Slave's Unusual Monument to Former Owner

Article excerpt

An impressive stone monument erected by a former slave and dedicated to the white man who once owned him? It sounds like the kind of racist mythology promulgated by white supremacist groups that would have us believe slavery wasn't such an evil institution after all and that African-Americans held in bondage actually loved their masters, just as portrayed in those ludicrous Hollywood films of decades past.

Strangely enough, however, such a monument really exists, and it can be found in the tiny town of Otterville in Jersey County. The story behind the striking stone structure comprises one of the most poignant chapters in American history.

The saga begins in the 19th century with Dr. Silas Hamilton, a native of Vermont, who abhorred slavery but rejected immediate abolition in favor of gradual emancipation. Hamilton purchased a plantation in Adams County, Miss., with the intention of running it as "humanely" as possible. He naively believed that a plantation on which slaves were treated with kindness and consideration would serve as a model for other Southern plantations and thereby rid slavery of some of its worst cruelties. Of course Hamilton's experiment was a wretched failure. Northern abolitionists denounced the notion of the "humane treatment" of slaves as absurd, while Southern plantation owners remained unmoved by the "kindness" that Hamilton showed his slaves. Still, it was during this model plantation fiasco that Hamilton met the person who would later immortalize his memory through the Otterville monument. While traveling through Virginia, Hamilton stayed at the plantation of the Washington family and heard the heartbroken crying of a slave child. He was deeply disturbed to learn that the lad, named George, had been severely traumatized by the recent sale of his mother to a slave buyer from the Deep South. Hamilton offered to buy young George for $100, and the plantation owner, fearing that the child might grieve himself to death and therefore was a poor risk as property, readily agreed. Although he now belonged to Hamilton, George kept the surname of his former owner and would be known for the rest of his life as George Washington. Washington became yet another participant in Hamilton's doomed model plantation scheme. When the doctor finally became convinced that his plan was unworkable, he sold the plantation and freed his 28 slaves. Three of the former slaves elected to remain with Hamilton, however; one of them was Washington. This rather unusual company made its way to Illinois and eventually settled in Jersey County, where Hamilton established a medical practice. …