew Bushrod Washington, or perhaps Bushrod's brother Corbin Washington, both of whom lived on the same Washington family estate as Venus. Called Bushfield, the estate was 90 miles across bumpy roads from George Washington's estate at Mount Vernon.

Though Wiencek deems it unlikely that George Washington would have had the means or motive for a tryst with Venus, the mere fact that he addresses the Ford descendants' claim in his book is a victory for Allen and her relatives.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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