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Martha Washington’s Black Sister

It was a not very well-kept Washington family secret that Martha Washington had a sister who was black.

Ann Dandridge was the daughter of Martha Washington’s father, John Dandridge, and an unknown slave of mixed African and Native American blood. After John Dandridge’s death in 1756, Ann, who was a young girl at the time, went to live with George and Martha at Mount Vernon and was kept by them as a slave.

Why didn’t Martha free her little sister from slavery? If she had felt any resentment towards her half-sister, Martha could easily have sold or otherwise gotten rid of her, yet she didn’t. She kept her around, lived with her, let her children play with her, but did not set her free.

To Martha, this may have seemed like benevolence. After all, there was no place in 1759 Virginia society for a free black Dandridge female. Ann’s choices in life would have been very limited. She could perhaps have obtained a position as a servant girl to a rich family, but no white man of any substance would have married her. If she had found a black husband, he would most likely have been a slave; her dark-skinned children would have been perpetually at risk of enslavement. Martha may have felt it best to keep Ann enslaved and under her own protection.

So Ann lived at Mount Vernon with her half-sister and brother-in-law. What she did there is unknown, but she probably spent much of her time knitting or sewing in the parlor along with the mistress of the estate and the female house slaves. To visitors she would have seemed just another mixed-race servant, perhaps the mistress’s favorite.

Martha’s “protective” ownership of Ann was not foolproof. Sometime around 1780, Ann Dandridge bore a son, William. It appears that Martha’s son, an unsavory character named Jacky Custis, exerted the rights of a master over a slave; he fathered a child with Ann, who was his aunt as well as his property. Ann’s son William was both grandson and nephew to Martha Washington.

After giving birth to the child of Jacky Custis, Ann married a slave named Costin. The couple had four daughters, all of them nieces of Martha Washington, and all of them born slaves-for-life of the Custis estate. Yet William, her first child and Martha’s grandson, was legally regarded as free, by request of the mistress herself.

Once George and Martha were both dead and Ann was in her forties, she came into the possession of Martha’s granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law.

Eliza and her husband, Thomas Law, were uniquely sensitive to the plight of mixed-race people, for Thomas, before marrying Eliza, had been an official of the East India Company, and had three half-Indian sons.

Upon inheriting ownership of Ann Dandridge in 1802, the Laws freed her almost immediately. Five years later, they emancipated all Ann’s children, her grandchildren, and William Costin’s wife.

(Wiencek 84-86, 282-290)

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“Black Jack” Custis

Martha Washington’s first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, the docile eldest son of the eccentrically cantankerous and demanding, but fabulously wealthy, old SOB, planter John Custis. Daniel lived most of his early life alone (except for the slaves) on the plantation with his father, successfully managing the family properties while his father repeatedly refused to allow him to marry.

When Daniel was 29, his 61-year-old father presented him with a black half-brother named John, whom he had fathered with a young slave woman named Alice.

The elder John was completely attached to this child, whom he nicknamed “Black Jack.” When the little boy was five years old, his father petitioned the governor for his freedom and that of any of his descendants; the petition excluded the information that the child was his own, which fact would have in any case been clear to everyone present.

Custis made no secret of the fact that he preferred Jack whom, although a mixed-race child, he considered to be a true Custis, over Daniel, the son he had fathered early with a much-hated wife. At one point, out of humor with his eldest son, Custis drew up a will which completely disinherited Daniel and gave everything to Jack. Although he later tore up this will, he let it be known that he intended to leave a substantial estate to the little boy.

In his final will, Custis left instructions that Jack was to be given his own large and comfortably furnished house, horses, land, livestock, and enough money and provisions every year to ensure that he would never have to work a day in his life. He also gave the boy four black slaves of his own, along with ownership of Alice, the boy’s own mother, and any of her future offspring. The will carefully reiterated that the boy was to be free, along with any children he might father with any free woman. It also specified that Jack was to live with Daniel until the boy reached the age of seventeen.

Then Daniel met Martha Dandridge. By this time he was thirty-eight and wealthy; she was seventeen and somewhat less so. The elder Custis threw a fit when he learned of their engagement, and refused to sanction the marriage until Martha devised a plan: she sent presents to little Jack (a horse, bridle, and saddle) with a message that they were from Daniel. This apparent kindness between brothers melted Custis’s hard old heart, and he gave his blessing to the union.

The wedding took place a few months after the death of John Custis; Martha, Daniel and “Black Jack” lived together in what must have been a slightly uncomfortable menage for about a year, until the boy contracted meningococcal meningitis and died suddenly.

Most Washington biographers of the past chose to gloss over the issue of Jack Custis’s paternity, portraying John Custis as something like a lunatic, who developed an unexplained “violent fancy” for a random black child.

Of Jack Custis’s story, Wiencek concludes: “Human impulse was the great enemy of the slave system. John Custis put his family’s wealth in danger when he acted out of sentiment, out of common humanity. He lost control of the situation, not in fathering an illegitimate child but in yielding to the fatherly impulse to recognize the child as his own. The legal and social rules of the time were designed to eliminate these dangers caused by human weakness… Slavery’s laws and customs constrained the free as well as the enslaved…”

(Wiencek 72-80)

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