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Bush Legacy

Slavery Ties: Bush's Long-Held 'Family Secret'

By Jennifer Millman
February 20, 2008

The Bush family owned about 30 slaves 175 years ago in Maryland, reports Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, on

President Bush is in the midst of a six-day tour of Africa, his second visit to the continent, which includes stops in countries such as Benin, Ghana and Liberia, places from which the United States received hundreds of thousands of slaves. Smack in the middle of the trip fell President's Day, which honors George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and all other men who have served our country as president. Read about your five Black presidents to remember.

Will Bush take the opportunity to talk about his ancestors' ties to slavery? Probably not, writes Ball, considering the matter is a long-held "family secret," according to The Bush Tragedy, a new book by Jacob Weisberg, which barely mentioned the Bush family's longstanding involvement in the slave trade.

But in April 2007, the secrets started to leak out. A historian named Robert Hughes discovered census records that revealed five householders of the Walker family, related to Bush through his father's mother, were slaveholding farmers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, reports Ball.

Bush has talked about slavery on several occasions, including in a 2003 speech on Gorée Island, from which young West African children were shipped to the United States to be enslaved. At the time, he called slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history."

But Bush didn't mention that his ancestors--up to his father's great-great-great grandparents, who owned two slaves--participated in it. Why?

It's a touchy subject, one that often fuels defensiveness around the issue of reparations. Here's what the White Guy says white people need to know about reparations. About 15 million white Americans today have slave-owning ancestors, according to Ball, who adds that while many may not talk about this family history, most of them know it exists.

It's unclear how much Bush's ties to slavery have influenced his family's political dynasty. No records about the slaves they owned survived, and the evidence available provides no indication the Bush family owned slaves after 1838, which is when the Walker family declared bankruptcy and moved to southern Illinois. How'd the family get the money to start over? They most likely sold their slaves at an auction, but as far as the records indicate, the money trails ends there, writes Ball. But the history remains.

The Bush Tragedy quotes a letter from David Walker, one of the later heads of the current Bush family and a self-proclaimed "believer in eugenics and the 'unwritten law' of lynching," published in the St. Louis Republic in 1914. Walker wrote that Blacks were "more insidious than prostitution and 'all the other evils combined,'" reports Ball.

In 1930, President Bush's great-grandfather bought an old cotton plantation in South Carolina for use as a vacation and hunting getaway where the current president's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, would play as a youth, pampered and waited on by "teams of Black cooks, valets and drivers," according to Ball.

While Ball acknowledges that heirs of slave owners are not necessarily responsible for their past, he says they should be accountable for it. That includes President Bush.

But as the Bush political dynasty ends with one of the worst approval ratings in presidential history amid an unsettled immigration melee, disastrous war and tumultuous economy, no one is surprised he's left it off his agenda while touring Africa.

How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Of our first 18 U.S. presidents, 13 owned slaves, reports Which president owned the most slaves? Here's a list by number of slaves owned:

George Washington: 317
Thomas Jefferson: 237
Andrew Jackson: 200
Zachary Taylor: 145
James Madison: 118
James Moore: 75
John Tyler: 70
James Knox Polk: 24
William Harrison: 11
Andrew Johnson: 8
Ulysses S. Grant: 5
James Buchanan: 2
Martin Van Buren: 1
John Adams: 0
John Quincy Adams: 0
Millard Fillmore: 0
Franklin Pierce: 0
Abraham Lincoln: 0

Take this quiz on to find out who owned how many slaves and get detailed summaries of each president that include how the slaves were treated.