"I Cannot Tell A Lie" Interview For The History Network | L.A.Hollis
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"I Cannot Tell A Lie" Interview For The History Network

To: Edward Pompeian
Date: 3/2/05
Interview: Linda Allen Bryant

1. What types of stories do cases like yours tell about America’s founding fathers, about Colonial American culture, and about the contributions of African American slaves to American culture (both in the 18th and 19th centuries and today)?

West Ford’s story is just one of many unknown truths in American history. My family’s legacy, and others of a similar vein, furnishes a preface to racial understanding by unfolding a dramatic story of the mores of the times during the antebellum era of slavery. Such a study necessarily involves an effort to penetrate the true characters of the real giants of the day – Washington and Jefferson. Both owned slaves and both were willing to compromise on issues of slavery in the interests of strengthening the nation. Only a few men of 1776 considered the “peculiar” institution of slavery permanently necessary. Many others assumed that slavery would gradually end within the next century as the institution was simply a vehicle of economic need. Still, all the signs suggested that slavery was a terminal institution in the nation at the time of the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in 1789. It appears that the founding fathers could not square the principles of the Declaration with the perpetuation of human bondage.
In their accommodation to slavery, the founding fathers created a Constitution of aristocratic privilege for whites while accepting black enslavement. They carefully withheld any indication of moral approval while building a new nation under God with liberty and justice for all. Although the core principles of the Constitution are considered today as the greatest instrument to human liberty in erecting a government, the founding father’s love of country outweighed their love of justice. I believe that the curse of slavery is a scar on their moral record. These great men missed the opportunity to put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction.
The most important thing to be said about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved is that millions of blacks endured the institution by making a better world for themselves. Their story is a combination of the tragic and the heroic, of denial and affirmations. Yet, in the midst of their bondage, a viable African-American culture emerged. It is time for all Americans to view afresh the historic role of their black counterparts and the contributions they have made in the fields of science, music, literature and art. African American’s contributions to the making of this great country are more than a shameful entry in the book of America’s slavery past.

2. If it was proven that Washington was indeed the father of West Ford, how would this change American history?

If it is proven via DNA that Washington fathered West Ford, I believe it would offer African Americans a sense of connection with the founding of this country besides one of slavery. I would hope that revealing the truth about George Washington fathering a slave son would also serve as a catalyst toward greater racial reconciliation amongst all Americans.
George Washington fathering West Ford would also lend some creditability to oral history, which is the starting point in genealogy. Oral traditions often provide the core foundations of family histories, particularly in the case of African Americans.

3. Conversely, if your claim was proven to be false, how would this affect your family’s efforts?

My family and I are confident about our claim of George Washington planting our family tree. Conversely, if proven that another Washington was the father of West Ford, we would accept that totally.

4. In the iUniverse promotion that appears in the Times Book Review, the ad reads,

“not one publisher wanted to touch it. Too controversial, was the feedback we received from publisher after publisher.”

Why, in your view, has your work been labeled so controversial? If it is so controversial, why did iUniverse choose to publish it?

My family’s claim of the Ford/Washington connection challenges two centuries of documented national history that records George Washington as a childless man. Many of the top publishing houses shied away from the story because of its explosive nature. The nation’s first president had enjoyed a spotless reputation until our family’s heritage was revealed. West Ford’s story is just one of many unknown truths in American history and that in itself makes for the controversy.
After a thorough review of I Cannot Tell A Lie, iUniverse felt that my family’s heritage should be revealed and agreed to publish my book.

5. Is it fallacious to claim, lacking conclusive evidence, that you are a direct descendent of George Washington, as your ad does?

No, I don’t believe our claim to the Washington bloodline is a fallacious one. The facts about our family lineage in I Cannot Tell A Lie can be documented. No living person can testify to the act that conceived West Ford, but the testimony of Venus, the woman who contributed one half of his genes, is available to the public for the first time in my book. Venus revealed the identity of the father to the son, who in turn told his son. Thus, the Ford family origins were preserved in oral a document that has endured for over two centuries. For those wanting more “proof” they can read I Cannot Tell A Lie’s reference section.

I would like to share in this interview comparison portraits of George Washington and West Ford at similar ages. I firmly believe in the old adage that a picture speaks a thousands words.

6. Can you point to any mainstream historians who back your claim?

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek, reference much of the data in my book, I Cannot Tell A Lie. The book description states:

“Wiencek's revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington's determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility -- as the oral history of Mount Vernon's slave descendants has long asserted -- that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true.”

7. How do you feel the American public and scholars should respond to oral histories like the one that has been passed on through your family?

I would hope that my family’s story creates some excitement in the fact that there are living descendants of the first president of the United States. My family sees our heritage as symbolic of the nation’s shared history. I can state that the initial public response to our story has been very positive.
To scholars I would say that most people record the memories of their lives and the lives of their family members and relations through oral history. Unfortunately, genealogical documentation for African Americans during the era of slavery is virtually nonexistent. This is in part because many slaves could not provide written information as to their origins. Instead, family histories were preserved through memory and relayed through story telling. I believe oral history recorded from slaves and ex-slaves is a viable source of information and a good starting point to begin one’s genealogical research.
In our particular oral history, West Ford told his grandson, George Ford, that the ole general (George Washington) was his father. George Ford in turn relayed the information to his grand-daughter, Elise Ford Allen, my mother. Anyone can discern that this is a very close connection in time for passing on the paternity of West Ford.

8. What historical evidence suggests that Washington visited the Bushrod Plantation in 1784 or at anytime between 1783-1787?

Washington’s diary entries show that his brother John was at Mount Vernon a number of times in the years between 1760 and 1786. There is also correspondence available that reports that John Augustine visited his brother in June of 1784, (Letter from George Washington to John Augustine, June 30, 1784). Other recorded dates the brothers were in each other’s company are June 1785, October 1785, and October 1786. (The Washingtons and Their Homes, by John W. Wayland).
One date proposed for George and Venus’ initial liaison was after the death of Washington’s nephew, Augustine, in 1784. In a letter dated April 4, 1784, from John Augustine to George Washington, he states:

“Should Bushrod return shortly, as soon as he has spent some days with his Mama and recovered from the fatigue of his Journey, he and Corbin and my Self will do ourselves the pleasure of waiting on you, unless I should hear that you are gone to the northward.”

One particular reference in Wayland’s book includes an excerpt taken from a letter to George Washington from John Augustine, dated July 17, 1785, that read:

“Previous to my setting off to Mt. Vernon and Alexandria the last time I was up, a great Coat of yours that you had been kind enough to lend my son Corbin when he was last at your House, and a book that my Wife’s maid the time before the last that she was there had put up supposing it to be her Mistresses, as she had one in the Chariott to read on the road, but I forgot both and brought them back…”

Venus, being a house servant in a maid’s capacity for John Augustine’s wife, would have accompanied her mistress to Mount Vernon.
Philip D. Morgan’s “Slave Counterpoint—Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeak & Lowcountry” 1998, The University of North Carolina Press, on page 356 mentions George Washington and Venus: “George Washington estimated that his servants stole two glasses of wine to every one he consumed. Venus did “everything in her power to provoke” her master to remove her from the household and send her to an outlying quarter, and eventually won her wish.”
These two sentences in his text occur one after the other, suggesting Venus and George knew of each other.

9. How do you respond to critics who claim the evidence for such a meeting is inconclusive?

I contend that what historians think they know about Washington's daily schedule through his diaries, does not preclude his having had a sexual liaison with a slave. James Thomas Flexner, an early biographer of George Washington, stated in his book titled, George Washington—The Forge of Experience that: “George Washington’s earlier diaries never contained those personal soliloquies in which a man speaks freely to his most intelligent, beloved, and understanding friend—himself.” Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Washington would record his dalliances with Venus or their son, West Ford.
Lastly, I am fully aware that my family’s claim to the Washington bloodline has many Washington supporters rushing to defend his honor. Let me state that my family in no way wishes to denigrate George Washington, but merely want the validation of who we are in American history for our children and our children’s children.

10. Why did you choose to publish a narrative account of this incident that relies on fiction techniques?

I wrote I Cannot Tell A Lie as narrative nonfiction for a variety of reasons. This format allowed me to relay my heritage in the way it was passed down to me at annual family reunions. The book was written in a style that allows the reader the full glimpses into the workings of the minds of my ancestors with all the nuances of their character and the events that shaped the lives of their descendants. It is an accessible format through which the Ford family history might be considered, while offering a compelling exposure to the many sociopolitical issues surrounding the claim to the Washington bloodline.
The text is heavily supported and enhanced by actual historical accounts, placing Ford family members with prominent figures such as General George Custer, W.E.B. Dubois and another American President, Teddy Roosevelt. I have also added an extensive reference section that will be of great interest to anyone wanting documentation of my family’s claim to the Washington family tree. This and other authentic letters and excerpts from last wills and testaments, land grants, journals, newspaper articles, tax records, and national archives are peppered throughout I Cannot Tell A Lie and add to the depth of our intriguing story.
This original material was presented to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association at a historic 2000 meeting as documentation of my family’s heritage.

11. How would you respond to critics who argue that your book, with a very explosive premise and a very controversial claim, unjustifiably fudges the lines between truth and falsity?

I am aware that the story of George Washington fathering a slave son is a controversial one and I expect to draw a variety of responses. But I believe the free flow of opinions is a positive thing. I also contend that the disclosure of the Washington/Ford connection requires a review and reassessment of how history has perceived the first president and his “supposedly” childless state.

12. Why do you believe the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is reticent to provide a DNA sample for genetic comparison?

You’ll need to ask them that question.