In 1998, a story that had persisted for some 200 years, a story dismissed as
rumor, gossip and worse, was finally proven true by science. Thomas Jefferson
fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. The story forced new public
consideration of Jefferson, and America's mixed race past.|
For one particular group of women, however, the final truth about Jefferson
encouraged them to believe the nation might be ready to hear their own family
When was a little girl, my mother // My mother told me and my siblings that we
were related to George Washington, that he was our fifth great-grandfather.
My grandmother told us that we were related to George Washington and I remember
how I felt, kind of in awed, you know in awe and I just couldn't fathom that
but she said it a lot. She told us all the time.
Linda Allen Bryant and her sisters Joy and Janet are from Illinois. Their
distant cousin Judith Burton lives in Virginia. Until recently they did not
know one another, but they each grew up on stories of George Washington and a
slave named Venus.
We were told that Venus was asked to comfort George Washington, she was
probably a young teenage girl, around 15, 16 years of age, she was a house
servant of his brother's. And when he became president, he no longer
associated with her.
Put yourself in my position: sitting and learning about your grandfather,
learning about that he couldn't tell a lie when he chopped down the cherry tree
and his father asked him, and that all the great and wondrous things that he's
done for this country, but no one in the country knew that he had a son and
that that son was black.
West Ford was Venus's son. His descendants say that George Washington was
his father and that he knew and cared for West.
George Washington took care of West, he singled West out of a group of slave
children from the Bushfield plantation. He took West Ford on wagon rides, he
took West Ford to church with him, and West Ford was his personal attendant
He went on picnics with them. He went to church with them; he traveled with
them. His children were taught to read and write with them, with the children
at Mt. Vernon. He was taught to read and write.
This spring, (2000) bolstered by Monticello's acceptance of the
Jefferson-Hemings relationship, the cousins took their claim to Mt.
Well, the research that we've done, pretty clearly indicates that it is
virtually impossible for George Washington to have ever known Venus, West
Ford's mother, or to have ever met West Ford.
Venus was not Washington's slave. She lived on his brother's plantation,
Bushfield, 95 miles away from Mount Vernon.
Since it was a two day ride down to Bushfield and two days back, you're looking
at a four or five day journey. Washington was such a famous individual. He
did keep his own personal diary, and there are other things that go along with
that. There frankly just aren't that many periods of five days or more where
we don't know where George Washington was. So it's highly unlikely that George
Washington would have that opportunity to do that.
It only takes one encounter to father a child. Maybe there was only one
encounter, and maybe it happened at a time when the records just don't reflect
it. We don't know.
Henry Weincek has spent many years studying mixed race Southern families.
He is now working on a book about George Washington and slavery, and is looking
into the Ford family claims about West Ford.
He received very unusual treatment for a slave at that time by the Washington
family after George Washington's death. And it used to be that treatment like
that was seen as an example of the benevolence of slaveholders, but now we are
beginning to see that it fits into a pattern of the treatment extended towards
unacknowledged and cast-off children.
The lives of slaves are rarely documented, but enough evidence survives to
show that West Ford was a Washington family favorite
There definitely is evidence to support the fact that West Ford, his mother
Venus, and other members of his family did receive preferential treatment. Now
the important distinction is that the treatment that they were given was,
again, not given by George or Martha Washington. It was given by the
Washington family at Bushfield Plantation.
Now what that has led scholars to suggest is that one of the Washington males
at Bushfield may have been the father of West Ford.
That's the same ploy that they used down at Monticello with Thomas Jefferson.
That they want to put it on one of his nephews or brother or someone.
We were told in our family that it is George. There are no Bushrods or Corbins
in our Ford family tree of names. George has a prominent place. When Venus
was pregnant with West, she was told by her mistress, Hannah Washington, she
says: Who's the father of your child? And she said, "The old General be the
Again, I don't want to denigrate anyone's family history, but oral traditions,
you know, sort of have a life of their own, and they tend, in my experience,
oftentimes to embellish and to move in different directions.
They tell us that they have no written documentation, and I say to them, Of
course, not. Why would you look for a birth certificate saying that George
Washington fathered West Ford? That was not going to ever come out. You're
not going to see that information.
The Ford and Hemings descendants each have strong oral histories, but there
are significant differences between these two cases. James Callendar wrote an
article about the affair during Jefferson's lifetime. Jefferson was at
Monticello nine months before each child was born. And Jefferson granted
freedom to their children in his will.
There were no accounts during George Washington's lifetime. Nobody made any
speculation about George Washington having any kind of association with any
other woman other than his wife, let alone his slaves. So there's just really
none of that that goes along with this. All that really is there in the
Washington case is the Ford family tradition
Well, the Jefferson-Hemings descendants had much more--The Jefferson
descendants had much more solid evidence, as it stands now, than the Washington
descendants. But still, you can't get away from that very persistent oral
history. That's very strong. And you just can't dismiss it out of hand.
In the Jefferson case DNA ultimately proved decisive as the final link in a
long chain of documentary evidence. Would a positive DNA match between Ford
and Washington descendants break the stalemate?
Frankly, that wouldn't get us much farther than we are right now, because
scholars have been hypothesizing for a long time that there is a Washington
connection with West Ford. It's not going to get us any closer to finding out
whether it was George Washington.
I don't think we would ever see conclusive DNA proof that Washington was the
father of West Ford. However, I think that the evidence is very very strong
that West Ford might well have been the son of Bushrod Washington, who was the
General George Washington's nephew.
I know in my heart we are going to get to the bottom of this. I know the truth
and we know the circumstances. Because, just like one of my friends said,
Reverend Brown. George Washington did what his peers did. They all did about
the same thing.
There's a tendency to lump all these folks together. You know: They all did
it. I've been at cocktail parties where people have come up to me and said,
"You know, they all did it. So why was George Washington any different from
anybody else?" Well, I think that's a flawed comment, because I don't think--
I think that that is too simplistic and that's not giving anybody any
We want the American public to know who we are. And there's nothing wrong with
that. If George Washington was in your family tree, you'd want to be able to
I just want the truth. It's not that I'm looking for any kind of glory out of
it. I want my heritage. I don't want it to be denied. I don't want it to be
a lie by omission. I want the truth.
view the report ·
is it true? ·
the jefferson enigma ·
the slaves' story ·
mixed race america
special video reports ·
teacher's guide ·
pbs online ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation