MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
WHO IS HE?
Standing in a 1796 portrait of the Washington family is a house servant in uniform, a black man in profile, his features vague and shadowy. The other figures are clearly shown: President George Washington and his wife, Martha, along with their grandchildren, Nelly and Wash Custis. We know that the map on the table shows the site of the nation’s future capital city. But who is the black man in the shadows? Nobody knows for sure.
Most of us learn something about America’s presidents. You may have their pictures on your classroom walls. They are certainly in your pockets and piggy banks: George Washington on the quarter and dollar bill, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel and rarely used two-dollar bill, and Andrew Jackson currently on the twenty. Across America, there are schools, cities, and other landmarks named in their honor.
But this book is about some people who are not famous. They don’t have towns or schools named after them. They are five enslaved people who were legally the “property” of some of America’s most famous men. Like that mystery man in the background of the Washington family portrait, these enslaved people were hidden in the shadows of history.
They lived with these powerful men and their families every day, sometimes “24–7,” as we like to say today. Each witnessed extraordinary events. And each has a story to tell about what being enslaved meant in early America:
• William “Billy” Lee and a young woman named Ona Judge were enslaved by George Washington. Billy Lee remained with Washington all of his life. Ona Judge escaped her bondage, bravely challenging America’s most powerful man.
• Isaac Granger grew up on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation during the American Revolution and lived among the enslaved people who were called “family” by the author of the Declaration of Independence.
• Paul Jennings was born enslaved and taken as a young boy to the White House by James Madison. He watched the city of Washington burn during the War of 1812 and stood beside the deathbed of the man called the Father of the Constitution.
• Alfred Jackson grew up the son of an enslaved cook at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee plantation. He survived the Civil War, lived into the twentieth century, and is buried in the family garden near the seventh president and his wife.
Because these five people were “owned” by men considered great presidents, we know their names and parts of their stories. Luckily, because of their connections to these presidents, there are records to help us understand who they were and how they lived. These five lives help show us an important part of the great tragedy and complexity of American slavery. In a way, these five stories are as important as accounts of the men who were their legal “masters.”
America ended legal slavery more than 150 years ago, after four years of a catastrophic civil war that took the lives of as many as 750,000 Americans, according to new estimates. We may learn something about slavery in school. But many people still do not understand or want to accept this basic truth: America was “conceived in liberty” in 1776, but the country was also born in shackles. Africans stolen from their homes were brought to America before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. From the country’s earliest days, slavery was an undeniable fact of American life.
This book is about how the threads of slavery were woven deeply into almost every aspect of American society for centuries. It is about how important slavery was to the nation’s birth and growth and to the men who led the country for so long. It is about wealth and political power and untold misery.
It is also about the deep scars that slavery left on America—old wounds that surface in racial conflict today. Some people believe that slavery is ancient history, a thing of the past that no longer matters. That is wrong. “The past is never dead,” wrote the American novelist William Faulkner, a son of the South. “It’s not even past.”
And that is especially true of America’s slave past.
For more than two hundred years, racial slavery was as much a part of our nation’s story as Pilgrims, presidents, pioneers, wagons rolling west, and waves of immigrants streaming to America’s shores. Well into the twentieth century and the civil rights movement, the poisonous legacy of slavery shaped many attitudes about African Americans.
For much of that time—in letters, newspapers, books, and speeches—many white people commonly described enslaved African Americans as shiftless or lazy, disrespectful or “uppity,” and ignorant. Often compared to apes and monkeys, they were thought dangerous—especially young black men. Those cruel and wrong stereotypes eventually became attitudes widely accepted by generations of Americans, white and black. Those prejudices continue to the present day.
More important, slavery destroyed society’s most basic pillar—the family. It did so by telling enslaved people if and when they could marry. It made marriage a whim of the master rather than a legal right. It made women sexual slaves whose children were slaves. And it tore mothers from children and wives from their husbands, to be sold for profit or punishment.
In many years of writing about American history, I have tried to answer a hard but crucial question. It has to do with the gaping hole between the words and deeds of many of America’s great men. These men fought for independence and were true believers in concepts like liberty and equality. How could such men keep other human beings as slaves, denying their freedom and basic rights?
Before writing this book, I tried to answer that question by looking at the writings and actions of Washington, Jefferson, and other men known as the Founding Fathers. But now I want to answer in a different way—by learning about the lives of some people who were enslaved by four of America’s greatest heroes.
For generations, American history books hid or downplayed the evils of slavery. Many presidential biographers were willing to gaze past the cruelty that was central to slavery, along with the key role it played in the lives of some presidents. Young children learned about George Washington’s honesty in a fictitious story of a cherry tree. But most students heard little about the hundreds of people forced to labor in Washington’s house and fields, or the enslaved men who fought America’s wars and built the White House.
There is no way to gloss over slavery. It was a murderous crime against humanity. Its brutal tools were whips, manacles, and floating prisons called slave ships. Its unspeakable methods included beatings, rape, and murder. It relied on a racist belief that white people were superior to black people—a concept based on ancient religious teachings and tainted scientific notions. Many historians argue that American racism—the belief in white racial superiority—did not exist until it grew out of slavery.
Slavery always relied on ignorance—keeping the enslaved from learning to read or write because books and words carry the ideas that help set people free. Ignorance of the ABCs, Frederick Douglass would write after gaining his freedom, was part of “the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” As he recorded in his autobiography, “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
Today, it is ignorance of slavery that must be fixed. Slavery can no longer be treated like an embarrassing relative whose face is cropped out of a family photo. Trying to avoid the shame of slavery once led historians to cover it up. Many of the facts linking some of America’s greatest men with the basic evil of slavery have been swept under the carpet.
But as John Adams, another Founding Father, once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”
This book is about some stubborn facts. They are not fun or pretty.
The history we learn is often about dates, battles, famous speeches, and court decisions. And it is important to understand those. But in the end, history is not just about wars and constitutional amendments, facts we memorize. It is about people. This book tells the real story of real people—all of them born in slavery’s shackles—who were considered the property of some American heroes.
It is a story we all need to understand. And that is how we can bring their faces and lives out of the shadows. Only then can we understand what slavery once meant to this country—and to the people who lived in slavery and to those who kept them. Only then can we really understand and possibly move past the stain of a racist past that still haunts America.
Text copyright © 2016 by Kenneth C. Davis