Did Martha Washington Have a Black Grandchild? The Answer is Likely Yes—And Many More Than One.
Plus a lil' roundup
Happy almost Father’s Day! If you’d like me to personalize a copy of You Never Forget Your First, send details to Oblong and we can still get it out this week.
William Costin did more “to advance the ideals of liberty and equality,” writes historian Cassandra Good, than “Martha’s other grandchildren.” The “other” is notable. Those grandchildren, who were white, spent their lives capitalizing on Martha and George Washington’s legacy. Costin, who was listed as “colored” in the 1820 census, was very likely a descendant as well, but that was never publicly acknowledged during his lifetime.
When George Washington married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, he became step-father to Jacky, 4, and Patsy, 2. Jacky was likely Costin’s father. We can say with certainty that his mother was enslaved by Jacky, and his mother was called Ann.
In the absence of DNA, historians have to insert a qualifier (“likely”) when it comes to paternity, but experts have long argued that Costin was likely a blood relation. And he wasn’t the only one. Washington raised most of Jacky’s heirs, too; Washy, a son, may have had around a dozen children by enslaved women. And yet, beyond a chapter here or there, and very good work by historic sites like Arlington House, little to nothing has been published about this group of descendants—which included Robert E. Lee.
Good’s new book, First Family: George Washington’s Heirs and the Making of America, is a much-needed addition to the shelf.
I’m excited to talk to Good about this wild ride through our founding contradictions tomorrow night at 7pm for a virtual, free talk at Avon Free Library.
It seems Ron Chernow has Grant haters, too—not that I hate him! It’s more of a “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” situation. If you need a refresher, see “Chernow Gonna Chernow.”
I’m really excited about John Garrison Marks’s research, thanks to a fellowship at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center, on the many “interpretations” of George Washington’s choice to pave a path to freedom for the people he enslaved. In 1939, as Marks pointed out, a journalist didn’t see much of a difference between a “Pro-American” Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden and any other Washington commemoration—with the exception of all the swastikas.
I wrote about it in my book and have been pointing out issues with Mount Vernon’s sunny, vague take for years—and what was their response? At first, pretty good. They invited me to speak, to spend the night…but they didn’t actually change their presentation of Washington’s final act even though one man, William Lee, walked free the day he died. I hope Marks succeeds in bringing sustained focus and nuance to the subject, and that it leads to change at Mount Vernon.1
UPCOMING PUBLIC EVENTS
June 8th: In conversation with Cassandra Good. Avon Free Public Library. (Virtual)
June 14th: In conversation with Mattie Kahn. The Strand. NYC.
July 5th: In Conversation with Kate Storey. Off-site talk for New York Historical Society. Bryant Park, NYC.
See you soonish! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram. If you’d like a personalized copy of my books, please order them from Oblong.
On a related note: I pointed out that Mount Vernon had an entirely white staff years before, during, and after the summer of the George Floyd protests and they stopped inviting me to speak at events and banned You Never Forget Your First, one of their bestselling books. (Erica Dunbar is still invited but, I believe, has refused to engage with them for years. They still carry her book.) Feel free to complain and/or leave it a great review elsewhere.