At a Gaithers­burg farm, an un­likely bond forms

Two fam­i­lies — one black, one white — shared a painful his­tory rooted in slav­ery. Then they met.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY IAN SHAPIRA

The King fam­ily stepped care­fully up the con­crete steps, through the nar­row door­way and into a two-story log cabin with a painful past. In­side, they ex­am­ined ev­ery inch. The low ceil­ing. The peel­ing chest­nut walls. Then, the sec­ond floor, a tiny space un­der a pitched cedar-shake roof, where sun­light slips through small win­dows onto un­even oak floor­boards.

John B. King Jr., ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary for Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, climbed up the wob­bly lad­der for a de­press­ing glance at the sleep­ing quar­ters. But he quickly came down and crossed his arms, won­der­ing about the peo­ple who lived in this cramped space more than 150 years ear­lier: his en­slaved an­ces­tors. Ly­dia King. Charles King. Anne King. So many Kings once lived here, on this Mary­land farm, still owned by di­rect de­scen­dants of the slave­holder, Thomas Grif­fith.

“My an­ces­tors must have had

full lives, fam­i­lies, re­la­tion­ships, and joy and sad­ness, but their ex­pe­ri­ences were so bound up with their ex­ploita­tion,” said John, 44, pres­i­dent of the Ed­u­ca­tion Trust, a non­profit de­voted to clos­ing achieve­ment gaps. “My wife and our two girls are liv­ing a life my an­ces­tors could not have imag­ined, be­cause of their per­se­ver­ance. Their daily re­sis­tance by liv­ing their lives made pos­si­ble ours.”

For much of the past year, as the na­tion marks the 400th an­niver­sary of the first en­slaved Africans’ ar­rival to the English colony of Vir­ginia, the Kings have em­barked on an an­guished fam­ily his­tory re­search pro­ject — and the most un­likely of friend­ships with the great-great-great-grand­chil­dren of Thomas Grif­fith. The Kings have al­ways sus­pected that the Kings be­fore them were en­slaved. But they didn’t learn the ex­act site of that sub­ju­ga­tion un­til Fe­bru­ary: a 190-acre farm in Gaithers­burg called Edge­hill, just 25 miles from John’s home in Sil­ver Spring.

Since then, John and sev­eral rel­a­tives have vis­ited the farm, con­nect­ing with Grif­fith’s de­scen­dants, 50-year-old twin sis­ters Frances Becker and Amanda Becker Mosko, who co-own the prop­erty. Both fam­i­lies have em­braced the op­por­tu­nity to learn about each other’s pasts with more clar­ity, de­spite lay­ers of dis­com­fort and awk­ward­ness.

The King fam­ily’s over­tures to the fam­ily that once en­slaved their an­ces­tors are highly un­usual, ac­cord­ing to Chris Ha­ley, di­rec­tor of the Mary­land State Ar­chives’ slav­ery pro­ject. De­scen­dants of the en­slaved usu­ally don’t con­nect with de­scen­dants of the en­slaver un­less they’ve dis­cov­ered a ge­nealog­i­cal link.

“I don’t know of many peo­ple who reach out and are like, ‘You know what? My fam­ily used to work for your fam­ily. Hey, how are you do­ing?’ ” said Ha­ley, who is the nephew of “Roots” au­thor Alex Ha­ley.

The Kings, though, are no ordinary fam­ily.

One great-grand­son of the old­est-known en­slaved King was

Lt. Col. Hal­dane King, who served in the famed Tuskegee Air­men, the first group of black com­bat pi­lots in the U.S. Army Air Corps; an older brother, William “Dolly” King, was one of the coun­try’s first black pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball play­ers; an­other older brother, John B. King Sr., be­came New York City’s first black deputy su­per­in­ten­dent of schools. Hal­dane King, the Tuskegee Air­man’s old­est child, was an Air Force cap­tain who flew KC-135 re­fu­el­ing planes in the Viet­nam War; his sis­ter, Ja­nis King Robin­son, ran a ru­ral North Carolina hospi­tal. John B. King Sr.’s grand­son, Keith Nor­ris, is a renowned UCLA med­i­cal school pro­fes­sor and kid­ney ex­pert. And then there is John B. King Sr.’s son, John B. King Jr., who be­came the na­tion’s sec­ond black sec­re­tary of ed­u­ca­tion.

The Beck­ers feel a mix of pride and shame about their fam­ily’s past on the Mont­gomery County prop­erty, which their sixth great­grand­fa­ther pur­chased nearly 250 years ago, shortly be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. The land was passed down to Thomas Grif­fith, who owned it for 42 years and re­lied on en­slaved la­bor to run the prop­erty.

“We wanted to apol­o­gize, but we re­ally can’t apol­o­gize, be­cause we didn’t do it,” said Amanda, who lives in Penn­syl­va­nia, where she helps run her hus­band’s ceme­tery restora­tion busi­ness. “I don’t know if an apol­ogy would even mean any­thing to [the Kings] be­cause we re­ally should be apol­o­giz­ing to their an­ces­tors.”

“We were just born here,” said Frances, who lives at the farm­house with her fa­ther and sells vin­tage auto parts.

“Friends have asked us, ‘What do they want? Do they want money?’ ” Amanda said. “We said, ‘ They just want us to be care­ful with their his­tory.’ ”

And they want to be care­ful with their own his­tory, too. Frances points to Grif­fith’s sons, who fought for the Con­fed­er­acy.

“I still ap­pre­ci­ate all the vet­er­ans in our fam­ily and con­sider Con­fed­er­ates as vet­er­ans, too,” she said. “I still have ques­tions about Thomas,” who owned 15 peo­ple rang­ing in age from 9 to 50 be­fore eman­ci­pa­tion. “Why did he do it? I feel bad that he did it. I’d like to think pos­i­tively that he didn’t hurt the slaves.”

The Kings have had to gen­tly nudge the Beck­ers to re­fer to their an­ces­tors as “en­slaved peo­ple” rather than “slaves,” so that they are not de­fined by a de­hu­man­iz­ing la­bel. They were also trou­bled by the old fur­ni­ture and farm sup­plies stored in the log cabin. (The Beck­ers cleaned ev­ery­thing out af­ter the Kings’ first visit.)

“But Amanda and Frances have been re­ally ea­ger to learn through this process,” John said. “Hav­ing taught high school so­cial stud­ies and hav­ing spent my life in ed­u­ca­tion, I thought about how il­lus­tra­tive this ex­pe­ri­ence is of our need to do a bet­ter job of teach­ing in this coun­try about the his­tory of African Amer­i­cans and the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery.”

‘ The gift of this his­tory’

John King was in his first year as ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary when he got a call in 2016 from the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Eastern Shore. The his­tor­i­cally black col­lege said it had dis­cov­ered that his pa­ter­nal grand­mother, Estelle King, grad­u­ated from the school’s pre­de­ces­sor in 1894, be­fore be­com­ing a nurse. Would he want to give a speech at the school? Sure, he said.

The call prompted a dive into his fam­ily’s past. Last year, he en­listed the help of Chris­tine McKay, a re­tired ar­chiv­ist from the Schom­burg Cen­ter for Re­search in Black Cul­ture who had once dis­cov­ered Obama’s fa­ther’s let­ters, some of which he’d writ­ten from Kenya im­plor­ing uni­ver­si­ties in the United States for fi­nan­cial aid.

Mckay wanted to know ev­ery­thing about the Kings. She started with John’s great-great-grand­mother, Ly­dia King, who was born about 1822. She combed the records of the Freed­man’s Bank — es­tab­lished af­ter the Civil War for freed peo­ple — and found two of her ac­counts, sug­gest­ing she’d prob­a­bly been en­slaved. The records also listed the names of four of Ly­dia’s chil­dren: John, Sophia, Anne and Charles.

Mckay con­sulted the Mary­land State Ar­chives, which keeps vo­lu­mi­nous records chron­i­cling the state’s his­tory of slav­ery, which spanned from shortly af­ter its Colo­nial found­ing in the 17th cen­tury to Novem­ber 1864, when the state abol­ished it. (The Eman­ci­pa­tion Proclamati­on of Jan. 1, 1863, freed en­slaved peo­ple only in se­ceded states, ex­empt­ing bor­der states such as Mary­land, where there were more than 87,000 en­slaved blacks in 1860.) In her search, Mckay found a slave cen­sus.

The cen­sus ver­i­fied that Ly­dia and her chil­dren had been en­slaved. It also dis­closed a much big­ger rev­e­la­tion: the name of their owner, Thomas Grif­fith.

Quickly, Mckay lo­cated the Grif­fith prop­erty in Gaithers­burg. Then she learned the prop­erty was still in the same fam­ily. She even found huge ledgers at the

Mary­land State Ar­chives full of yel­lowed pa­per show­ing the tax records of en­slavers, list­ing names of the en­slaved and their mon­e­tary values; the amount next to Ly­dia’s name, for in­stance, was $300 in 1853 and then, a cou­ple of years later, $600.

She also came across an ar­ti­cle by a lo­cal his­to­rian re­port­ing that John’s en­slaved great-great-aunt Anne King, then just 15, alerted au­thor­i­ties that Grif­fith had en­ter­tained a visit by a “nicely-dressed stranger.” Thanks to her tip, Grif­fith was ar­rested, charged and pros­e­cuted in a mil­i­tary trial in Bal­ti­more for “giv­ing aid” to a “known rebel of­fi­cer.” Grif­fith was de­scribed in the ar­ti­cle as a “on­earmed farmer.”

Fi­nally, in Fe­bru­ary, Mckay emailed all of her find­ings to John.

“Wow!” John wrote back that night. “This is amaz­ing. My wife, daugh­ters, and I were all nearly moved to tears by this in­for­ma­tion. It is in­cred­i­ble to know this his­tory and fan­tas­tic to think we can ac­tu­ally go see the prop­erty. I can­not thank you enough for the gift of this his­tory.”

But what next? Cold-call the Beck­ers? He de­cided to spread the word among the other Kings first.

‘We don’t wait for per­mis­sion’

When Ja­nis King Robin­son, the re­tired hospi­tal ex­ec­u­tive in North Carolina, got her cousin John’s email, she knew she had to see the farm in Mary­land as soon as pos­si­ble.

“No­body in this fam­ily is shy,” Ja­nis said. “We don’t wait for per­mis­sion.”

She was al­ready trav­el­ing to Wash­ing­ton the next month to visit the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. Af­ter she was fin­ished, she fig­ured, she’d make an im­promptu stop at Edge­hill.

“My hus­band said, ‘With­out per­mis­sion?’ ” Ja­nis re­called, laugh­ing. “I said, ‘We’re go­ing to be just fine.’ ”

They Googled the ad­dress and made their way to Gaithers­burg. They found Grif­fith Road and then turned onto a long gravely route that led to Edge­hill.

The cou­ple parked and saw the two-story white farm­house with the green­ish-blue shut­ters. The log cabin loomed right over their park­ing spot.

“It took a minute to grab my breath,” Ja­nis re­called.

Then, she ap­proached the door to the main house and knocked.

When Frances heard the sound, she thought it might be the per­son who’d re­sponded to her Craigslist ad hawk­ing 50-gal­lon wa­ter bar­rels.

“My name is Ja­nis King Robin­son,” she told Frances. “I’m re­ally sorry to in­ter­rupt your day, but we’ve been re­cently in­formed that our an­ces­tors were en­slaved here.”

Frances was floored — and anx­ious. She never ex­pected to meet the de­scen­dants of the peo­ple who lived in the log cabin.

“Well,” Frances told her vis­i­tor, “come on in.”

As they toured the prop­erty, Frances kept re­fer­ring to Ja­nis’s an­ces­tors as “slaves,” the piece of land where the en­slaved were buried as “the slave ceme­tery,” and the log cabin where the en­slaved slept as “the slave quar­ters.” Ja­nis told her, “It’s im­por­tant to say they were ‘en­slaved.’ ”

“I’m a work in progress,” Frances told her.

“She was as warm and invit­ing as a hu­man could be,” Ja­nis re­called later. “My visit there was pro­foundly spir­i­tual. I was do­ing ex­actly as I was sup­posed to.”

‘ They lived a good life’

Last month, John, his wife, Melissa Steel King, and their two daugh­ters walked slowly be­hind the Beck­ers’ farm­house. They were on their way to the grave of the man who’d en­slaved their an­ces­tors.

When they reached the gravesite, John paused and read the in­scrip­tion on Grif­fith’s head­stone: “In Me­mory of Thomas Grif­fith. Born 15th of Sept. 1803, Died 28th of Jan. 1870.” En­graved above his name was a weep­ing wil­low.

“The weep­ing wil­low means they lived a good life,” Amanda told the Kings.

John said noth­ing. Frances said she hoped Grif­fith treated his en­slaved peo­ple well.

“Since the slave quar­ters are so close to the main house, we are think­ing they were in­ter­de­pen­dent on each other and they would have known each other well,” Frances said. “I am putting a 21stcen­tury pos­i­tive spin on this, but I hope that my an­ces­tors were de­cent enough peo­ple.”

John thought about the brav­ery of his great-great-aunt Anne, who told au­thor­i­ties that Grif­fith was con­sort­ing with Con­fed­er­ates on his prop­erty.

“The fam­ily’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Con­fed­er­acy,” he said later, “is so telling about their de­sire to de­fend the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery.”

The Beck­ers led the Kings to a forested area by the fam­ily swim­ming pool. They stood along a path and gazed at a patch of land. This, the Beck­ers told them, is where the en­slaved Kings are prob­a­bly buried in un­marked graves. Oak and wal­nut trees dot­ted the area, which was smoth­ered be­low with brush, poi­son ivy and wild rose hips.

Grow­ing up, Amanda told the Kings, she’d play by her­self along the path and hold tea par­ties. When she and her sis­ter got older, they’d ven­ture into the bushy area and look for head­stones.

“No­body ever stum­bled on a head­stone?” Melissa asked.

She tapped her neck with her fin­ger over and over, while John rubbed his chin.

The Beck­ers said they’d been told that their grand­fa­ther Ves­tus Wil­cox, a lieu­tenant com­man­der in the Navy, tossed the miss­ing head­stones over a hill some­where. But they didn’t know for sure. The Kings asked, is it pos­si­ble to con­duct a search? Amanda said she and her hus­band were ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of pur­chas­ing radar equip­ment.

“It’ll be de­tec­tive work,” Frances said. “We can find it.”

Be­fore the Kings left, Amanda fetched some­thing from the house. It was a copy of a slave cen­sus Frances had found, list­ing the names and ages of the en­slaved Kings.

Stand­ing by the log cabin, John’s old­est daugh­ter, Amina, 15, grabbed the pa­per, and every­one hud­dled around her. She and her sis­ter, Mireya, 13, were now scan­ning the names. The youngest Kings were look­ing at the names of the old­est-known Kings, all en­slaved.

Amina stopped at two of the names: King, Anne F 15; King, William M 13.

“Look,” Amina said to her sis­ter. “They were the same age as us.”


Amina King, 15, the daugh­ter of for­mer U.S. ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary John B. King Jr., ducks to leave the log cabin where her en­slaved an­ces­tors once lived on a farm called Edge­hill in Gaithers­burg, Md.


John Becker, fa­ther of the cur­rent Edge­hill own­ers, and John B. King Jr. visit on the farm­house porch. The fam­i­lies have em­braced the chance to learn about each other’s his­to­ries de­spite dis­com­fort.

Twin sis­ters Amanda Becker Mosko, left, and Frances Becker out­side the cabin on their farm where their an­ces­tor Thomas Grif­fith once housed en­slaved mem­bers of the King fam­ily.

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