Early YearsWashington 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, and perhaps other family members were owned 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 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. 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.
When Washington was about four years old, his mother beganusing a school primer. “I was kept at my lessons an hour or Two each night by My Mother,” he later wrote. He also recalled 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 slave, 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.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 , of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.
On January 3, 1862, Washington married Annie E. Gordon, ahe had courted since the spring of 1853. They had six sons, one of whom died in infancy.
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 masters 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 owner, Catherine Taliaferro, just as he married Annie Gordon against the wishes of her family.
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 his owner, Catherine 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.”
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, 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.
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 a slave, 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.
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.