Few people know about Hercules Washington, or Uncle Harkless/Hekles, the head cook of the first President of the U.S., George Washington. But his role in establishing the image and social status of the Office of the President as a family, ‘homey’ establishment cannot be overstated.
Little is known about him from a first-hand account, but information gathered from George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of President George Washington, sheds light on who he was and his role.
Curtis writes: “[Hercules] 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.” Hence, the name Hercules.
He adds: Hercules was “a celebrated artiste … as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States. He was also known for his impeccable style.
Historians estimate that Hercules was born in 1753 and was purchased by Washington as a teenager. He was eventually promoted from ferrying boats to cooking. He was then taken to the White House with Washington, which was temporarily located in Philadelphia when he was 36.
There, he prepared meals for the president, his family, guests and dignitaries. He also gained popularity in town, as Washington allowed him to sell the kitchen ‘slops’ – the remaining animal skins, used tea leaves, and food, giving him some money – up to $200 – which he used to dress impeccably.
Sharron Conrad, a historian of African-American cuisine, writes, “It was Hercules who really began this long connection of presidents and African-American cooks”. He is a part of a series of African Americans who have worked in food service for every First Family since.
Author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, stresses: “Black hands — enslaved and free — wove the fabric of social life in the nation’s capital, and black people, widely considered by whites as inherently bred for servitude, were integral to cementing a white family’s social status as an elite household. Our presidential families were no exception,” Miller writes.
“Many presidents went out of their way to reassure the public that they loved the homey dishes prepared by their African-American cooks, though they rarely dignified these cooks by referring to them by their full names,” he adds.
Although little is know about his death, it is confirmed that Hercules ran for freedom when Washington was leaving Philadelphia in 1797. His wife and children, who were slaves to Washington’s wife, remained so and little is known about their story.