OLYMPIA. Growing up in Tumwater half a century ago, Mark and Kathleen Clarke knew nothing about George W. Bush. At the public school, he was not spoken about. They would not have known about Bush – a black pioneer who fled violent discrimination in Missouri and Oregon before founding the first non-Native American settlement in what would become Washington State – until he came of age.
But even though America continues to fight racism that runs through its history as a through line; even as the battles for school curriculum have taken on new urgency, things are indeed changing.
Last week, Washington unveiled the Bush Monument at the Olympia State Capitol, the first monument on Capitol grounds dedicated specifically to a black man.
The ceremony was attended by the Clarks, both 65 years old. Since 2008, they own and operate a 5 acre vegetable farm in Tumwater. It is the last agricultural remnant of Bush Prairie, a 640-acre farm that Bush and his family built in present-day Tumwater when they arrived in Washington 175 years ago.
“We, too, are part of Washington State’s history,” said Rep. Debra Entenman of Kent, who, as part of the Black Legislature, was instrumental in erecting the granite and bronze monuments. “In the beginning of Washington State, there were indigenous peoples, whites and African Americans.
“I feel like it takes my breath away from the fact that we are celebrating today, George W. Bush. And we stand on the shoulders of many who came after George W. Bush so that I can be here today, ”Entenman said.
Bush was born in Pennsylvania sometime between 1779 and 1790 (sources vary in exact date) to a black father and a white Irish American mother. A free man, Bush settled in Missouri, a slave state, where he met Isabella James and married her. In 1844, the couple headed west with Michael Simmons (who was white) and his family along the Oregon Trail, but upon arrival faced the threat of government-sanctioned violence.
Oregon recently abolished slavery, but its temporary legislature around the same time passed a series of vicious laws designed to prevent black people from settling there. One of those laws, the “Lashing Act,” stated that blacks would be publicly lashed – 39 lashes every six months – until they left the territory. The Lash Act was eventually repealed and replaced by a law obliging black settlers to do community service.
So the Bushes and Simmons families hit the road together, spending the winter near Oregon City, and then crossing the Columbia River and heading north.
Together they traveled to the southern outskirts of Puget Sound and founded Tumwater. (Simmons has been honored with a Capitol Monument since 1959)
The Bushes flourished, establishing their farm in 1845, growing wheat, peas and potatoes; construction of a sawmill and start of small logging activities. They were renowned for their hospitality, travel hospitality, food and place to stay.
The new monument says the family is credited with “saving the lives of other settlers with food from their farm during the famine of 1852.”
Ezra Meeker, a pioneer leader and writer, wrote that Bush gave up nearly all of his harvest that year.
“This man divided almost all of his harvest among the new settlers who came with or without money,” Meeker wrote in the Bush biography. “Pay me in kind next year,” he said to those in need; and to those who had money, he said: “Do not take too much – just as much as you need.”
In 1850, Congress passed legislation granting land in the Washington and Oregon territories to all white settlers who claimed it. Bush was expelled, but was so widely respected that the Washington Territory legislature lobbied Congress to make an exception for him.
“He made a great contribution to the settlement of this territory, the suffering and needy never turned to him in vain for help and assistance,” the territory’s legislature wrote to Congress in 1854.
Congress complied, giving Bush 640 acres of land that the white couples received.
“The law confirming your land claims against you and your wife was passed by Congress without amendment and approved by the President a few days after that,” Columbia Lancaster, Washington’s first delegate to the US House of Representatives, wrote to Bush in 1855.
There are no known photographs of George W. Bush.
A series of five paintings by Jacob Lawrence, commissioned by the Washington State Historical Society in 1972, depicts him as a courageous leader, leading an interracial train across the country and through a snowstorm over the continental divide.
Bush died in 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in theory, but before the end of the Civil War and June 19, 1965 (June 19) ended slavery in practice.
He could own land by virtue of the special exemption granted to him, but he could never vote. Bush’s eldest son, William Owen Bush, 26 years after his father’s death, will become the first black person to serve in the Washington Legislature. He introduced the law establishing Washington State University.
Two of his descendants attended the opening ceremony for the Bush Memorial last week. Seattle-based Megan Jarman is the great-great-granddaughter of Mandana Smith Kimsey, who later married William Owen Bush. And Brandon Stough of Tumwater is the great-great-great-great-grandson of George W. Bush.
Jarman and Staff met for the first time. Jarman grew up listening to her father tell her about their ancestors, but staff were unaware of this until about eight years ago his grandmother was contacted by Washington State officials who asked her to take a DNA test.
“So she spat on that pipe,” said Headquarters. “And we sent him, and they said, ‘Yeah, it turns out, you are direct descendants.” So they sent in a stack of papers about two and a half, three inches thick with our entire family history, which was really cool. “
Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society, said there is “too much time” in the state to honor Bush and his family.
“The stories of black Washingtonians have been underrepresented in our history, and this is one step towards a comprehensive account of our state’s past,” Kilmer said.
Fifty years ago, Mark and Kathleen Clarke learned nothing about George W. Bush at Tumwater High School. “It is important to understand history and understand some of the injustices committed,” said Mark Clarke. “And keep learning from this.”
The Clarkes, now the unofficial guardians of the Bush Estate, were interviewed last week by a group of student journalists at the unveiling of the monument.
Reporters were working on a Bush project for the school yearbook. They were students at George W. Bush Tumwater High School.