The parents of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) moved with slaves to Missouri, where he was born, from Tennessee, where he was conceived. So we sought a Tennessee location where we could experience the life and death of slaves.
There undoubtedly is no better location than the Wessyngton Plantation, established in 1796 by Joseph Washington, a distant cousin of George Washington, and no better guide around the plantation grounds than John F. Baker Jr., a descendant of Wessyngton slaves.
Over more than three decades, Baker conducted DNA testing, interviewed dozens of descendants (three more than 100 years old) and laboriously reviewed 59 rolls of microfilmed plantation records. As for the 274 slaves who worked the plantation’s 15,000 acres and made it the largest tobacco plantation in America, Baker says, “I feel I know these individuals personally.”
He has created family trees for descendants of the plantation’s slaves that are filled with 400 to 600 names. He has helped erect a stone monument to the slaves in what had been their cemetery, about a quarter-mile through fields and cow pies from the main house and the cemetery for the plantation’s white owners. He has conducted dozens of tours of a reconstructed slave quarter, not far from where 40 slave quarters used to stand.
Baker’s almost lifelong research began in the seventh grade when he felt himself drawn to a photo of four former slaves in a school textbook about Tennessee history. He soon learned that two of them were his –great-great-grandparents. His history of the plantation—The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation—contains more than one hundred photos, including a front-cover photo of four slaves, one of whom looks as white as the plantation’s owners and reminds us that the slaves and their owners were often literally family.
Dan Tham’s video captures some of that slave history, as told by Baker.