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Celebrated author provides perspective on George Washington and his slaves
~ Book signing to conclude the evening ~

NORFOLK, Va. – (Aug. 4, 2004) – Tidewater Community College invites the public to hear author and renowned historian Henry Wiencek, 7 p.m., Sept. 23, at the TCC Jeanne and George Roper Performing Arts Center. He will examine slavery along with the life and morals of George Washington, the subject of his latest book, An Imperfect God, published in 2003.

The free, public event continues with distinguished historian and author Alf Mapp, who will respond to Wiencek’s talk. Mapp, a respected Thomas Jefferson scholar well known in Hampton Roads, recently published The Faiths of Our Fathers.

Wiencek’s An Imperfect God, hailed as one of the best books of the year, explores Washington’s life, revealing the grisly struggle of American slavery and his personal evolution to die as an abolitionist. In Wiencek’s previous book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, his coverage of slavery, Jim Crowe and the civil rights movement garnered the 1999 National Book Critics’ Circle Award in biography. The book was also featured on the CSPAN Book TV, “60 Minutes” and the television mini-series rights have been acquired for broadcast on CBS.

Wiencek was born in 1952 and educated at Yale University. He is a writer and senior research fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. He has written dozens of books, mostly on historical homes and places, and has produced numerous books for the Smithsonian, National Geographic and Time-Life on historic architecture. Janet Maslin of The New York Times describes him as a masterful historian.

TCC launches this American History Lecture Series in conjunction with a grant to train teachers and improve SOL scores by teaching history through a local lens. The public lecture series, featuring accomplished historians, is one part of the program to improve history education in the region.

Wiencek’s books will be for sale and he will hold a book signing immediately following the lecture.

Reprinted from the author’s material: An Emancipator’s Journey

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek
(Farrar. Nov. 0-374-17526. $30)

The great American subject of race is at the center of Henry Wiencek’s National Book Critics Circle Award–winning The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, and, as the author recalls, it informed his interest in next writing “a book about slavery in the era of the Founding.” When his agent proposed that he instead write a biography of George Washington, Wiencek was reluctant, certain that there was “nothing new to discover about him.” Then came the dramatic announcement in 1998 of DNA test results proving that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, quickly followed by a similar story alleging that Washington had also had a child, West Ford, with a slave. “That fascinated me because it seemed to indicate a strong possibility that Washington had black kin, if not a black son,” says Wiencek. “It opened a whole new psychological dimension and a new path for fresh research.”

An Imperfect God is both a life of Washington and an exploration of early American slavery. It investigates how a man born to the Virginia plantation system could end up dramatically rejecting it by freeing his 124 slaves at the end. The story of the President’s last will has long been known but not the lifetime of thinking that preceded it. “The facts about Washington’s struggle against slavery had to be buried [by earlier writers] because they challenged the myth of an innocent past,” Wiencek argues, pointing out how Washington’s “moral development” was in fact the very opposite of Jefferson’s: “Washington began as an enthusiastic slave master, grew to hate slavery, and acted to end it. Jefferson began as an emancipator, fought against the ‘wicked’ (his word) injustices of the slave system, devised plans to end it, but gradually embraced slavery for reasons we do not yet fully understand.”

While finding his way to an honest, modern admiration for Washington, Wiencek freshens the moral horror of the slavers’ landscape in which his subject lived. “It was a great challenge to write about Washington and slavery,” Wiencek tells LJ, “because I tried not to whitewash the past, but I also had to guard against setting myself up as a prosecutor. The other part of the challenge is that the more you study Washington the more you admire him; you have to struggle to keep your objectivity.”

After exhausting all the available historical research, Wiencek ended up unconvinced by the story of Washington’s paternity. What he produced instead is a totally original consideration of race and our elusive first President. “The documents neither confirm nor deny the oral history. It’s a question of character. My aim, which I hope I achieved, was to judge Washington and his era by his standards and not by mine.”


Laurie White
Media Relations

Tidewater Community College is the second largest of the 23 community colleges in the Commonwealth of Virginia, enrolling more than 34,000 students annually. The 37th largest in the nationís 1,600 community-college network, TCC ranks among the 50 fastest-growing large community colleges. Founded in 1968 as a part of the Virginia Community College System, the college serves the South Hampton Roads region with campuses in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach as well as the TCC Jeanne and George Roper Performing Arts Center in the theater district in downtown Norfolk, the Visual Arts Center in Olde Towne Portsmouth and a regional Advanced Technology Center in Virginia Beach. Forty-three percent of the regionís residents attending a college or university in Virginia last fall were enrolled at TCC.