By Diane Euston
Black History Month oftentimes focuses on the well-known public figures which have graced the pages of our history books. The unforgettable legacies of Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Jacobs and Booker T. Washington are memorialized for their strong rhetoric and their fearless fight for equality.
Millions of Black men and women helped build the communities where we live, and most of them have been long forgotten. And, because of centuries of enslavement, the stories of these men, women and children often begin after Emancipation – their lives in enslavement erased as they were recorded in official records by only their age and sex.
So often, these incredible people with stories to tell have been lost. One third of all of the slave narratives which do exist are the result of the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Covering 17 states, writers were tasked with interviewing the formerly enslaved. The result was over 2,300 interviews, but less than 100 came from Missouri.
Little is known about the early lives of the formerly enslaved who called Kansas City home, but one highly respected man named Washington Dale caught the attention of more than one newspaper over the years. His colorful personality, gregarious spirit and advanced age made him one of the most memorable Black men who called Kansas City home. Uncle Wash was beloved in the community, and his story – previously forgotten long ago – is worth another look.
An Interesting Beginning in Enslavement
Washington Dale, known as “Uncle Wash” in Kansas City, told several stories of his early life. The man himself often delivered conflicting accounts of his origins. Through my research, some of these details have been corroborated while others remain speculative.
Washington maintained that he was born near Richmond, Va. on the Pegrame plantation. The year of his birth, as with so many of the formerly enslaved, is unclear, but he maintained during his long life that he was born around 1785.
Records indicate that there was a concentration of Pegrame’s living in Dinwiddie Co., Va. (about 40 miles south of Richmond) beginning in the 18th century. In 1790, over half of the population of this county were enslaved.
He told people he was given the name Booker Lambert and was the son of a Baptist preacher, Moses Lambert and Matilda Chambers, a maid on a neighboring plantation. Like many of the formerly enslaved, Uncle Wash couldn’t read or write.
When he was about eight or nine years old, the boy then known as Booker Lambert was kidnapped and taken to a plantation in Woodford Co., Ky. He claimed this happened around 1813, thus indicating he was born after 1800.
Wash clearly remembered the War of 1812 and even spent time in Washington, D.C. His new slaveholder in Woodford Co., Ky. was a man named Rawleigh Dale.
Rawleigh Dale was born in 1760 in Richmond Co., Va. and married Sally Beasley in Woodford Co., Ky. in 1796. In 1810, it was recorded that he held no enslaved people, but by 1820, he recorded four enslaved people. He worked for a time as a tobacco inspector in the county and, along with many Dale relatives who migrated to Kentucky, he began to accumulate quite a bit of wealth.
Some time after he was enslaved by Rawleigh Dale, he chose to change his name from Booker Lambert to Washington Dale; he never gave a reason except that he was no longer connected to his early life.
Uncle Wash Enslaved in Missouri
Rawleigh Dale, along with several distant cousins, opted to uproot their lives in Kentucky and began buying cheap parcels of land in Clay Co., Mo starting in 1825. Around 1827, Rawleigh moved to Clay County, taking Washington Dale with him.
In 1830, Rawleigh held six enslaved men, women and children on his farm six miles north of Liberty, Mo. After Rawleigh passed away sometime before 1840, Uncle Wash became the property of his son. Uncle Wash later proclaimed, “I served time out by being a better man than [my master.]”
What can be ascertained through the birth of his children is that Uncle Wash married a woman named Evie and had two children who survived to adulthood: Henry, born in 1839, and George, born in 1842. These children claimed they were born in Platte County and both continued to live north of Kansas City throughout their lives.
The newspaper claimed that Wash “was emancipated before general emancipation went into effect and moved to Kansas City in 1862.”
During the Civil War, Wash drove a stagecoach from Liberty to Jefferson City and from Jefferson City to St. Charles. His wife, Evie died. Wash then had two children, Frank and Henry (he had two children with the same name!), born in 1864 with his second wife, Mary.
Free at Last
The Civil War ended May 13, 1865, and 4th of July that year in Kansas City included a massive celebration. The Kansas City Brass Band, local military officers, schools and the Orpheus Singing Club all participated in a parade throughout the streets. Fireworks in the evening were shot off “on the hill west of Grand Avenue, near the termination of Walnut Street.”
The Daily Journal of Commerce wrote, “Let the horrors of the past be forgotten. . . To us on this day there is no North or South; we have but one People. . . Let us accept the logic of events and the teachings of history. We are now one people, animated by an immoral idea. Let us forget the past; think only of a glorious future, and celebrate the day of all others most calculated to obliterate bitter memories.”
Another parade, separate from the large procession, assembled on 3rd Street and was meant to commemorate their first Independence Day as freedmen. Music played as the formerly enslaved paraded the streets. There, mounted on a horse, was the grand marshal, Mr. Washington Dale. Wash “well filled the exalted position.” He was “dressed in a brilliant uniform and mounted on a fiery steed.”
It was later indicated that Uncle Wash was a crowd favorite at gatherings. The Kansas City Star wrote after his death, “He was known by many prominent men here and until he became too feeble to ride, it was customary to give him a place in all public parades and processions.”
Milton J. Payne (1829-1900), a six-time elected mayor of Kansas City, spoke at this first Independence Day “about the blessings of universal freedom.”
Uncle Wash dismounted his horse and addressed the crowd on that special 4th of July. “Uncle Abe broke de chains of de [slave], and de American eagle spreads his wings on a land of freedmen,” he proclaimed. “De black man is free – free as de old master in de White House. My friends, think of it, and you dat is given to bad ways, form yourselves and be good citizens. There is glorious times coming for de black man, bless the Lord.”
His speech continued for several minutes, delayed only by outbursts of applause. “Sixty summers have rolled over dis head and dis chile was a slave. These shoulders hab borne heaps of trouble,” Uncle Wash declared. “Down in ole Virginny, in Kentuck, and in Missouri. I forgets it all in dis happy moment, in dis hour of freedom.”
After Emancipation, Uncle Wash made his marriage to Mary “official” on July 19, 1865. Marriages prior to Emancipation were rarely legal or recorded, so documenting prior partnerships was an important part of establishing life as a freedman.
In 1869, just five years after the Civil War ended, Reconstruction was at the forefront of the government’s mind. On Feb. 26, 1869, the 15th Amendment gave African American men the right to vote, and in 1870, it was ratified. This event was not lost to the Black population of Kansas City, nor was it lost to the politicians who would now need the support of the Black community.
Democrats, who had opposed Black suffrage were slowly learning that they needed to appeal to the group they had vehemently opposed. The Daily Journal of Commerce wrote in 1869, “Recognizing the necessities of the position, the Democrats. . . are now making amorous love to the sable population.”
With the support of the Democrats, a group of African American men, including Uncle Wash, met on August 4, 1869 “for the purpose of giving expression to the sentiments which they entertain that the white is the dominant race, and that it is essential (where both classes are living together) to the welfare of the colored race that they recognize an act upon the distinctions nature has made, and operate in harmony with the whites without attempting to attain social or political equality.”
As shocking as this concept was, it was a part of the survival of the newly freed population living in the city. Before Jim Crow would alienate and segregate Kansas City, the city was somewhat integrated with pockets of African American communities throughout. This meant that no matter the precinct, the Black vote was in play. In these early elections, there were threats of violence toward the Black voters in Kansas City; thankfully, none were carried out.
Uncle Wash never took his ability to cast a vote lightly and voted in every election. He voted for the person- not the political party.
Life on Campbell Street
John Campbell (1820-1900) and his wife, Charlotte moved to Kansas City in 1857. He, along with his brother, Robert and William Gilliss, laid out a large tract of land known as “East Kansas.” Streets such as Campbell, Charlotte and Gillis were named after these founders. In 1861, Campbell built his mansion at 3rd and Campbell which stood until 1900.
Wash made his living supplying water from a natural spring near 4th and Gillis to restaurants and bars. Prior to the creation of the water works in Kansas City, Uncle Wash would haul water in a cart pulled by a mule. Each barrel was sold for 50 cents.
Uncle Wash Dale was always a hard worker even in his advanced age. With his earnings, he purchased a lot in East Kansas in 1870 from John Campbell. The little cottage, built with his own hands, sat at 538 Campbell in the current-day northeast neighborhood. After his wife, Mary died in 1876, he took his wife’s clothes outside to air them out and someone stole them.
This infuriated the man who worked for every penny. He told the Daily Journal of Commerce, “If it had been some poor needy person, and I’d had the pleasure of givin’ them myself, I wouldn’t had cared.”
Uncle Wash didn’t stay single for long. He married a woman 40 years his junior, and by 1890, he had landed his fourth wife. He claimed at that time he was 105 and his wife was 35 years old. He expressed, “Men of all ages always seek de dashin’ young gals an’ de widows.”
His personality certainly attracted Kansas Citians to him, and his gregariousness garnered many headlines. The newspaper wrote, “In fine weather he manages to hobble about the little yard with a cane and on the long warm summer days he will sit all day under a spreading tree in front of his humble home, lifting his hat with old time courtesy to every passerby.”
Even with his “bent and shrunken form” and teeth worn to the gums, he maintained his little cottage at 538 Campbell, preferring to venture outside to visit with the children of the neighborhood. “In the wintertime he hugs his fireside,” the Kansas City Times wrote. “In the summer he passes his days sitting beneath his front yard, smoking a cob pipe, never so happy as when he has children about him from the neighbors’ houses to listen to his stories.”
Uncle Wash also offered unique advice on how to live a long life. He would take a drink every day, but he was also supportive of the temperance movement. “First there was de total abstinence movement, ‘n de Lord knows dat temperance was a good thing, ‘n yo poor ole Uncle Wash would never’a lived to be over a hundred if he hadn’t observed that principle ‘n took his little toddy every mornin’ an that’s all,” he told the Kansas City Times in 1886.
He’d hobble with a gnarled stick to the health department where he received “a dose of whiskey” every day. Shockingly, whiskey was used at the time as a treatment for various ailments – and this continued into the 20th century. He would “toss off his two ounces of whiskey like a trooper.”
By 1887, the newspaper wrote he was 103 years old and may have been the oldest man in the United States to cast a vote.
Despite his advanced age and having rheumatism, Uncle Wash wore a face of peace and contentment. While others celebrated Thanksgiving with a turkey, Uncle Wash never liked it and insisted there were “good fat ‘possums ‘round.”
Shortly before his death, Uncle Wash sold his property for a large profit with the provision that he be allowed to live there rent free until he passed away.
Uncle Washington Dale in Memory
Uncle Wash, with his “splendid memory and imagination,” passed away inside his little home March 16, 1893 at the reputed age of 109. For as long as Kansas City knew him, he had been an old man whose personality charmed them all. He believed in hard work and determination; he believed in the advancement of his race.
Heart failure complicated by pneumonia was what took this man to his grave, and the announcement of his death was covered in newspapers across the nation. He wasn’t nationally famous in his lifetime, but his disputed age, likely somewhat exaggerated, landed a brief coverage of his life in print. He was buried in Union Cemetery; no headstone marks its current location.
But in Kansas City, he was famous in his day. He didn’t move mountains, write a famous novel or become a millionaire. It was his personality – his ability to tell a story – that made him memorable to everyone who crossed his path. He, along with so many other African Americans, worked hard to build Kansas City.
Just as his exact burial location has been lost, Washington Dale and the stories he told have been easily lost to more prominent figures covered in Kansas City’s history. Uncle Wash was beloved by the community, and we can easily picture this “Virginia gentleman” bowing and smiling while tipping his battered, worn hat to everyone who would pass by.
Note: Early newspapers throughout America commonly used misspellings and grammatical errors to exaggerate stereotypical Black speech, and this carried racist undertones that are hard to ignore in the 21st century. For example, newspapers would write “sed” instead of “said,” even though both of these words are pronounced the exact same way.
In order to preserve the meaning and the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), I have chosen to only alter portions of these quotes which were printed over 140 years ago.