The story of Harry Washington is one that reveals much about how our nation’s history is told.
You mean you haven’t heard of Harry Washington?
Well, sit back. It’s a wild ride.
Harry Washington was born in West Africa around 1740. He was captured in his early 20s, placed in the bowels of a slave ship, and endured the horrors of the Middle Passage. On the shores of the Potomac, he was purchased and enslaved by a man named Daniel Tebbs.
In 1763, Tebbs sold Harry to none other than George Washington. After working with several other enslaved people on draining swamps in Virginia with a company George Washington founded called The Dismal Swamp Company, Harry found himself at Mt. Vernon, taking care of George Washington’s horses and even working in the household at Mt. Vernon.
Harry’s opinion of our founding father is not one shared by the majority of Americans today. In fact, George Washington did not have the reputation of being a kind man when it came to the people enslaved on his plantation. British writer Richard Parkinson spent some time with Washington on his planation and wrote in his book, A Tour of America that “it was the sense of all his neighbors that he treated them with more severity than any other man.” *
Harry first ran away from George Washington in 1771. As a man who carefully liked to control his public image, the one thing that George Washington did not like was to have his enslaved people run away.* Enslaved people ran away often from Mt. Vernon, and punishments were severe. George Washington placed ads in papers with a reward for Harry’s capture. Consequently, Harry returned to Mt. Vernon a couple of weeks later.
As the revolution approached, no doubt enslaved people all across the colonies overheard discussions about liberty and freedom by the people we would come to know as “Founding Fathers.” These discussions occurred at dinner tables and in parlors. Such talk undoubtedly sparked hope among the young nation’s enslaved peoples. George Washington wrote at the time that if the colonies did not did break free, they would become no different than the “the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”
When the revolution finally boiled over, Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, made an announcement that all slaves who joined the British cause would be freed. This stoked fears among plantation owners that their enslaved populations would run away. Slave patrols increased throughout the colonies, as did punishments for escaping.
Nonetheless, Harry and several others left Mt. Vernon for Lord Dunmore’s fleet, sitting in the James River. Hundreds of escaped slaves from all over the area took that treacherous journey, evading slave patrols, dogs, and the current to swim to those boats hoping for freedom.
Harry and two others from Mt. Vernon were counted among those now harbored with the British.
However, life aboard Lord Dunmore’s fleet quickly became nightmarish as smallpox swept through the fleet. Hundreds died.
Eventually, Harry was sent to New York, where he worked with the British army against George Washington’s forces there, most likely engaged in manual labor, such as building bulwarks and stuffing cartridge shells. Not much is known, unfortunately, of Harry Washington’s exploits with the British Army fighting against the Americans in the Revolution. When the British left New York, Harry was most likely sent down to South Carolina with General Clinton as a member of the British “Black Pioneers” regiment made up of formerly enslaved men. Embroidered on their uniforms was the phrase “Liberty to Slaves.”
It is estimated that some 20,000 formerly enslaved men joined the British cause (there were also Black soldiers on the side of the Americans as well. That number is estimated to be around 9,000). As the war came to an end, many enslaved people left plantations and headed north; some going as far as Canada.
The number of escaped slaves alarmed American authorities, and in the treaty negotiations the Americans made it a point to force the British to return their “property.” In fact, Article 7 of the signed Treaty of Paris made it unlawful for the British to “[carry] away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants.” The British had no intention of abiding by that clause, however. And George Washington particularly wanted his “property” returned. He had lost some 18 enslaved people and even hired a slave catcher to help find them.
In spite of this, George Washington was not able to get all of his enslaved people back, describing the whole thing as a “farce.” In total, at least 10 people formerly enslaved by George Washington never came back to Mt. Vernon.
Harry Washington left the United States in July, 1783 aboard a ship called L’Abondance, bound for a British colony in Canada made for some 3,000 “Black Loyalists.” He was 43 years old at the time. After a year in Novia Scotia, he was listed in a census along with a wife named Jenny.
Life in Novia Scotia, though, was harsh. Many of the Black residents hired themselves out to white farmers and businesses in the area. They were exploited and subjected to low wages. When an opportunity arrived to settle in a British colony in Sierra Leone, Harry jumped at the opportunity. He wanted nothing more than to be a free man, working his own land. He wanted to experience the freedom and liberty that he heard discussed around tables in Mt. Vernon, but did not experience in there nor in Nova Scotia.
By 1796, Harry and his family were in Sierra Leone, farming land that he had to rent to help pay for the passage across the Atlantic. The promise of freedom, first in Canada and then in Sierra Leone, gave way to the realization that this “freedom” was not what was promised. Black settlers in Sierra Leone were subjected to ever-increasing rents from the white land-owners, not unlike the fate of Freedman after the Civil War in the system of sharecropping that replaced slavery in the South.
In 1800, fed up with this treatment, Harry and others rebelled against the British in Sierra Leone. They hoped to win independence for the colony and, as a result, become truly free from any sort of bondage.
But that was not to be. The British sent in troops and quelled the uprising. Some 30 leaders were captured and placed on military trial, charged with “open and unprovoked” rebellion. Some leaders were ordered to the nearby slave garrison, which meant a return to enslavement. Harry and 23 others were banished from the colony to land across the Sierra Leone River.
What happened next to Harry Washington has been lost to history.
Nonetheless, the story of Harry Washington reveals a complexity to our history that is often not acknowledged. The lionization of our founders in classrooms and textbooks makes such stories as the one of Harry Washington problematic because it runs counter to what we want to believe about our founding and those “Patriots” who waxed poetic about liberty and freedom. By not acknowledging this history, we are forever perpetuating this American mythos, bound up in patriotism and unwilling to look at our history through a critical lens.
Until we treat our history as a complex story that includes both blemishes and highlights, we are not being truthful to ourselves nor are we respecting our past. Our true history has to include the voices and experiences of all who helped shape it.
In other words, the American story has to have a place for Harry Washington and others like him.
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*Just to be clear, Richard Parkinson did not write this to be critical of George Washington. On the contrary, Parkinson believed that “negroes” were “lazy” and “lecherous.” In fact, he praises Washington because he believed that “negroes” require “severe discipline.”
**In the early days of the Republic, when Washington was President and the seat of government was in Philadelphia, Washington went out of his way to rotate his enslaved people so they wouldn’t be free under the laws of Pennsylvania at the time. George also spent a great deal of money trying to reclaim his enslaved people when they did in fact run away. The story of Ona Judge is the most famous of these runaways.