There’s never really been quite as loaded an answer to the question, “What’s in a name?”
Jesse Washington, the Associated Press’ National Writer on Race and Ethnicity takes on the question in his piece, “The journey of the Washington name: from a Founding Father to ‘blackest name’ in America.” In the article, Washington traces back the heritage of his last name, a name he shares with over 163,000 other Americans. The peculiar fact behind the famous name? Ninety percent of respondents in the 2000 Census with the last name “Washington” identify themselves as African-Americans.
The story of how Washington became the “blackest name” begins with slavery and takes a sharp turn after the Civil War, when all blacks were allowed the dignity of a surname…Even before Emancipation, many enslaved black people chose their own surnames to establish their identities. Afterward, some historians theorize, large numbers of blacks chose the name Washington in the process of asserting their freedom.
While many blacks chose the name “Washington” to declare their freedom, the name is forever tied to its past. Not only was George Washington the first President of the young republic, he was also a slave owner. In this sense he was a man representative of the promise of America as well as the flaws it still struggles with more than two centuries after it’s birth.
For me the last name Washington has a particularly interesting story. Raised in a town known for the most handsomest Washington of them all (Denzel, duh), attended the university named after our country’s first President which coincidentally also claims the actress Kerry Washington as an alum. Like most people, I know at least seven or eight people with the last name. The biggest question Jesse Washington’s piece left me with though was why? Why did so many of our ancestors keep or choose the names that had been given to them by the cruel system of slavery?
The piece quotes Ron Chernow, a biographer who spoke on the popularity of the Washington name, saying:
“I find it touching that freed blacks wanted to identify with the American tradition and the American dream,” says Chernow, the biographer. “It makes a powerful statement.”
Blacks choosing the “Washington” name after the Civil War has indeed become a bold testament to their history in this country. Though the years, it has been passed on perpetuating the reclaiming and reattribution of the most revered of American heroes to one of the most resilient ethnic groups.
This President’s day the question for Washingtons and non-Washingtons alike: what does the legacy of the ‘Blackest’ name in America mean to us now?