Jesse Washington, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 22, 2007
Born into slavery, Jesse Washington is key to providing insights into one of Madison’s uniquely historic cemeteries. There are very few known slave cemeteries still in existence, but the Madison area has a couple. The Washington Cemetery is shown on maps as being on the east side of Mose Chapel Road, about 250 yards north of Mill Road. Percy Keel and I had the privilege of exploring the old cemetery in 2001, with the permission of Ms. Bessie Washington, who lived immediately north of the cemetery. Jesse’s grave was marked with a small obelisk denoting membership in the “Supreme Royal Circle of Friends of the World, Evening Star Circle No. 1785”. The stone had no birth data for him, but it showed that he died February 16, 1929 (could be 1928; the bottom portion of the last digit was chipped away). The 1900 census showed his birthdate as May, 1852.
Additional historical records indicate that Jesse was married in 1871 and had several children. His wife’s name was given as Nellie in 1900 and as Misie in 1910. She had borne 7 children by 1910, with 5 still living at that time. She was two years older than Jesse. An interview with Bessie Washington revealed that the cemetery contained graves for Jesse’s wife and extended family, but no tombstones were observed for them in 2001. However, the cemetery contained sunken depressions and fieldstones for probably another 20 to 30 graves, with 10 being quite definite. Including the many evidenced graves in the wooded area to the east of Jesse’s grave, it is estimated that the cemetery contained at least 50 burials and quite possibly more. Several were marked with metal funeral home markers but no tombstones. Unfortunately, the data on most of the funeral home markers had disappeared from age and weather.
Bessie Washington stated that Jesse had died in 1923, so “3” may well have been last death date digit that was chipped away on his tombstone. It is not known why Jesse took the surname of Washington, as a number of freed slaves chose. However, he could well have been born into a slave family of John P. Washington, who was married in Madison County in 1822. In fact, there was likewise a George Washington who married Ann Ball in Madison County in 1866, then married Callie Farley in 1869. It is also possible that Jesse was tied to the early Limestone County slave families owned by Henry Augustine Washington, who shared ancestry with the first President of the United States.
Bessie said that she knew of others who were buried in the Washington Cemetery, including Smith Fields. With such an unusual name, research was conducted to learn of the man. Census records show that there was indeed a Smith Fields in Madison County in 1880 and 1900. He was born in 1834 and would have been a contemporary of Jesse Washington. The senior Smith Fields may have had a son that Bessie knew personally, since the 1920 census of Madison County showed another Smith Fields at age 24 with a wife named Lucie (age 22) and a son named Luther, age 2. It is of course possible that both Smith Fields and their family members are buried in the Washington Cemetery, located on a site now planned for Madison’s next school construction project.