- Historic Sites
Uncle Tom? Not Booker T.
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
Yet there was always an undertow of force. In the plantation family the Negroes were the perpetual stepchildren, linked not only by law but by ties of dependence and enmity in an ambivalence that could not be resolved. For the Negro child, even after he grew up, was rarely allowed to leave. On this point, Washington did not want to be misunderstood. He wrote of the devotion some slaves felt for their masters, but he made it clear that he was not contributing to southern myth: “From some things I have said one may get the idea that some of the slaves did not want freedom. This is not true. I have never seen one who did not want to be free, nor one who would return to slavery.”
The Burroughs family, like many other slaveholdJL ers, were slaves themselves in a sense, bound to a system that made them unkind without thinking. Little Booker was born on the packed dirt floor of a ramshackle cabin because that was the way things were in back-country Virginia in the 1850’s. His white owners lived far from luxuriously. James Burroughs owned approximately two hundred acres in the poorer section of Franklin County, and he did not have a grand “Big House” with Greek Revival pillars. Like most Big Houses, his was large mainly in contrast to “the Quarters”—an elaborate term for the plantation’s two slave cabins. Riders jolting down the Burroughs lane from the pike would have seen the house as the small-porched center of a cluster of outbuildings, dwarfed by a large barn on the right. The house had originally been only a two-room log cabin; an ell, a back porch, and a half-storied second floor had been added. The kitchen shack was behind the house, and it was there that Jane, as plantation cook, lived with her children.
Booker’s home for nine years was a windowless room, about twelve by sixteen feet, with a big fireplace at one end. In the humid summers the heat seemed unbearable; in the winters the ill-fitting door and the cracks in the wall let in the cold. The beds were “pallets” that were rearranged every night from rags in the corner. Jane’s children had all been born there. Booker and his older brother, John, were fathered by different white men; his little sister, Amanda, by Jane’s slave husband. This, too, was the way things were in slavery, but on this plantation there was conscious guilt about it. James Burroughs’ father was a Baptist preacher and this was a religious family.
White people lowered their voices when they discussed the parentage of mulatto slaves, and the very verbs they used were indicative of uneasiness. When it came to Jane’s first child, John, they “blamed” Ben Burroughs, second son of Jane’s master. When it came to Booker, they “accused” one of the Fergusons.
The identity of his father was one secret Washington never divulged. In Up From Slavery he wrote him off: “I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the nearby plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me, or providing in any way for my rearing.”
Even his mulatto relative Biah Ferguson, when she accused Washington of not telling the whole truth, could not have wanted him to name his father. Not only the whites but the Negroes who absorbed their attitudes felt shame as well as anger about their sexual exploitation. The majority of slave women yielded to white men with the docility of despair—and then were considered immoral by white society. Biah herself was the illegitimate child of a slave named Mary Ann and her master—a planter named Josiah Ferguson, who lived in a handsome brick house across the pike from the Burroughs plantation. When people asked Biah why she didn’t claim her relationship with Washington when he became famous, she said simply, “when you talk about that, you’re talking about my mother.”
This could also have been the reason that Washington, who adored his mother, dismissed the topic as briefly as he could. But certainly he could not help knowing he was a Ferguson. He looked like the white Ferguson family and very much like Biah and her little brothers and sisters across the road. Like them he had large gray eyes, so startling in a brown face as to look almost luminous. Probably he also knew exactly which one of the large Ferguson family was his father. All the evidence points to Josiah Ferguson’s second eldest son, a brilliant, unreliable charmer named Thomas Benjamin Ferguson.
Ben, as he was called, was said to be “the brightest Ferguson that ever had that name.” He was a twenty-five-year-old bachelor when his presumed son, Booker, was born. By the time Jane’s baby was four Ben had moved away from the family and was in business for himself. He had a tobacco factory three miles down the pike near the post office of Taylor’s Store, but his operation was unimpressive compared to the factory run by his industrious older brother, John Cardwell Ferguson, down at Halesford. When Ben enlisted in the Franklin Rangers—in the very first muster of May, 1861—the family finally had cause for pride in him.