Janet Allen and Linda Allen Bryant

Janet Allen, left, and Linda Allen Bryant, descendants of West Ford
photograph by S. Groer

The Father of Our Family - Thoughts From Linda Allen Bryant

Virtually every American can recite the story of George Washington and the cherry tree: When accused of chopping down the tree in his father’s orchard, Washington allegedly responded, "I cannot tell a lie." But the documented history about the childless state of our nation's first president is a lie, selectively omitting the information that Washington may have had a sexual relationship with an enslaved mulatto woman named Venus, resulting in the birth of a son, West Ford.

I learned the story of George Washington and the cherry tree from my elementary school history teachers. I learned the story of George Washington and West Ford from my mother, Elise Ford Allen. Consequently, I discovered that the first president of the United States was not only the father of our country; he was also my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

The Ford oral history has been handed down for over 200 years, beginning with the birth of West Ford in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It traces the lineage of Washington’s African American son through his four children-William, Daniel, Jane, and Julia-with his wife, Priscilla Bell, a free woman, to his descendants: the eleven children of Elise Ford and James O. Allen. I decided it was up to me-the fourth child in the Ford/Allen family-to tell our story.

Some of the information I have to offer may offend some historians. This was not my intention. Therefore, I apologize to fellow historians who may feel that I have been less than impartial with my interpretation. Despite my best efforts at detached scholarship, many of the issues detailed in our family history carry personal significance beyond their inherent academic value.

I have profited from the insight of Washington’s biographers, as one of my primary objectives has been to get to know the man behind the legend with all his flaws. I have also dissected and digested Washington’s personal diaries and letters with the intent of sharing a certain intimacy with him, to better understand him as my fifth great-grandfather and the father of West Ford.If, as I intend to prove, Washington did father West Ford, why haven’t historians or biographers mentioned his son? Information about West Ford has been widely available for those who seek it.

Over the years, numerous articles have been written about West Ford. The February 1977 edition of The Washington Post carried an article titled "Register of Freed Slaves Bares Fairfax County ‘Roots’, focusing on Ford’s success as a free Black man during slavery and speculating on his being the son of George Washington. The February 1983 edition of the Northern Virginia Heritage included pictures of West Ford as a youth and as an elderly man in his sixties. The November 8, 1985, edition of The New York Times carried an article discussing West Ford and his contributions to Gum Springs, Virginia. Since then, articles about West Ford have appeared in numerous regional, national, and international publications including The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, Newsweek, USA Today, The Peoria Journal, The Urban Spectrum, and The Chicago Tribune. The story has also been highlighted on the Internet and cited in the popular German magazine, Der Spiegel. Clearly, people are intrigued by the story of West Ford.

Have historians ignored West Ford as a possible heir of George Washington because he was black? Were they acting on the premise that discreet omission is the better part of scholarship? Maybe Washington’s early biographers did not want to associate miscegenation (mixing of the races) with America’s first president. Early biographers seem to have accomplished their goal of keeping Washington’s name blemish-free for over 200 years by omitting any reference to West Ford as Washington’s heir.

But what about modern-day biographers? We find it very curious that West Ford’s name has been bandied about for years and linked to the first president, although no one has made an effort to compile the various fragments of information into a coherent, convincing story that substantiates our claim. West Ford’s name is no secret to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has taken care of the Mount Vernon Plantation since 1858. The Association even has in its possession an ornate framed drawing of West Ford in his early twenties. Yet no modern-day biographers have written of the possibility of West Ford being the son of George Washington, perhaps taking their cue from skeptics such as Sally McDonough, the head of media relations for the Association who insists, "We have no evidence whatsoever that George Washington fathered any children. We don’t deny that West Ford was treated in a manner far above slave status, but he was not George Washington’s slave, nor could he have been his son."

But, despite their adamant insistence that there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that George Washington might have been West Ford’s father, the Association has repeatedly denied us access to Washington’s hair samples that could be used in a DNA test to help establish a link between Ford and Washington. What’s more, they insist that Ford’s body is "missing," despite evidence that strongly suggests Ford was buried near Washington’s tomb, on the land he lived on most of his life.

Many contemporary biographers dismiss these references to West Ford as mere hearsay. These same historians will point out that there are no records indicating that George Washington fathered any children with either his wife, Martha, or by a slave. Others speculate that Washington was most likely sterile because he contracted smallpox. And although Washington did have smallpox as a young man, there is no evidence indicating that the illness resulted in his sterility. My father, James O. Allen, had smallpox as a newborn. He later fathered eleven children.

West Ford was a free man at a time when many blacks were held in bondage. He was treated favorably by the Washington family and was educated. Of course, he would want his children and descendants to know of their unique heritage. Throughout the Ford family tree, the name "George" has a prominent place.

Oral history, the telling and retelling of family stories, is a common source of genealogical stories. Most people record the memories of their lives and the lives of their family members and relatives using oral history. Almost every family has heard family stories handed down orally. These oral histories are extremely valuable because they often include important genealogical as well as personal data found nowhere else.

During the era of slavery in American, genealogical documentation for blacks was virtually nonexistent because many slaves could not provide written information as to their origins, and slave/master unions generally were not recorded. Oral history recorded from freed persons, slaves, and ex-slaves is a viable source often neglected by genealogists.

Many historians do not want to place any credence on the Ford oral history. We have even been told that we have "misconstrued" our story. Clearly, these historians want to protect the good name of George Washington by any means necessary. Numerous African Americans have traced their history through oral tradition. One famous example is Alex Haley, who traced his heritage in Roots. Another is Sally Hemings, whose family has traced their ancestry to Thomas Jefferson. West Ford established his heritage the same way: by telling his story to his children.

People may wonder why the Ford family has waited so long to make this information public. It is because many of our family elders worried that the tale of their shared heritage with George Washington would spark racial reprisals during the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. But even the best-kept secrets eventually come to light. The secret of George Washington’s Black son has been kept for more than 200 years. It is time to bring it into the light. The Ford family wants to claim its heritage. We want the validation and vindication of who we are in American history for our children and our children’s children.

Our story may appear to be largely circumstantial or speculative, and many people may find our claim to be controversial. However, controversy often sets the stage for historical inquiry by stimulating new discoveries and interpretations. We, the African American heirs of West Ford, know our heritage, and it is our desire to preserve and document the Ford family history. Our intention is to offer both white and black Americans a sense of connectedness with the founding of this country. I believe that revealing the truth about George Washington’s African American son-his only blood heir-can serve as a catalyst toward greater racial reconciliation among all Americans. And I believe our story must be told.

I cannot tell a lie.

Linda Allen Bryant

Linda Allen Bryant is available for lectures and interviews about her family's unique heritage. She has also written a new book exploring the Ford lineage. For more information, click here.

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