Wanted to put down a few lines about William Costin. Had never heard of him until I read "Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentess Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, On a Judge" by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.
A free, light-skinned African American, Costin’s story is one of uncertainty. What’s known is he lived his early life in the vicinity of Mount Vernon. In 1800, he married Philadelphia Judge, the sister of Oney Judge. As a reminder, Oney Judge fled from enslavement to George and Martha Washington, fought off two attempts by Washington to capture her and then lived out her life up north.
Dunbar points out that Costin, who lived on Capitol Hill, became one of the pillars of early black society in Washington. For more than twenty years, he served as porter of the Bank of Washington and bought property in the District. His financial gains allowed him to buy and free other enslaved persons, including family members.
Costin’s obituary was published in more than a dozen newspapers from Washington to Massachusetts. The Daily National Intelligencer published a lengthy one. The Bank’s Board of Directors gave fifty dollars to his family. The obit wrote: “It is due to the deceased that his colored skin covered a benevolent heart.”
The Baltimore Sun wrote, “Perhaps no individual of his color and circumstances was ever more highly esteemed than William Costin.”
Another newspaper wrote that Costin’s funeral was attended by “a large number of persons both black and white and consisted of some of the most respectable inhabitants of the city”. Sixty carriages and Francis Scott Key was among the procession.
What is less known about William Costin is who was his mother and father. This is the kind of thing that draws human interest. One, however, does not want to besmirch a family name.
In this case, it appears there is just enough documentation and analysis of oral history to feel comfortable discussing the story.
Dunbar touches on Costin’s mother and father. As she notes, “many believe Costin was the son of Ann Dandridge, Martha’s legendary interracial half sister.” Other oral history accounts say Costin’s father was John “Jacky” Parke Custis.
In her footnotes the author points out historians have been left “with little in the way of ironclad proof.”
In his book, “An Imperfect God, George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America,” Henry Wiencek takes the subject head on. Piecing together correspondence to Mount Vernon, a family tree, physical descriptions, and a dossier, Wiencek finds that Costin’s mother was indeed Ann Dandridge. He also concludes the evidence points to Jacky Custis as the father of Costin.
Although I have not read it, a recent book by Adrian Miller, "The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas," touches on another person who was enslaved at Mount Vernon. This is the story of Hercules, George Washington’s extraordinary cook. Really better to say “chef.”
He also escaped. Like Judge, Hercules paid a heavy price, leaving behind his son Richmond and daughter.
We hope Hollywood is paying attention to these books and stories. Either one of these would make a great story.
Maybe it will come from the words of Hercules’s daughter.
As Miller tells us in an article in The Washington Post:
Louis-Philippe, a French nobleman and future king of France, visited Mount Vernon a few months after the former chef’s flight. Upon meeting Hercules’s daughter Delia, he wrote in his travel diary, “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin [Louis-Philippe’s valet] ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again.
The last four words of her answer were:
“He is free now.”