Step out of your home or walk a block from your office here in Georgetown, the oldest neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and you are sure to pass a spot that contains history — quite likely African American history. To the surprise of some, Georgetown can tell the story of early and contemporary America from a black perspective.
In 2019, we mark the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving in the British American colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. Disembarking in 1619 were “not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes,” according to John Rolfe, widower of Pocahontas.
The legacy of slavery continues to inform the American experience, black and white — particularly on the East Coast, where the United States began. Of the many stories to tell, we shall tell a local one.
Washington, D.C., says Marcia Chatelain, Georgetown University associate professor of history, is a place with black history that has shown “great beauty and inequality. It is a sober reminder and a celebration, too,” she added, “of achievement and strengths.” Knowing and understanding history, says the author of “South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration,” Americans have a chance “to demonstrate what’s possible” — constructing “a well-rounded account.” Black History Month is a time “to be reflective.”
Fifth-generation Washingtonian, P Street resident and educator Monica Roaché — former advisory neighborhood commissioner and now a D.C. Democratic Party Committee member — says she has used her platform to tell the story of black Georgetown. “The African American community contributed to Georgetown. There were doctors, lawyers, educators and more,” she says, noting that “Georgetown was the first D.C. neighborhood to experience gentrification.” (It did not turn out well for black Georgetowners.)
Roaché’s family was part of “Black Georgetown Remembered,” a 1989 video and book project by Georgetown University, authored by Kathleen Lesko, Valerie Babb and Carroll Gibbs. Crediting the university, Roaché calls the book “an encyclopedia of Georgetowners’ shared experience.”
University Confronts Slavery Ties
That same Jesuit university at 37th & O Streets — the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the U.S. — only fully confronted its ties to slavery three years ago.
“It seems to me that the story of Georgetown and slavery is a microcosm of the whole history of slavery,” said history professor Adam Rothman, a member of Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory & Reconciliation, in 2016, regarding the university’s connection with the Jesuits’ 1838 sale of 272 slaves.
Since then, the university has apologized for arranging the sale of slaves from D.C. and Maryland farms to help pay off debts that endangered the survival of Georgetown College. And it has renamed two main campus buildings: for Isaac Hawkins, the first slave listed on the sales document; and for Anne Marie Becraft, who founded a school nearby for black girls and later became one of America’s first black nuns.
The school has also offered descendants of the 272 slaves, most of whom ended up in Louisiana, legacy status in admissions.
Colonial and Federal Eras
Before the United States and its capital were founded, the Town of George was a bustling colonial port on the Potomac River, dealing mostly with tobacco exports. Slaves worked in the fields and hauled the valuable crop to the docks of Georgetown, Maryland, which was one-third African American around 1750.
In the 1800 U.S. Census, Georgetown and close-by land — but not the Federal City proper — had “1,449 slaves and 277 free blacks out of a total population of 5,120,” according to “Black Georgetown Remembered.”
The town was a mix of white citizens, free immigrants, indentured servants and free and enslaved blacks, the latter sometimes hired out for work elsewhere. Some did not live in owners’ homes but nearby — in cottages, attics, alleys or shacks. Due to its prosperity, Georgetown had many slave markets and held slave auctions. The current Dean & DeLuca market on M Street holds remnants of slavery in its basement, where slaves were penned.
An early black hero was surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who helped measure the future District of Columbia boundary lines. He would join his colleagues at Georgetown taverns for dinner. At that time, the town was the only built-up place other than Alexandria, D.C.
Yes, D.C. once included Arlington and Alexandria as part as its 10-square-mile diamond of land. When slave trading was about to be banned in D.C., Alexandria wanted out (bad for business, it argued). Retrocession was approved by Congress — hence, D.C.’s jagged edge, its map showing the legacy of slavery. Banneker, incidentally, sent Thomas Jefferson his own almanac as a rebuttal to the president’s belief that blacks were not capable of intellectual growth.
Mamout, Key and Others
Another early Georgetowner was Yarrow Mamout, a merchant and devout Muslim, taken from Guinea. Freed later in life, he became become a celebrity in town, his portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1819 and by Georgetown artist James Alexander Simpson in 1822. Mamout owned a home at 3324 Dent Place, where archeologists dug in 2015 hoping to find his body, thought buried there.
Simpson’s portrait of Mamout — the pride and joy of the Georgetown Public Library’s Peabody Room and its curator, Jerry McCoy — has been on loan to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and will return home in July.
The mix of free and enslaved was a minefield for polite society and civil commerce. Imagine two friends in town, one a freeman, the other a slave, and consider the 1830s story of Washington, D.C., Attorney General Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Key successfully prosecuted a slave who threatened his owner, the widow of U.S. Capitol architect William Thornton, when he returned home, reportedly drunk, and held an axe in her bedroom. With the death penalty hanging over him, Anna Thornton asked for leniency. The 18-year-old was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Jackson.
A Community Grows, Then Fades
After the Civil War, with the 14th Amendment enacted, all black Americans were freed. In Georgetown, where slaves were emancipated by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, tensions remained; blacks voted for the first time and assembled in Jacob’s Field, now Rose Park. Between 1860 and 1870, Georgetown’s population increased to 11,384, with 3,271 blacks.
The easternmost side of Georgetown developed into a thriving black community. Most of Georgetown’s black churches remain here — Mt. Zion United Methodist, First Baptist, Jerusalem Baptist and Epiphany Catholic Church. The Alexander Baptist property now holds residences and Ebenezer A.M.E Church became an Anglican church.
Alfred Pope was one of the most influential black Georgetowners of the mid-to-late 19th century. Owner of coal and lumber yards, he was a real estate magnate, politician and philanthropist. A few decades past slavery, other prominent citizens included Robert Holmes and John Ferguson, as well as Moses Zacariah Booth and Elizabeth Oliver Booth.
The Rev. Patrick Healy, S.J., who led Georgetown University from 1873 to 1882, improved the school’s academic standing as well as its campus, constructing the building that bears his name with income from property sales up Wisconsin Avenue, at and near McLean Gardens. Called “the Spaniard” in his day, Healy’s mother was black and his father Irish. He was the first black president of a major university — fully acknowledged in the 20th century. It is noteworthy, and perhaps ironic, that Georgetown’s skyline is anchored by a landmark named to honor a black man.
At the turn of the 20th century, black Georgetowners lived mostly in Herring Hill (named for the fish in Rock Creek) near Rose Park, along Volta Place — Pomander Walk was known as “Bedlam Lane” — and south of M Street in Cherry Hill Lane. Framed wooden houses are reminders of what once was.
Blacks and whites lived — and played — side by side in many blocks, although with segregation they did not attend the same schools or churches. The Phillips and Wormley schools (for blacks only) are now condos. The Jackson School (for whites) is an arts studio cooperative. Hyde-Addison School (once for whites only) is Georgetown’s only public elementary school. Francis Junior High on N Street in the West End was for blacks only.
By the early 20th century, Georgetown had lost its luster and seemed lost in time. With the C&O Canal slowly hauling barges of coal, its port long silted up and its waterfront with a rendering plant and a power plant, the town was classified as industrial.
Nevertheless, in the face of segregation and racism, black Georgetowners established a community that included a variety of clubs, sports teams and black-owned businesses. At 28th and P Streets, Stachowski’s used to be Pride Pharmacy; the Washington Fine Properties office, Burke’s Tailor Shop. Almost every corner near Rose Park boasted a business.
Among the black stars were tennis doubles champions Roumania and Margaret Peters, who lived at 2710 O St. and played at the Rose Park clay courts, declared “For Colored Only” by the city in the 1940s. Residents quickly tore down the sign, and the park became one of the District’s first to be integrated. A memorial plaque honoring the Peters sisters was erected there in 2016, paid for by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and his wife Susan.
With the expansion of the federal government, new employees needed housing. Affordable Georgetown was close to downtown and a real estate rush began. In 1950, the Old Georgetown Act — opposed by the Rev. James Foy, pastor of Mt. Zion Church — brought new zoning restrictions and renovations costs. With higher assessments came more taxes. Many homeowners could not keep up.
“The black population of Georgetown fell from nearly 30 percent of the general population in 1930 to less than nine percent by the 1960 census, and the racial diversity that had been so much a part of Georgetown’s historical character was virtually lost,” according to “Black Georgetown Remembered.”
Still Close-Knit, Reclaiming Our Past
Mention Dr. C. Herbert Marshall or Dr. Joseph Dodson and old-timers will smile in recognition. Mention the Blue Mouse Theatre, operated by George Martin, on 26th Street in the West End and older smiles will widen. Remaining in Georgetown were the families Bowman, Burnett, Butler, Calloway, Clark, Gaskin, Jackson, Jones, Marshall, Mitchell, Peebles, Roaché, Sewell, Waters and Wharton, when “Black Georgetown Remembered” was written.
“One of the things I have enjoyed, even to this day, is the communal feeling in Georgetown. We’re still close-knit, even though our numbers have dwindled,” says Neville Waters, president of the Mount Zion Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park Inc. The nonprofit’s work for the old cemetery behind 27th and Q Streets has amped up with a major fundraising campaign: “Reclaiming Our Past to Preserve Our Future.” (The group was one of this newspaper’s 2018 Georgetowners of the Year.)
“It saddens me to think of a time when blacks and white could not be buried together, but we’ve gone beyond that,” Waters says. “It’s important that everyone know our ancestors worked hard to help build the foundations of Washington, D.C.”
Nowadays, D.C. is no longer “Chocolate City.” Mayor Muriel Bowser calls for “a fair shot” for all. And the Old Dominion — as it attempts to address shameful aspects of its history, some recent — touts its “2019 Commemoration, American Evolution.”
“We’re still learning in 2019,” Roaché says.