George Washington’s name is inseparable from America, and not only from the nation’s history. It identifies countless streets, buildings, mountains, bridges, monuments, cities — and people.
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.
It’s a myth that most enslaved blacks bore the last name of their owner. Only a handful of George Washington’s hundreds of slaves did, for example, and he recorded most as having just a first name, says Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon.
Sometimes blacks used the surname of the owner of their oldest known ancestor as a way to maintain their identity.
Last names also could have been plucked out of thin air. Booker T. Washington, one of the most famous blacks of the post-slavery period, apparently had two of those.
He was a boy when Emancipation freed him from a Virginia plantation. After enrolling in school, he noticed other children had last names, while the only thing he had ever been called was Booker.
“So, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him, ‘Booker Washington,’ ” he wrote in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery.” Later in life, he found out that his mother had named him “Booker Taliaferro” at birth, so he added a middle name.
Did enslaved people feel inspired by Washington and take his name in tribute, or were they seeking some benefits from the association? Did newly freed people take the name as a mark of devotion to their country?
But for black people who chose the name Washington, it’s rarely certain precisely why.
“It’s an assumption that the surname is tied to George,” says Tony Burroughs, an expert on black genealogy, who says 82 to 94 percent of all Washingtons listed in the 1880 to 1930 censuses were black.
“There is no direct evidence,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned it’s a coincidence.”
Coincidence or not, today the numbers are equally stark. Washington was listed 138th when the Census Bureau published a list of the 1,000 most common American surnames from the 2000 survey, along with ethnic data. The project was not repeated in 2010.
Ninety percent of those Washingtons, numbering 146,520, were black. Only five percent, or 8,813, were white. Three percent were two or more races, 1 percent were Hispanic and 1 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.
Jefferson was the second-blackest name, at 75 percent African-American. There were only 16,070 Lincolns, and that number was only 14 percent black.
(The name Black was 68 percent white, meaning there were far more white Blacks than black Blacks. The name White, meanwhile, was 19 percent black.)
Many present-day Washingtons are surprised to learn their name is not 100 percent black.
“Growing up, I just knew that only black people had my last name,” says Shannon Washington, of New York City. Like many others, she has never met a white Washington.