By Joseph Phillips
With more than 40 years of research experience and more than 200 years’ worth of information gathered through DNA, historian John F. Baker Jr., author of the Slave Plantation Book: “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom,” sat down with the Crusader last month to discuss history, research, family, and how slavery in America is still impacting most African American families.
“For more than 40 years now I’ve conducted genealogical and historical research on the Wessyngton Plantation,” said Baker. “It was founded by Joseph Washington, a distant relative of George Washington, the first president of the United States.”
Baker, also known as an award-winning documentarian, said his thirst for his ancestry knowledge, a research project idea that developed into a research journey, began after he opened a social studies book in the seventh grade; he was drawn to a photo of a few individuals who might possibly have been his ancestors. Baker said the photograph in the book was of four former slaves, and he learned that two of the individuals were actually his grandmother’s grandparents.
After noticing this photo, Baker said he began his lifelong research project that would become “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation.” With more than 40 years of archival, field research and DNA testing spanning 250 years, Baker has produced and written some of the most exciting works and slave narratives since Alex Haley’s “Roots.”
Known as a descendant of Wessyngton slaves, Baker has not only written his own family’s story but included the history of hundreds of other slaves and their descendants, which now numbers in the thousands throughout the United States.
Throughout the book, Baker features more than one hundred rare photographs and portraits of African Americans who were slaves on the plantation.
Baker remarked during the interview that Washington’s plantation actually covered 13,000 acres and held approximately 450 slaves, whose labor helped the plantation become the largest tobacco plantation in America by 1860. He also said that since establishing the plantation back in 1796, the Washington family had sold only two slaves, so that slave families back then remained intact for generations to come.
According to Baker, many of the slave descendants still reside in the area surrounding the plantation, located in Cedar Hill, Tennessee. Baker shared that the Washington family owned the plantation until 1983, and their family papers are currently housed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which includes more than 11,000 documents, slave birth registers and Slaves Bills of Sale from 1795 to 1860, as well as letters and diaries.
Baker noted that he also conducted dozens of interviews, where three of his subjects were more than 100 years old, and discovered caches of historic photographs and paintings. “My main goal is to preserve all of this information for future generations,” he said.
In addition to the book, Baker’s project helped launch the Historical Slave Memorial at Wessyngton Plantation. It is unique in America, because it pays homage to those who were enslaved, by inscribing the names, the birth dates, and the death dates of 446 African Americans. The list of names includes the 100 people who are known to be buried there, and those who served in the United States Colored Troops.
The granite monument, measuring 6 feet high x 12 feet long x 14 inches deep, was erected by Washington family descendants in 2015.
The large cemetery is surrounded by a 640-foot wrought iron fence, funded by a Washington family descendant. The Wessyngton African American Preservation Association was incorporated in 2017.
For information on how to order “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom,” visit: https://www.wessyngton.com.