Author shows that history begins at home

Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 11:45pm
By Todd Dills,

When John F. Baker Jr. launched into what became a research project stretching more than three decades on the history of his mother’s family, writing a book was far from his thoughts. He was in the seventh grade, after all.

But he was driven by a curiosity that never waned in subsequent years, and that sense girds the upbeat spirit of The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation [Atria Books, $16], a rare hybrid of oral history, traditional chronicle and memoir. In it, Baker brings alive both antebellum and postbellum life on a quintessentially Middle Tennessee plantation, tightly weaving throughout the quality of urgency that has characterized his life’s pursuit.

It was a picture in his seventh-grade social studies textbook — in a chapter called “Black Tennesseans” — that set Baker, born and raised in and around Springfield, Tenn., on his path.

“In the 1970s, little was taught in public schools about black history other than the Civil War period,” he writes. And the two seated figures in the photo reminded him of people he knew. The woman of the dignified-looking pair, whose image now graces the cover of The Washingtons, looked a lot like Baker’s grandmother, Sallie Washington Nicholson, then living in Chicago.

On her next trip back to Tennessee, Nicholson invited Baker out to visit her siblings in nearby Cedar Hill, where she showed him the same 1891 photograph he’d found in his history book. That picture, a newspaper reproduction, included a list of the names of the former slaves of Wessyngton Farm, known more commonly by then as “Washington.” The seated figures in the picture, it turned out, were in fact Nicholson’s grandmother and grandfather, Emanuel and Hettie Washington — Baker’s great-great-grandparents.

Wessyngton — 15,000 acres at its largest, just prior to the Civil War — was located about 10 miles northwest of Springfield. Many of the 274 slaves on the plantation at its pre-Civil War height were either brought there or descended from slaves brought to Tennessee by Joseph Washington, a “close cousin” of the founding father of the American republic, when he ventured into the frontier in 1796 to make a new life.

In the Washington Family Papers archive at the Tennessee State Library and Archive in Nashville, Baker discovered many of the pieces of the “jigsaw puzzle” of a story he would spend the next 30 years assembling — from the plantation’s small beginnings to its heyday, at the time of the Civil War, as the biggest tobacco-producing outfit in the country.

Baker’s depiction of slave life and culture, on and off the plantation, is both meticulous and moving, based not just on archival research but also on extensive interviews with the slaves’ descendants. Where appropriate, particularly at the outset and conclusion of the book, Baker drops in literal transcriptions of interviews to highlight particular voices among the protagonists’ descendants.

One of them is Mattie Terry, born in 1889, whom Baker interviewed several times early on in his research. Terry lays out some of the realities of life at Wessyngton, remembering her own work in the “Big House” on the farm well after the Civil War’s end.

Baker was fortunate to have the cooperation of the descendants of the white Washingtons, as well as that of his own family. His research also benefited from a particular facet of plantation history: most Wessyngton slave families remained together on the plantation in the antebellum period. While there were instances of “problem” slaves being sold in the New Orleans market, in most cases the white Washingtons respected the family units among the slaves.

Also fortunate for Baker was his female family members’ longevity, which worked in his favor well into the 1990s. In fact, an interview in 1992 with then-94-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, who lived in Atlanta, led him to the final piece of his story. Cooper was able to tell Baker about the last years of Granville Washington, the light-skinned African-American son of plantation owner George A. Washington, son of Joseph, who fathered Granville by a slave girl when he was 14 years old. Granville, it turned out, was also one of Baker’s distant relatives.

Granville’s final years, spent mostly in Nashville, put a captivating end to a dramatic tale, and it would be a spoiler to include any more about them here. It’s enough to say that the generations covered in this personal and cultural history span the entire history of the American experiment, from the first U.S. president to rapper Clifford Smith to 106-year-old Cooper, whom Barack Obama mentioned in his acceptance speech the night of his election as president: “He was thinking of Ann Nixon Cooper, who at 106 years old cast her ballot in Atlanta,” Baker writes, and “the last lines of President-elect Obama’s inspiring speech brought her into the future as well, when he wondered about our children and his own: If they live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, ‘What change will they see? What progress will we have made?’ “

Baker’s story is about progress, after all: emotionally, historically and socially. The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation is a treat — brilliant in conception, tight in craft, a treasure of cultural history and a heady page-turner, all at once.

For more local book coverage, visit Humanities Tennessee's online journal,