George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His journey would take him a world away from Mount Vernon.

George Washington and his servant Billy Lee. Artist: John Trumbull. 1780. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
George Washington and his servant Billy Lee. Artist: John Trumbull. 1780. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 9: Who was George Washington’s runaway slave?

Of our first five presidents, four owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owning legacy has been covered in the news lately; however, the biggest slave owner among the four men was the father of our country, George Washington. 

Washington and his wife Martha together owned about 200 slaves at the beginning of the Revolution, but at the end of his life the couple owned 317 slaves together. And at least two of these became quite famous, for very different reasons. 

William “Billy” Lee, Washington’s personal servant, was the only slave whom Washington freed outright upon the former president’s death (all the others were to be freed upon his wife’s death, though she freed them 12 months after Washington passed). He is depicted looking adoringly at his master in John Trumbull’s famous painting of the president of 1780 (pictured above), standing faithfully by his side.

At the other extreme of attitudes toward the master of Mount Vernon, however, stands another slave. He was a fascinating rebel named Harry, whose life and times have been painstakingly recreated by the historian Cassandra Pybus. And Harry’s dogged determination to be free suggests that not all of the slaves found Washington to be the benevolent master whom historians have depicted.

Harry’s first escape from Mount Vernon occurred on July 29, 1771. Washington was not amused: He “paid one pound and sixteen shillings to advertise for the recovery of his property,” Pybus tells us in the book The Human Tradition in the Black Atlantic, 1500-2000. Harry was returned a few weeks later. Undaunted and determined to be free, Harry awaited a second chance.

That would come in the early years of the Revolution, on Nov. 14, 1775, when John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, issued an astonishing proclamation that freed any slaves who were willing to bear arms for the British Crown. Slaves ran away in droves. Dunmore himself reported that by the end of November, “two and three hundred already [have] come in and these I form into a Corps as fast as they come.” 

The historian Jill Lepore, in a New Yorker review of Simon Schama’s fascinating book about the black Loyalists, Rough Crossings, estimates, incredibly, that “between eighty and a hundred thousand (nearly one in five [black slaves]) left their homes … betting on British victory.” But Pybus insists that a more realistic figure is between 20,000 and 30,000 who defected to the British side during the war — still a stunningly high figure, since historians estimate that about 5,000 black men served the Patriot cause in the Continental Army (including my own fourth-great grandfather, John Redman). Many died of disease or in battle or were simply returned to their masters. Historians estimate about 15,000 former slaves left the United States with the evacuating British.