THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, February 19, 1995 TAG: 9502170071 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J3 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: GEORGE TUCKER LENGTH: Medium: 85 lines
For some unaccountable reason even the most up-to-date biographical dictionaries don't include two Virginia-born African Americans who were intimately connected with George Washington.
The first is William ``Billy'' Lee, Washington's ``body servant and slave'' for more than two decades. The second is Hercules, familiarly known as ``Uncle Harkless,'' Washington's gourmet chef during his two terms as president.
Lee was so highly regarded by Washington that he had the artist Edward Savage include him in the famous portrait of ``The Washington Family'' that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In that group, Lee stands directly behind Martha Washington, sharing the artistic honors with the Father of Our Country and George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, the Washingtons' adopted grandchildren. Savage's portrait of Lee is one of the earliest identifiable likenesses of a member of his race in American art.
As a young man, Lee accompanied Washington in 1776, when the latter set out from Mount Vernon to head the colonial struggle for independence. He also shared and endured the bitter winter with Washington at Valley Forge and was present at the siege of Yorktown where he repeatedly begged the general not to stand ``too close to the bullet-sprayed battle zone.'' Later, at the surrender ceremony, Lee held the reins of Washington's charger as the British laid down their arms while the regimental bands played ``The World Turned Upside Down.''
In 1788, one year before Washington became president, Lee ``broke the pan of his knee'' while helping Washington survey the boundaries of Abingdon, the Custis estate near Alexandria. Three years later, he fell and broke his other kneecap while on an errand for Washington to the Alexandria post office. These injuries made him an invalid for the rest of his life. He survived Washington, however, for the latter's will specifically states: ``And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful service during the revolutionary war.''
Washington also left Lee an annual pension of $30, and specified that he was to be provided with ``victuals and clothes,'' by his executors. From then on, nothing is know about Lee. But it is generally believed that he died and was buried at Mount Vernon.
Hercules, Washington's master chef, was a more flamboyant character than William Lee and was described by George Washington Parke Custis (Mrs. Robert E. Lee's father) in his ``Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington'' (1861) thus: ``He was a dark-brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.''
Hercule's superb Southern cooking gave culinary distinction to the first presidential tables in New York and Philadelphia between 1789 to 1797. Even so, he had nothing to do with serving the meals. To quote Custis. further: ``When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, `the labors of Hercules' ceased.'' At that time Hercules became his own man, and according to Custis:
``While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His perquisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whitens and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright and metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the presidential kitchen. Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market Street, attracting considerable attention.''
Unlike William Lee, who was content to return to Mount Vernon with Washington at the terminations of his presidency, Hercules had other ideas. He had become so captivated with big city living that in 1797, on the day Washington left Philadelphia to return to private life, he packed up his fancy wardrobe and ran away. Washington made a few feeble, but unsuccessful, efforts to locate him. From then on, Hercules disappeared from the pages of recorded history. ILLUSTRATION: Drawing
William ``Billy'' Lee, Washington's ``body servant and slave.''