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The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom Paperback – Bargain Price, January 5, 2010

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About the Author

John F. Baker Jr. is a recipient of a national award from the American Association for State and Local History. This is his first book. For more information about his research, go to his website at 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

The Photo in My Textbook

As a young child in the 1960s, my maternal grandfather took me for a ride in the country nearly every Sunday afternoon after church. We would drive about ten miles northwest of Springfield, Tennessee, and would pass by an impressive mansion, which sat some distance off the road. My grandfather would say, "That's Washington, where your people came from on your grandmother's side."

I discovered the story of my ancestors by accident while flipping through the pages of my seventh-grade social studies book, Your Tennessee. At the beginning of the chapter "Black Tennesseans," I spotted a photograph of four African Americans. In the 1970s little was taught in public schools about black history other than the Civil War period, so the picture really intrigued me. I kept being drawn to this photograph and examined it carefully. The people were dressed well and looked dignified. I knew from their clothing that the photo was nearly one hundred years old. Each time I went to class, I would turn to the photo because the couple seated reminded me of some of my family members -- the woman and my maternal grandmother especially.

My grandmother Sallie Washington Nicholson moved to Indianapolis in 1941 and from there to Chicago. Each year she would come home to visit. On her visit, in 1976, when I was thirteen years old, she spent the weekend with her brother and sister-in-law Bob and Maggie Washington in Cedar Hill. She called my mother and told her to have me bring a camera when we came to pick her up because she had something she wanted me to photograph. When my mother and I arrived, my grandmother showed us an article from the Robertson County Times, published in Springfield. I immediately realized that this was the same photograph I had seen in my school textbook. The caption under the photograph listed the names of the former slaves, the owner, and the name of the plantation: Wessyngton. The caption read: "Another of the pictures from Wessyngton. Seated left: Emanuel Washington, Uncle Man the cook, seated right: Hettie Washington, Aunt Henny the head laundress (Uncle Man's wife), standing left: Allen Washington, the head dairyman, standing right: Granville Washington (George A. Washington's valet or body servant). Taken at Wessyngton [1891]."

I remember to this day what happened next:

"Who are these people, Big Mama?" I asked.

"That's my grandfather and grandmother," she said, pointing to the seated couple. "My grandfather was the cook at Washington." I knew that she was really talking about Wessyngton because most black people in the area refer to the plantation as Washington. "And that is where we got the Washington name."

Although I had seen the photograph in the textbook many times, it assumed a different meaning once I knew that those people were my ancestors. I was in shock. I could hardly wait to get back to school and tell my classmates that my ancestors were in our history book. I looked at each person in the photograph carefully. I looked at Emanuel, Henny, Allen, and then Granville. Pointing to Granville, I asked, "Who is this white man? Was he the slave owner?" My grandmother and uncle replied at the same time, "He's not white, he is related to us too! Granville was our cousin. Papa used to talk about him all the time. He said George Washington who owned the Washington farm was his father by a slave girl. Granville's mother was kin to Papa on his mother's side of the family."

Sallie Washington Nicholson,
My Grandmother, 1909-1995

I was the youngest child in the family. My mother died having twins when I was three. My parents were Amos and Callie White Washington. My father was born at Washington in 1870, his parents were Emanuel and Henny Washington, who were born slaves on the Washington plantation. My grandfather died before I was born, and our grandmother died when I was too little to remember her, but Papa used to talk about them and our other relatives all the time. His daddy was the cook at Washington [Wessyngton] and when Papa was just a small boy he used to follow his daddy around the Big House and played in the kitchen at Washington while his daddy worked. Papa could make cornbread that was as good as cake. I guess he learned that from his daddy. Papa said he was taught to read and write by some of the Washington children he played with as a child.

Did they ever say how the slaves were treated at Washington?

Papa said they always treated his daddy like he was part of the family because he was the cook and used to tell all the children ghost stories. Papa said his daddy was the best cook there was. I don't know if they treated them all like they did him or not. They say the Washingtons never caused the breakup of families by selling slaves from the plantation. Our grandmother Henny was part Indian and so was our mother's father, Bob White. After our grandfather got too old to cook and went blind, John Phillips cooked at Washington. He married our cousin Annie Washington who was Cousin Gabe Washington's daughter. I think Cousin Gabe was the last of the slaves that stayed there after they were freed. I used to talk to him all the time when we went down there. The Washingtons were really fond of him too. When we were children just about all older people were called "uncle" or "auntie" whether they were related or not. This made it that much harder to tell how everybody was kin. We even had to address our older sisters and brothers with a title. You could not just call them by their first names. That is why I say Sister Cora.

I always wondered why you called Aunt Cora "Sister Cora" and she didn't say "sister" when she was talking to you.

That's because she was the oldest. I called my brother Baxter and sister Henrietta by their names because they were closer to my age.

A lot of our cousins lived down at Washington when we were growing up. Allen Washington that's on the picture with our grandparents was Guss Washington's grandfather. Guss married our cousin Carrie, and both of them worked down at Washington for years and years. You can probably talk to Carrie, because she can remember lots of things and so will Sister Cora.

When we were children Papa used to make sure we went to church. We went to the Antioch Baptist Church in Turnersville. Papa always sent us, but he never went there, he always said he belonged to a white Catholic church [possibly St. Michael's]. He later joined South Baptist Church in Springfield and was baptized when he was in his eighties. When I was a child Papa always told us to pray at night as if it was our last time to make sure we went to Heaven, and never go to bed angry with anyone without making things right. He said that's how his parents taught him to pray.

I went to school in Sandy Springs at Scott's School and some at Antioch School. Our cousin Clarine Darden was my first teacher. My mother died when I was small, so they started me to school early. I can't even remember what Mama looked like. When I first married your grandfather, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked toward the foot of my bed and there Mama stood. I was afraid and hid my head under the covers. I looked out a second time and she was still there. I could not wake your grandfather, so I was afraid to look out again. After I described her to my brother and sister they said it was our mother.

After Mama died, my father married Jenny Scott, she was the daughter of Mr. Joe Scott and Mrs. Fannie Scott, who lived down by Scott's Cemetery. Mr. Joe Scott was a Washington slave too.

My mama's mother lived near us. Her name was Fannie Connell White Long. She was a midwife who delivered black and white babies. We called her Granny Fanny. She died in 1920 during the flu epidemic. A whole lot of people died with the flu back then and tuberculosis. My sister Henrietta died from tuberculosis one month before your mother was born in 1928. Henrietta always looked after me after Mama died, and so did Bob. Some of our family was buried in White's Cemetery, which was owned by our family. My great-grandfather Henry White bought that property right after he was freed.

On the fourth Sunday in May they hold Antioch Baptist Church's homecoming. There would be people from everywhere. I used to go often to get to see our relatives and friends who had moved up North.

They used to have a hayride in town in Springfield that used to go down to Washington when I was young. When I was carrying your mother, we went down there and a boy fell off the wagon, Curtis "Six Deuce" Meneese, and had to have his leg amputated. I never went on the ride after that. Several of our cousins still lived at Washington then.

Our family came here with the first Washington that started the plantation. I don't know what year it was, but I think our family was there the whole time or close to the start of it. Most of our family stayed there after they were set free.

Bob Washington, My Great-uncle,

I remember my granddaddy and grandmamma. Everybody called my granddaddy 'Uncle Man,' but his name was Emanuel. Our grandmother was named Henny. Our sister Henrietta was named after her. Our mother died having twins in 1913, and Grandpa Man's sister, Aunt Sue, stayed with us to help Papa out with the children. I remember her burning the toast when she cooked and wanted us to eat it anyway. She was born a slave down at Washington and was older than our grandfather. She was probably close to one hundred when she died. Grandpa Man had another sister, Clara Washington; she died in 1925 and was nearly one hundred when she died; she was Jenny Hayes's mother. Most of our people have lived to get pretty old. Papa had a brother named Grundy Washington who lived in Clarksville, Tennessee. He had ten or twelve children too. We have relatives everywhere. Many of them moved up North. Our oldest brother, Willie, moved up North, then our brother Baxter and your grandmother later moved up there. Some of...


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Atria (January 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416567410
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,201,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John F. Baker Jr. was born in 1962, in Springfield, Tennessee near Nashville. Baker is the author of his first and recently published book The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom, published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

When Baker was in the seventh grade, he saw a photograph of four former slaves in his social studies textbook. When he learned that two of them were his grandmother's paternal grandparents Emanuel and Henny Washington, he began the lifelong research project that would become The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation.

Baker tells the story of his ancestors, who were enslaved on Wessyngton Plantation owned by the Washington family as well as the story of the hundreds of other African Americans connected with the plantation for more than two centuries. It is a story of family, faith, and community.

Founded in 1796 by Joseph Washington, a distant cousin of America's first president, Wessyngton Plantation covered 15,000 acres and held an enslaved population of 274 African Americans (the largest in the state of Tennessee) whose labor made it the largest tobacco operation in America, and the second largest in the world.

Only two slaves were ever sold from Wessyngton Plantation so the African Americans there formed family groups that remained intact for generations. Many of their descendants, including Baker, remain in the area close to the plantation. Others, now numbering in the tens of thousands, live throughout the United States.

For more than twenty years, Baker conducted genealogical research on Wessyngton families along traditional lines. In 2003, he incorporated DNA testing to expand his research and founded the Wessyngton DNA Project.

The Wessyngton DNA Project included descendants of enslaved families from Wessyngton Plantation from 1796-1865 and descendants of the plantation owner.

The Washington Family Papers have been Baker's primary source of research. In the course of more than thirty years of research, he has viewed more than 11,000 documents countless times to unravel his ancestry and the other Wessyngton families.

In addition to collecting information from his own family members, he has had the honor of interviewing more than twenty-five children and grandchildren of former Wessyngton slaves (ranging in age from 80 to 107). They shared many first-hand accounts of life on the plantation told by their ancestors who were enslaved there.

Descendants of the plantation owners were very instrumental in this ongoing research of the plantation's history. Many of them shared their remembrances, as well as photographs and portraits of former Wessyngton slaves.

Wessyngton Plantation, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a working farm. The mansion, built brick by brick by its slaves, still stands as does a slave cabin and its slave cemetery.

Research into his family's past has been a groundbreaking work of history and a deeply personal journey of discovery. The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation is an uplifting story of survival and family; it honors the memory of our ancestors, their struggles and their achievements.

For more on the author's research:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Bay Gibbons VINE VOICE on January 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
John F. Baker, Jr.'s magnificent account of the 200 year history of Wessyngton Plantation in Tennessee is one of the most significant books on U.S. history of the past decade. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it is at once fascinating, compelling, enlightening and deeply moving. It is finally a work of magnificent hope. It is a celebration of the indomitable power of family connections and the rich inheritance of the generations of humankind.

Baker's thirty year research began with his discovery in Junior High School that the portrait of four slaves printed in his social studies textbook included two of his own great, great grandparents. He had discovered his lifework! In his early teens, his parents drove him to state archives and to the vast Wessyngton plantation where for 187 years the Washington family had run the largest tobacco plantation in America, largely with the labor of many generations of slaves and their free descendants. Remarkably, the Washington family had never sold a single slave from the Wessynton plantation operation, and so the African-American family life on the plantation was largely left intact for upwards of two centuries. Baker began by interviewing his elderly family members, and then pored over the treasure trove of Wessynton documents in the state archives. Ultimately his research branched out into participation in the archaeological digs of the original slave cabins on the plantation and into a vast DNA project involving hundreds of descendants of Wessyngton slaves. The result is the single most significant work on the history of slavery in the United States of the past decade.

Some additional thoughts:

1. One of the most remarkable aspects of Baker's work is the tone of his writing.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Irishman65 on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Clearly, John F. Baker Jr. has completed a labor of love with the amazing history he has chronicled in THE WASHINGTONS OF WESSYNGTON PLANTATION but many readers may wonder what's in it for them, if biographies and autobiographies are not their usual choice. The answer would be an amazing view into history that reasonates because of the large collection of original images and text; such as the quote at the beginning of chapter nine from Andrew Jackson's favorite slave, "How would you like to be a slave?" "Page-turner" is not always a term we apply to non-fiction but that is what this book is, you start reading and the authentic quotes hold and haunt you. The text is told in plain straight-forward fashion which makes it even more dramatic because the reader experiences the real happenings, including tales of a suicide, the war, education, etc. If you love history, biographies, or autobiographies this is an absolute must. If you don't normally love this genre, this is the book to read. You will better understand our history and come away touched by this family.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By M. Hyman VINE VOICE on January 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is a mix. It traces the lives of plantation owners and slaves and their descendants over a period of 200 years. The author is clearly passionate about genealogy and has collected an amazing set of photographs and stories about his family and those of the plantation owners. He was fortunate enough to start his research early in life and has collected in person stories from many people who were born in the 1800s, giving him invaluable first hand recollections. The book is interesting in that it shows the stories of both the slave families and plantation owner families, and thus shows two sides of this history, all with photographs and backing documents.

The problem with this book is that it seems to have several audiences. At times, it is a book for a general audience, giving stories and context to paint a sense of the times and how the different parts of society fit together and adapted to the changes. At times it seems that it is a personal family story not meant for anyone except the immediate family -- for example information from told stories will include sections that don't have any general interest -- and lacking a family tree (which it should have) at points it is impossible to track the set of people being discussed. At other times it seems more like an encyclopedia, and there are large sections that are impossible to read (e.g., a sentence listing all of the occupations ... maybe 20 in all; a sentence enumerating a dozen or so diseases people had; a section with the 16 names of white families and 12 names of black families...); at other points it almost reads like a diary.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By To Be Simple VINE VOICE on February 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It is not often that a history book of any sort is so good that it floors me, especially family histories. I enjoy reading family histories and about the history of the South, so I already have a predisposition to enjoying those topics. "The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation," by John F. Baker, Jr. takes things to a new level. I literally read the book in one very long sitting due to being so draw in by this incredible work. As a history buff I am still marveling at the author's breadth of research, ability to bring to life so many people, and all the while maintaining a historian's objectivity. This book is one of the rare ones that I will read several times.

I will not repeat the product description of this book since the one provided by Amazon does a nice job of letting the reader know what is in store. What I will do is give an overall analysis of the various facets of a book of this nature.

First, the research. Baker did an enormous amount of research for this book. He draws from literally hundreds of interviews, family records, local and state records, oral histories, letters, diaries, speeches, and photographs. He also brings DNA testing into play that spans well over 250 years. I challenge anyone to show me a book about the life of slaves with more meticulous research than this one.

Second, the photographs. The photographs add significantly to the text. There are dozens of photographs, dating back to as early as the 1800s. Just looking at the photographs alone is incredibly interesting.

Third, the organization of the book. I do not envy the author's task of taking so much research and paring it down to around 400 pages. I am sure he could have written several large volumes from the material he gathered.
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