David Blight: Lincoln and the former slave

Roundup: Talking About History

[David W. Blight teaches at Yale University, and is author of "A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation."]

TODAY, on Lincoln's birthday, I will be in Cohasset - 98 percent white and mostly affluent - to honor the life of one of its own who was neither. John Washington was a former slave who settled in Cohasset long after the Civil War, and is buried in Woodside Cemetery. We might never have known who John Washington was were it not for the discovery of a narrative he wrote about his struggles to free himself from slavery, which came to light in 2003.

In this season of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial, we would do well to remember the ways African-American slaves felt their own connections to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln described that document as "the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century." John Washington could not have agreed more, and he played his own small part in bringing it about.

On April 18, 1862, in Fredericksburg, Va., Washington, an urban, literate 24-year-old slave, escaped across the Rappannock River to the safety of Union lines. In a scene that suddenly threw the meaning of the Civil War into bold relief, an officer asked Washington about Confederate forces and conditions in strategic Fredericksburg. Washington had "stuffed his pockets with rebel newspapers" and distributed them to his interrogators. They were puzzled at Washington's intelligence and his fervor; one asked him if he wanted to be free. Washington answered loudly, "by all means!" In his narrative, the intrepid Washington remembered the moment: "Dumb with joy, I thanked God and laughed!"

After the Civil War ended, Washington became a refugee, among the first wave of freedmen (ultimately 40,000) who eventually formed the District of Columbia's modern black community. He first worked in contraband camps and hospitals. By 1864, he managed to get his wife, Annie, and their newborn son, as well as other family members to the District with him; they appear in a city directory living at 311 Eighteenth St., the site today of Constitution Hall, a mere two blocks southwest of the White House. Washington and President Lincoln had become neighbors.

So far as we know, the president and the former slave never met, although one can wonder how many times Washington may have seen the tall one in the stove pipe hat as he and his family walked to the Shiloh Baptist Church, located only four blocks north of the executive mansion, and of which Washington was a founder....
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