From textbook photo to a book about slavery

Published 1:35 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

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It started when John Baker was a seventh grader at Westside Elementary School in Springfield. While paging through his social studies book, he was drawn to an 1891 photo that showed four older people in front of Robertson County’s Wessyngton mansion. The people were all enslaved at Wessyngton before the war, the caption said.
Baker’s grandmother told him he was related to all four people. “That’s my grandmother and grandfather,” she told him, pointing to the seated couple.
This revelation inspired the 13-year-old to interview older family members (ranging in age from 80 to 107) and family friends. One was Mattie Terry, an elderly lady who lived down the street and who also had family connections to the Wessyngton plantation.
Terry told Baker stories that her great-grandmother Sarah (an enslaved person at Wessyngton) had told her years before. These included stories about what the slaves did, how hard they worked and even how they got in trouble for praying:
“Grandma Sarah told us that prayer meetings had to be held in secret on the plantation,” she said. “Slaves put overturned kettles and pots at their doors to muffle the sound of praying and singing.”
The more Baker learned, the more he wanted to know. His interest was fueled by the fact that the mansion was still standing and that it had a documented history. Consisting of more than 13,000 acres, Wessyngton had been the largest tobacco plantation in America before the Civil War. At that time its owner, George A. Washington (thought to be a distant relative of the president), had 274 slaves.
Baker took a tour of the Wessyngton plantation and its grounds, which included former slave cabins. He also visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives and studied its collection of Wessyngton papers, which included letters, newspaper articles, journals, diaries, slave bills of sale and doctor’s bills.
In 2009 Simon & Schuster published Baker’s book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of my Family’s Journey to Freedom. It reveals a lot about what slavery was like and how slavery evolved in Tennessee.
For instance, when Wessyngton founder Joseph Washington migrated west from Virginia in 1796, he had only two enslaved people. That number ballooned over the years. One of his first slave purchases was in 1802, when he acquired two girls named Sarah and Jenny. The bill of sale for the two girls is still on file at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
The slaves at Wessyngton worked in the house and on the grounds. They did most of the construction of the main mansion, including making the bricks from clay. They smoked hams and distilled whiskey (both of which the plantation became famous for). But mostly, they did the planting, caring and harvesting of tobacco.
Baker documented 88 instances over the years of slave “rebellion” — quarrelling, theft, disturbances, refusal to work and runaways. He found 11 times between 1838 and 1860 when slaves tried to escape. The only two of those 11 who made it to free territory were recaptured in Indiana and sent back to Tennessee.
Baker found no record of the Washingtons ever granting freedom to any of their enslaved people. For the slaves at Wessyngton, emancipation came during and after the Civil War. At that time, many of the former slaves left the area. But according to Baker’s research, nearly 100 of the former slaves remained in Robertson County, to work as sharecroppers or on their own farms.
In the process of his research, Baker learned the names, birth and death dates of 445 people who were enslaved at Wessyngton. About 200 of them are buried at Wessyngton, most without marked graves. Descendants of the Washingtons donated funds to erect a monument at the cemetery with all the names of all the people who were enslaved there, known to be buried there or who are assumed to be buried there. It is a remarkable tribute to the work by John Baker, which began from a photograph in a social studies textbook.
To learn more about John Baker and his work, go to
(The Tennessee History for Kids column is provided by the Tennessee Press Association)

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