By Michael Corcoran
You’ve seen Sarah Brown on-stage if you ever went to Antone’s in the ’80s or early ’90s. She was the house bass player when Antone’s was a blues club, period, and so she backed everyone from Big Joe Turner and Sunnyland Slim to Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and Otis Rush. For almost 30 years, Brown has been one of Austin’s most valuable – and visible – side musicians. But something only her closest friends knew until recently is that Brown, in her early sixties, is a descendant of John Augustine Washington, the youngest brother of George Washington. Although Brown is a blood relative of our first president, George Washington, she’s not a direct descendant, as George and Martha Washington had no children. Nor did John Augustine’s son Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon and became a Supreme Court justice.
“Being a blues musician, it just wasn’t relevant to me to be a Washington,” said Brown, a Michigan native who has lived in Austin since 1982. The Washingtons she was committed to follow in the tradition of were Dinah and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, not America’s first family. “Our grandmother told us that we must amount to something in our own right because whatever blue blood we had was thin,” Brown said. George Washington is her great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.
She knew her ancestors had slaves – it’s well-known that the father of our country owned human property – and she had a problem with that, but “it just wasn’t something that I thought about too much,” she said. The African Americans she worked with were heroes and legends; why dwell on an ugly past?
But in January 2011, her family’s legacy as slaveholders came to visit her in books and papers that she helped her cousin Tom Washington prepare for auction. When Brown’s uncle Nathaniel Washington Jr. died in 2007, his will stated that the family’s artifacts, including a piece of George Washington’s original coffin and papers that go back to 1662, were to be sold at auction with the proceeds to be divided between Brown, her sister and nine cousins.
A rare book auction in New York City in 2011 drew $31,000 for a pair of Revolutionary War-era books that had belonged to the Washington family. A memorabilia auction in Dallas was expected to attract much more money, with estimates in the six figures for surveying tools George Washington owned at age 16.
Brown received the books and papers because friend and fellow Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga is one of the country’s top experts in the restoration of old books. As the material sat there on Brown’s dining room table, awaiting appraisal and repair, Brown started reading. She found family papers in which slaves, with dollar value attached, were listed as assets alongside livestock, farm tools and furniture. She read about slaves being bought and sold by family members, some of whom fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.
“It was all very disturbing,” she said. “The more I read, the more it made me wonder if some of the people I’ve been playing with all these years are descendants of slaves once owned by my family.”
One of the most telling books was a record of the Fifth Virginia Convention, held in Williamsburg, Va., in May 1776, just two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. An early version of the U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted at the convention, a galvanizing moment in the American Revolution.
“I’d read in one part (of the book) that all men are created equal, but then there were many pages that told of plantation owners seeking restitution for slaves who had been jailed and killed when they tried to escape to the British side,” Brown said.
George Washington, who inherited 10 slaves from his father as an 11-year-old, was conflicted about slavery, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. Even as he came to believe that human bondage ran against the principles on which the new nation was founded, he kept slaves until he died in 1799. His will, however, provided that all 124 of the black people – and a few white people – he owned be set free after the death of wife Martha. He also provided pensions for the older slaves.
The more Brown has found out about her famous family, the more she wants to know, especially since she’s found evidence, though inconclusive, that one or more of her ancestors fathered children with their slaves. “I may have African American cousins I don’t know about,” said Brown, who has spent many late nights searching sites such as www.afrigeneas.com and comingtothetable.org, which serve as a connection for the descendants of slaves and slaveowners.
An intriguing letter from abolitionist Urbain Barbier to Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew, led Brown to “Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon” by Scott Casper. She’s also been in communication with the author through email. “It’s a great, close-in look at slavery through the history of slaves and free African Americans who worked at Mount Vernon, from General Washington’s day through the 1980s,” said Brown. Her research, which she hopes will be the basis for a book about her family and her life interacting with blues royalty, has also turned up some brighter moments. Last month, Brown found a letter from Laurence Washington dated Aug. 27, 1816, that detailed a decision to free slaves owned by him and wife Mary. “We are both decidedly of the opinion that God of nature made them as free as ourselves,” the letter said, “and they are held in bondage by ruffian force and savage violence.” Freeing their slaves “was an act that could no longer be postponed.”
Brown said “it really made my day” to find that letter. “There’s such a fissure in this country between slavery and democracy,” said Brown. “It runs like a fault line from the American Revolution to modern times. People are still suffering from its effects.”
Before poring over the auction materials, Brown’s knowledge of her family’s history centered on the Washingtons who moved from West Virginia to Washington state around 1905 to homestead.
Brown’s mother, Glenora Washington Brown, told Sarah stories of her lawyer father, Sarah’s grandfather, Nathaniel, who drowned in the Columbia River in 1926 trying to save his brother and sister, who also drowned after being swept downstream in a powerful current.
Brown was born in Chicago, but moved at age 6 to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father, Deming Brown, taught Russian literature at the University of Michigan. Her first instrument was the cello, but then the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, and Brown switched to electric bass. “I took the backward route in discovering the blues,” she said. “From the Beatles I found out about Chuck Berry and from there I found Chess Records and the world of the blues.” In her early 20s Brown moved to Boston, which had a vibrant blues scene. She often played the Speakeasy in Cambridge and backed her “first blues genius” in Big Walter Horton.
Needing a change of scenery after a bad breakup, Brown moved to Austin and got a gig playing bass for the Leroi Brothers, whose drummer Mike Buck she knew from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
It was as the bassist in the Antone’s house band that Brown built her reputation and made her gender a nonissue. “If anyone had a problem with me being a female bass player, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said. “Sometimes, they’d come to the club and look at me a little strange when I put on my bass, but it’s really all about the music. If you could play, you were cool.”
Along with guitarists Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien, drummer George Rains, guitarist/organist Mel Brown and sax player Kaz Kazanoff, Sarah Brown backed almost every blues great of note during the ’80s and early ’90s at Antone’s glorious location at 2915 Guadalupe St.
“What’s central to my life is the music created by slaves,” she said, underlining why her new research project has become almost an obsession. Blues grew out of the so-called Negro spirituals, or slave songs, sung in the sweltering fields of the South. In singing about troubles and hardships, often to a call-and-response cadence, the days became more bearable. The music soothed the souls.
Some of those slaves had children who had children who had children who made guitars out of cigar boxes and screen door wires, then grew up to create the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll.
And many have, no doubt, been backed by an Austin woman, a descendant of exalted American Revolutionaries, who has walked those bass lines from the South to Chicago and back.
Seven generations from George Washington
Sarah Brown’s lineage:
Sarah’s mother Glenora (b. 1917) was the daughter of Nathaniel Willis Washington (b. 1881). His father, Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1839) moved his family from Charles Town, WV to Washington state in 1905. Bushrod’s father was Thomas Washington (b. 1812), whose father was also named Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1790). That Bushrod was the son of Corbin Washington (b. 1764), whose father was George Washington’s youngest brother, John Augustine Washington (b. 1736).