J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 03, 2016

“William Costin’s reputed father was white”

As I wrote yesterday, Martha Washington’s son John Parke Custis is believed to have had a child by an enslaved woman named Ann Dandridge around 1780 as well as children with his wife, Eleanor.

Jack Custis died in 1781 of a disease he contracted during the siege of Yorktown. His wife remarried. She continued raising their two eldest children while the two younger grew up at Mount Vernon with their grandmother Martha and her second husband, George.

Ann Dandridge was herself the daughter of an enslaved woman and John Dandridge, Martha’s father—which means she was also an aunt of Jack Custis. In An Imperfect God, Henry Wiencek reported that Ann Dandridge eventually married a man named Holmes, and the husband of Jack Custis’s oldest daughter, Eliza Custis Law, freed her in 1802.

What happened to the child of Jack Custis and Ann Dandridge? The answer became public in, of all places, The Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools in the District of Columbia: Submitted to the Senate June, 1868, and to the House, with Additions, June 13, 1870. The federal government published that lengthy report in 1871. It contained a thorough discussion of schools in the District, including some for African-Americans started by a family named Costin.

Although this information wasn’t connected to the condition of the schools, the report stated:
This Costin family came from Mount Vernon immediately after the death of Martha Washington, in 1802. The father, William Costin, who died suddenly in his bed, May 31, 1842, was twenty-four years messenger for the Bank of Washington, in this city. His death was noticed at length in the columns of the National Intelligencer in more than one communication at the time. The obituary notice, written under the suggestions of the bank officers, who had previously passed a resolution expressing their respect for his memory, and appropriating fifty dollars towards the funeral expenses, says: “It is due to the deceased to say that his colored skin covered a benevolent heart,” . . .

John Quincy Adams also, a few days afterwards, in a discussion on the wrongs of slavery, alluded to the deceased in these words: “The late William Costin, though he was not white, was as much respected as any man in the District, and the large concourse of citizens that attended his remains to the grave, as well white as black, was an evidence of tho manner in which he was estimated by the citizens of Washington.” His portrait, taken by the direction of the bank authorities, still hangs in the directors’ room, and it may also be seen in the houses of more than one of the old and prominent residents of the city.

William Costin’s mother, Ann Dandridge, was the daughter of a half-breed, (Indian and and colored,) her grandfather being a Cherokee chief, and her reputed father was the father of Martha Dandridge, afterwards Mrs. Custis, who, in 1759, was married to General Washington. These daughters, Ann and Martha, grew up together, on the ancestral plantations. William Costin’s reputed father was white, and belonged to a prominent family in Virginia, but the mother, after his birth, married one of the Mount Vernon slaves by the name of Costin, and the son took the name of William Costin. His mother being of Indian descent, made him, under the laws of Virginia, a free born man. In 1800 he married Philadelphia Judge, (his cousin,) one of Martha Washington’s slaves, at Mount Vernon, where both were born in 1780. The wife was given by Martha Washington at her decease to her granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, who was the wife of Thomas Law, of Washington. Soon after William Costin and his wife came to this city the wife’s freedom was secured on kind and easy terms, and the children were all born free. This is the account which William Costin and his wife and his mother, Ann Dandridge, always gave of their ancestry, and they were persons of great precision in all matters of family history, as well as of the most marked scrupulousness in their statements.
That report didn’t come out and name William Costin’s father, but it linked him and his mother and his wife to Mount Vernon. That left no doubt about which “prominent family in Virginia” his father hailed from. Anyone who knew the Washington-Custis family tree could figure out the rest. Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond certainly put the pieces together in her private papers, Wiencek found.

Though this account says Costin’s surname came from his mother marrying “one of the Mount Vernon slaves,” I can’t help but wonder if Costin was simply a safe variation on Custis. I can’t find any other mention of an enslaved man named Costin at Mount Vernon.

William Costin’s wife, Philadelphia or Delphy Judge, was a sister of Oney Judge, who escaped to New Hampshire in 1796. If Delphy Judge and William Costin were indeed first cousins, as this profile suggests, the Judge sisters’ mother, “Mulatto Betty,” must have been a sister or half-sister of Ann Dandridge.

The 1871 profile said that for William Costin “being of Indian descent, made him, under the laws of Virginia, a free born man.” In fact, the laws of Virginia assigned him the same status as his mother, who was enslaved. Wiencek suggests that the Custis-Washington family treated William as free simply because they preferred it that way. He and his family remained at Mount Vernon until Martha’s death, then went to the capital, the women and children becoming formally free in the next few years.

It’s notable that this federal government report discussing gentlemen in Martha Washington’s family having children with enslaved women appeared at almost the same time that a U.S. Census taker noted Madison Hemings’s statement about being a son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. That was between the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction in 1877. In that narrow window, it appears, some black Americans felt more free to talk about their white ancestors and some white Americans openly acknowledged the realities of intertwined families.

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