John M. Washington (1838–1918)


John M. Washington was an enslaved man in Fredericksburg who escaped to freedom during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and later wrote a narrative of his life entitled Memorys of the Past. Born in Fredericksburg, Washington spent his earliest years on an Orange County plantation where his mother had been hired out as a field laborer. Upon their return to Fredericksburg, Washington served as his enslaver’s personal enslaved servant, remaining in that role even when his mother was hired out to a school principal in Staunton. In 1860, Washington labored in a Fredericksburg tobacco factory and then spent the next year as a waiter in Richmond. When Union troops occupied Fredericksburg in April 1862, he was tending bar in that city’s Shakespeare Hotel and used the opportunity to escape to Union lines. Washington worked at the headquarters of Union general Rufus King until Union troops abandoned the city on August 31. He escaped to Washington, D.C., and was eventually joined there by his wife and newborn son, his mother, and her husband. Washington worked as a painter after the war and was active in the Baptist church. He wrote his narrative in 1873 and died at the Massachusetts home of one of his sons in 1918.

Early Years

John Washington’s Early Life

Washington was born into slavery on May 20, 1838, in Fredericksburg, the eldest of five children of Sarah Tucker. (She adopted her surname after marrying years later.) Washington, Tucker, her mother, Molly Tucker, and perhaps other family members were enslaved by Catherine Ware Taliaferro and her second husband, Francis Whitaker Taliaferro. The identity of Washington’s father is unknown, although Washington later described himself as a “Small light haired boy (very often passing easily for a white boy),” suggesting that he may have been the son of a white man, perhaps Catherine Taliaferro’s first husband, Thomas R. Ware, or one of their two sons. The origins of Washington’s last name and middle initial are unknown.

In 1840 Catherine Taliaferro hired out Sarah Tucker to Richard L. Brown, a plantation owner in Orange County. Washington accompanied his mother, and his later recollections of those earliest years were largely positive. On February 19, 1841, the Fredericksburg Political Arena newspaper advertised a $10 reward for a “Negro Woman Sarah” who had run away. The historian David Blight has suggested the possibility that this was Washington’s mother, that she was recaptured, and that because Washington never mentions her absence in his later narrative, she never told him of her escape attempt.

Slave trader

When Washington was about four years old, his mother began teaching him to spell using a school primer. “I was kept at my lessons an hour or Two each night by My Mother,” he later wrote. He also recalled slave sales and coffles of enslaved men, women, and children beginning their journey to the Deep South. “It was not long before all on that farm was doomed to the Same fate,” he wrote. In 1848, Brown sold the farm and moved to western Virginia. Washington and his family returned to Fredericksburg.

Washington labored as Catherine Taliaferro’s personal enslaved servant, living with her on the second floor of the Farmers’ Bank building at the corner of George and Princess Ann streets. Washington’s mother and siblings lived nearby on George Street, with Sarah Tucker hiring herself out in order to support the family. About Christmas 1850, Taliaferro sent Tucker and her youngest children to work for the Reverend Richard H. Phillips in Staunton. Phillips was the principal of the Virginia Female Institute (later Stuart Hall) and married to Taliaferro’s niece, Eleanor Thom Phillips. Washington remained with Taliaferro in Fredericksburg, and he later recalled how the pain of that separation changed him. “Then and there My hatred was kindled Secretly against my oppressors,” he wrote, “and I promised Myself If ever I got an opporteunity I would run away from these devilish Slave holders.” Washington visited his family for several months in 1852, looking for an opportunity to escape but not finding one.

John M. Washington’s Family

On May 25, 1855, Washington underwent a conversion experience at the African Baptist Church in Fredericksburg and was baptized in the Rappahannock River on June 13, 1856, by the Reverend William F. Broaddus of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.

On January 3, 1862, Washington married Annie E. Gordon, a free Black woman he had courted since the spring of 1853. They had six sons, one of whom died in infancy.

Civil War


On January 1, 1859, Catherine Taliaferro hired out John Washington to her neighbor William T. Hart. A year later, on January 1, 1860, Washington was sent to labor six days a week in the Alexander and Gibbs tobacco factory in Fredericksburg. On January 1, 1861, Washington went to work at a restaurant in Richmond owned by the Greek immigrant Speredone Zetelle. After about six months, Zetelle sold the establishment to a German immigrant, Casper Wendlinger. Washington described both enslavers as “low, mean and course” men who “treated their Servants cruelly.” During the Christmas holiday of 1861, with the Civil War now underway, Washington received a pass to travel from Richmond to Fredericksburg for a short visit. The advance of Union troops was on his mind. “It had now become a well known fact,” he later wrote, “that Slaves was daily Making their escape into the Union lines.”

Perhaps in part to increase his opportunity for escape, Washington did not return to Richmond. He instead hired himself out at the bar of the Shakespeare House, a hotel on Caroline Street managed by James Mazeen and George H. Peyton. In a demonstration of his independent spirit, Washington did this against the wishes of his enslaver, Catherine Taliaferro, just as he married Annie Gordon against the wishes of her family.

Battle of Fredericksburg — the Army of the Potomac Crossing the Rappahannock

Union troops arrived across the river from Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862. Mazeen “thrust a roll of Bank notes in my hand,” Washington later recalled, “and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants, and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing.” After Mazeen left, Washington poured the bar’s enslaved laborers drinks and they toasted to the Yankees’ health. Later Washington encountered Taliaferro on the street, and she encouraged him to join her in the countryside. He declined, instead fleeing to the Union lines at nearby Falmouth.

There he met New York soldiers who were surprised that the light-skinned Washington was not a white man. Within about three weeks he had obtained work at the headquarters of Union general Rufus King, earning a monthly salary of $18. “Day after day the Slaves came into camp,” Washington wrote, “and Every where the ‘Stars and Stripes’ Waves they Seemed to know freedom had dawned to the Slave.”

Belle Boyd

In May 1862, Washington marched with King’s troops to Haymarket, north of Fredericksburg, then southwest to Warrenton, and finally back to Fredericksburg. King made his headquarters at Farmers’ Bank, where Washington once had lived and his grandmother and aunt still resided. On July 29, Washington reportedly accompanied Union officers through Fredericksburg in an effort to identify prominent Confederates. Nineteen men and women were arrested, including the minister William F. Broaddus and the spy Belle Boyd, and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. Washington later claimed that soon after “A Reward of $300.00 had been offered for my head.”

On August 31, the Union army abandoned Fredericksburg and so did Washington, leaving his now-pregnant wife in the city. He made his way to Washington, D.C., and found a job there, first bottling liquor and then waiting tables. After the birth of their first child in Fredericksburg on October 6, Annie Washington joined her husband in Washington. In 1865, Washington’s mother, Sarah Tucker, and her husband, Thomas Tucker, arrived from Staunton.

Later Years

By 1867 John Washington was a secretary of the Shiloh Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C. The church had its origins in the African Baptist Church of Fredericksburg, which on September 27, 1863, reconstituted itself on L Street in Washington under its new name. In these years Washington worked as a painter and the church’s superintendent of Sunday school. In 1879 he served as vice president of the Baptist Sunday School Union. Late in the 1880s, the Washingtons left Shiloh for the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. By 1900 they also had joined the Supreme Grand Council of Colored Scottish Rite Masons and its women’s auxiliary, the Court of Daughters of the Sphinx.

In 1873 Washington composed an account written in his own hand and titled Memorys of the Past. The unpublished manuscript narrated his life as an enslaved man, his escape, and his subsequent life in Washington, D.C. It was passed down in the family through one of his granddaughters and became the subject of two scholarly treatments in 2007 and 2008.

Washington Family Portrait

In 1907, John and Annie Washington moved in with their youngest son, Benjamin Washington, who taught science at Armstrong Manual Training School (later Armstrong Technical High School) in Washington. Benjamin Washington also helped to found the Twelfth Street YMCA and served as commissioner of officials for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, composed of twenty-six Black colleges in the East. In 1913, John Washington and his wife moved again, this time to Cohasset, Massachusetts, to live with another son, James Washington. John Washington died there on February 13, 1918, of a cerebral hemorrhage and chronic nephritis. He was buried in the city’s Woodside Cemetery.

May 20, 1838
John M. Washington is born enslaved in Fredericksburg, the son of Sarah Tucker and an unknown father.
John M. Washington accompanies his mother to Orange County, where she is hired out as a field laborer.
February 19, 1841
The Fredericksburg Political Arena advertises a $10 reward for the capture of an escaped enslaved woman named Sarah. This may be Sarah Tucker, the mother of John M. Washington.
John M. Washington, his mother, and his siblings return to Fredericksburg from Orange County. Washington works as his enslaver's personal enslaved servant.
ca. Christmas 1850
Catherine Ware Taliaferro hires out John M. Washington's mother and four siblings to Staunton. Washington remains in Fredericksburg as Taliaferro's personal enslaved servant.
June or July—October 1852
John M. Washington, then laboring as a personal enslaved servant in Fredericksburg, visits his mother and siblings in Staunton.
May 25, 1855
John M. Washington undergoes a conversion experience at the African Baptist Church in Fredericksburg.
June 13, 1856
John M. Washington is baptized in the Rappahannock River by the Reverend William F. Broaddus, of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.
January 1, 1859
Catherine Ware Taliaferro hires out John M. Washington to her neighbor, William T. Hart, in Fredericksburg.
January 1, 1860
Catherine Ware Taliaferro hires out John M. Washington to the owners of the Alexander and Gibbs tobacco factory in Fredericksburg.
January 1, 1861
Catherine Ware Taliaferro hires out John M. Washington to Speredone Zetelle, a Greek immigrant who operates a Richmond restaurant.
ca. June 1861
Casper Wendlinger, a German immigrant, buys the Richmond restaurant where John M. Washington is an enslaved laborer.
Christmas 1861
John M. Washington is provided a pass to travel from Richmond to his home in Fredericksburg. He remains there, hiring himself out to the owners of the Shakespeare Hotel.
January 3, 1862
John M. Washington, an enslaved laborer, and Annie E. Gordon, a free Black woman, are married at the African Baptist Church in Fredericksburg. The white minister George Rowe presides.
April 18, 1862
Union troops arrive just across the river from Fredericksburg, and the enslaved John M. Washington escapes from the city to their lines.
July 29, 1862
John M. Washington reportedly helps Union troops identify prominent Confederates in Fredericksburg. Nineteen men and women are arrested and imprisoned.
August 31, 1862
Union troops abandon Fredericksburg, and John M. Washington travels to Washington, D.C., where his family eventually joins him.
September 27, 1863
The African Baptist Church of Fredericksburg reconstitutes itself on L Street in Washington, D.C., as the Shiloh Baptist Church.
John M. Washington's mother, Sarah Tucker, and her husband, Thomas Tucker, travel from Staunton to join him in Washington, D.C.
By this year John M. Washington is secretary of the Shiloh Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C.
John M. Washington composes a narrative of his life, entitled Memorys of the Past.
John M. Washington serves as vice president of the Baptist Sunday School Union.
John and Annie Washington move in with their son Benjamin Washington at 936 S Street in Washington, D.C.
John and Annie Washington move to Cohasset, Massachusetts, to live with their son James Washington and his wife.
February 13, 1918
John M. Washington dies at the home of his son in Cohasset, Massachusetts. He is buried in the that city's Woodside Cemetery.
  • Blight, David W. A Slave No More: Two Men who Escaped to Freedom, including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.
  • Shifflett, Crandall, ed. John Washington’s Civil War: A Slave Narrative. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. John M. Washington (1838–1918). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/washington-john-m-1838-1918.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "John M. Washington (1838–1918)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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