A Biography of Lewis Washington

Lewis Washington (1800-1898) was a famous abolitionist, noted lecturer and minister who moved to Omaha around 1880. In Omaha, Washington was involved in politics and community leadership. He is buried at Forest Lawn. Public domain image.

Several formerly enslaved people lived in Omaha after the Civil War. Many were regular citizens who lived quietly throughout the city’s growing African American population. Others became notable leaders, wealthy men, or attention magnets who regularly drew the attention of newspapers. One of them was notable before the war, before he got to Omaha, and all because he was willing to fight against white supremacy and enslavement in the era before the war. This is a biography of Lewis Washington (1800-1898).

Lewis Washington was a famous abolitionist, noted lecturer and minister who moved to Omaha in 1880. A freedom seeker in his youngest years, Washington became a powerful Abolitionist speaker. However, his journey was not easy and starts with confusing stories woven into an inconvenient blanket.

Enslavement

Washington said he was born in 1768, and was enslaved by former U.S. president George Washington. When the former president died in 1799, Lewis Washington said he was from Virginia and was a personal nurse to the first president there. He also said he was at George Washington’s bedside when he passed away.

Later accounts say he was enslaved in Maryland.

Like most other freedom seekers, Lewis Washington changed his name when he escaped his enslaver. I have found his own account of his original name and I share it below.

Freedom and Abolitionism

In 1842, an Underground Railroad conductor named Charles Turner Torrey (1813-1846) helped Lewis Washington escape from Maryland. Living in Washington, D.C. next, Washington married Cathrine or Katherine or Catharine (1820-1890) Washington. Their son Lewis Washington, Jr. was born soon after.

Reportedly 25 years old then (that would make him born in 1817), Lewis Washington was introduced to an Abolitionist minister named Rev. Abel Brown (1810-1844). Starting in 1843, Rev. Brown was important on the trail to freedom. Focused on Vermont, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in his early years, Rev. Brown had broader plans to spread the movement against enslavement.

Two 1840s newspaper items highlighting the work of Lewis Washington and Rev. Abel Brown on the Underground Railroad. Taken from a 2020 presentation by Dr. Jennifer Thompson Burns at https://sandlakehistory.org/programs/20200211-jtb.pdf
Two 1840s newspaper items highlighting the work of Lewis Washington and Rev. Abel Brown on the Underground Railroad. Taken from a 2020 presentation by Dr. Jennifer Thompson Burns here.

After meeting Washington in early 1844, Rev. Brown immediately took him to New York state where the pair spoke about Abolition on behalf of the Northeastern New York Anti-Slavery Society.

In these presentations, Washington would tell stories from his enslavement and Rev. Brown would tell listeners about the Abolition movement and its goals. When Washington was ready, the two split up and Rev. Brown left him to speak on his own. They would reconvene after appearances, telling stories of their successes and failures and strategizing next steps. Washington didn’t learn to read or write, but was was described as an eloquent speaker who could “hold an audience with deep interest.”

The pair would travel by horse, railroad, and carriage thousands of miles around the northeastern U.S. together sparking Abolitionist campaigns and inciting racist mobs and rioting across the northern states. They worked from Troy, New York, as conductors on the Underground Railroad and as agents of the Liberty Party, supplying others to do the same, helping freedom seekers on their passage, and supporting the movement.

As the newspaper items above show, Rev. Brown was not shy about announcing the work that he and Lewis Washington did, along with their compatriots. Using codes and plain language, he would tell kidnapping bounty hunters and enslavers that he assisted freedom seekers.

After working with Rev. Brown for a few years, Washington moved to Peterboro, New York, and in 1846 the minister died of “brain disease.” A wealthy Abolitionist gave Washington some land soon after. During his time in New York, Washington spoke across the state, as well as in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and beyond. His daughter Julia Lewis Washington was born there in 1847.

After living in Peterboro for a few more years, Washington was advised to move his family to Wisconsin in 1848. Apparently his benefactor suggested this, but the reason why isn’t shared.

Moving to the Midwest

“I know what it is to be deprived of my liberty, and if I can do anything to better the slave’s condition I feel as though I ought to do it.”

—Lewis Washington as quoted in the December 22, 1904 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel.

In 1847, white Abolitionist named Dr. Edward G. Dyer (1806-1888) brought Washington on his first tour for the Wisconsin Liberty Party, focused on the southeastern Wisconsin. He toured with a white speaker named Chauncey C. Olin (1817-1899). At that time, a newspaper made note that he was “the first n—–r to appear in public in Fond du Lac.” Washington was successful in raising money for the Abolitionists there, so they might have encouraged him to move his family to the state. Apparently, Washington sang as well as spoke and a song of his called “That’s the Man for Me” was reported to always steal the show.

Over his decades in Wisconsin, Lewis Washington moved from Waukesha to Trimbelle to Prescott. His time is Wisconsin wasn’t easy though, and the state was deeply racist at the time.

Washington had sold his farm in New York. In 1857, Washington and his family moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin. A local newspaper in Waukesha assumed he went there because of the small city’s role as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Credited with the ability to “disarm old-time prejudices” because of his speaking abilities, Washington sought out Abolitionists as soon as he got to the state. He was quoted as telling Wisconsin’s white anti-enslavement activists, “I know what it is to be deprived of my liberty, and if I can do anything to better the slave’s condition I feel as though I ought to do it.”

At some point afterwards he moved to Trimbelle, where he kept up his political activism. He took on civic roles in the community too, apparently serving on a town building committee in Trimbelle when they were building a school and hall. 

Lecturing on behalf of the Liberty Party, Washington spoke across the Wisconsin for decades. According to one source, in Wisconsin “He continued as an anti-slavery speaker, sometimes meeting with hostile receptions and once being called an impostor.”

In the 1870s he moved to Prescott, across the river from the Twin Cities. There he held meetings too, activating the Black community, speaking on politics, the conditions facing African Americans, and more. In the 1860s, he appeared at a “Meeting of Colored People of Pierce Co.” and the “Colored People’s Convention” in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In early 1880, Washington and his family left Wisconsin. Why? I haven’t found a reason yet. If anyone can though, find me a copy of A History of Prescott, Wisconsin: A River City and Farming Community on the St. Croix and Mississippi published by the Prescott Area Historical Society. It has a biography of Lewis Washington that might shed some light.

Ending Up in Omaha

This is a screenshot of the 1880 Census showing the family of Lewis Washington in Central City, Nebraska. Shortly afterwards they moved to Omaha.
This is a screenshot of the 1880 Census showing the family of Lewis Washington in Central City, Nebraska. Shortly afterwards they moved to Omaha.

In 1880, Lewis Washington, age 80, and his family were recorded living in Central City, Nebraska. His wife Catharine (50), son Charles (27), daughter Julia (29), and daughter Francis (27) were all recorded living there, too. Charles’s job was recorded as a mason and the women as “launderesses.” In September of that year, he went to the first statewide convention for African American Republicans in Omaha, and must have decided to move there after that.

In Omaha, Washington stayed involved in politics and community leadership. On September 25, 1885, the Omaha Bee published a deragatory article about Washington entitled, “A Police Court Lounger.” Ripping him for appearing in clothes “of the shabbiest character,” the newspaper made fun of him for showing up in court “every morning finds him leaning over the rails of the police court room, drinking in the details of the trials.” Interestingly enough though, the article said Washington’s “real name” was Horace Wilson, which I haven’t seen in any other source so far. The article detailed his escape from enslavement, including the reason why he changed his name, which was to escape kidnappers intent on returning him to his enslaver. Claiming to be “nearly one hundred years old” at this point, Washington also recalled his connection to George Washington, as well as Lafayette, the French leader involved in the Revolutionary War.

In 1888, Washington gave a speech to the Scandinavian Republican Club, which met at North 24th and Charles Streets in the Near North Side when that neighborhood was deeply integrated.

In 1893, Washington was a featured speaker at the Nebraska Afro-American Democratic Association for their first meeting in Omaha. Reports of 100 members attending included him, Ferdinand Barnett and Alfred Barnett, and other community leaders. Reports from the meeting said that Washington had grown disillusioned with the Republicans, and that they didn’t represent the political or economic interests of African Americans anymore, if ever. Instead, he noted, Black voters were constantly forced to capitulate to their interests without any benefit for themselves. During the event, Washington said “It is time to throw off the yoke of republican slavery and take up the democratic principles.”

He signed onto a petition in favor of Prohibition in 1894. That year, there were two African Americans named Lewis Washington living in Omaha, one a porter at a hotel and the other the former Abolitionist. Lewis Washington had a son named after himself who was a Civil War veteran who fought in a Black infantry unit.

In 1885, the entire family showed up in the Census living together. Charles H. Washington (30) was a teamster, and his wife Mary (30) “kept house.” Their sone was George (13), and their daughter Buda was a year old. Charles’ sisters Julia (35) and Francis Johnson (28) and her husband John (30) all lived there, as well as Charles’ parents Lewis (90) and Cathrine (80). Charles’s home was at 4328 Emmet Street when he died in 1898.

When he died, Ferdinand Barnett of The Progress newspaper published a negative perspective of Washington’s age. Instead of 130 years old, Barnett would allow that he was actually 115 years old. If he was born in 1783, he would have been 16 when he was George Washington’s deathbed nurse. If he was born in 1768, he would have been 31.

He is buried at Forest Lawn.

In a New York Times obituary on August 23, 1898, there was no mention of Lewis Washington’s role in the Abolitionist movement. Instead, the article was solely about his age, and how he claimed to be 130 years old. The same article said that his wife had died at 104 years of age.

As a local project in Washington, D.C. said, “Lewis Washington helped many to freedom through his antislavery work. His story reminds us that not all who escaped enslavement and made their way to freedom went on to Canada or other places. Some stayed within the United States and worked tirelessly for the freedom of others.”

In 2013, the National Parks Service included the site of Lewis Washington’s burial on their national “Network to Freedom.” However, in Omaha today there are no monuments to him, streets or schools named for him, and no memory of him.

A Timeline of the Life of Lewis Washington

This is an August 23, 1898 image marking the death of Lewis Washington (1800-1898) from the Omaha World-Herald.
  • 1768—The year Lewis Washington claimed to be born around the time of his death,
  • 1799—The year George Washington died, which Lewis Washington said he attended.
  • 1817—The year Lewis Washington reported he was born when he became free.
  • 1820—Cathrine Washington was born in Virginia.
  • 1842—Lewis Washington became a freedom seeker. He lives in New Jersey.
  • 1843—The estimated year Lewis Washington married Cathrine.
  • 1843—Lewis Washington’s son Lewis, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C.
  • 1844—Lewis Washington met Rev. Abel Brown and moved to Troy, New York. He began speaking, became an agent on the Underground Railroad, worked for the Liberty Party, and began representing the Northeastern New York Anti-Slavery Society.
  • 1846—Rev. Brown died.
  • 1847—Lewis Washington’s daughter Julia Lewis Washington was born in Troy.
  • 1847—Lewis Washington conducted a speaking tour in southeast Wisconsin.
  • 1848—Lewis Washington and his family moved to Pierce County, Wisconsin by June.
  • 1854—The year Lewis Washington’s son Charles H. Washington was born in Wisconsin.
  • 1856—The year Lewis Washington’s daughter Rebecca was born in Wisconsin.
  • 1880—Lewis Washington was recorded living in Central City by the Census.
  • 1880—Lewis Washington moved to Omaha.
  • 1893—Lewis Washington became affiliated with the Nebraska Afro-American Democratic Association.
  • 1894—Cathrine Washington died.
  • 1898—Lewis Washington died.

Random family facts:

  • Ethel Gertrude Washington (1891-1908), Mabel Oneida Washington (1888-1903) were daughters of Charles H. Washington. Their burial sites are marked along with Lewis Washington’s at Forest Lawn.
  • Lewis, Jr. married Elisabeth Maxwell in 1863 in Wisconsin. Serving in the 29th US Colored Infantry during the Civil War, his wife died shortly after he returned home. In December 1868, he married Mary Jane Underhill and they moved to Omaha, where they lived at 3513 Parker Street. Mary died in 1877 and was buried at Forest Lawn. In the May 24, 1887 edition of the Omaha World-Herald, Lewis, Jr. was implicated in a terrible incident involving his daughters.
  • The great-grandnephew of President George Washington was taken hostage by Abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. His name was Lewis Washington, and he was an enslaver.

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MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning

Elsewhere Online

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