Mapping Georgetown: Meet the Real McCoy of the Peabody Room


Imagine being a librarian with a passion to meticulously preserve every key detail of your community’s history.

And, what if you had the dream job of serving as the archivist for the Peabody Room collection of the Washington D.C. Georgetown Neighborhood Library? The collection you would develop and oversee would memorialize all the great people who started D.C.’s oldest neighborhood – one of unique historical charms — and one which played a key role in the foundation of American democracy.

Now imagine, as the keeper of this storied collection, what it would be like to experience your worst nightmare as a librarian?

Meet Jerry McCoy, Another Georgetown Gem!

As a follow up to last week’s Mapping Georgetown story about the 2007 fire at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, we asked Jerry McCoy to describe what it was like on April 30, 2007 when the catastrophic conflagration took place. What were his first thoughts? When he realized a fire might engulf the entire collection, how did he feel and what did he do? Here’s what he told us:

“It was Monday morning, April 30, 2007, and I was on the reference desk at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library’s Washingtonia Division. 

The phone rang. I answered it. “Jerry, this is Mimi Hernandez at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library (the branch manager). I wanted to tell you before you heard it from anywhere else, the library is on fire. I have to go.” (Sirens heard in background.)

The 2007 fire at the Georgetown public library almost destroyed the Peabody Room’s collections stemming back to the early 17th century. Photo courtesy DCPL.

I calmly hung up the phone and quietly sat there. The day I had always feared had come true. So sure was I that there would be a fire, I already had planned for it; a chain ladder to hang from the 2nd floor of the Peabody Room (where I also worked) as the room only had one way in/out, and what I was going to grab; the 1776 – ‘77 bound volume of “Maryland Gazette” and the 1822 portrait of Yarrow Mamout. I could do neither as I was three miles away…”

From Jerry McCoy’s story-map for the Mapping Georgetown project. Photo courtesy Mapping Georgetown.

Fortunately, the Fire Department arrived in time to get the fire under control and rescue valuable materials. Editor-in-chief of The Georgetowner, Robert Devaney, recalled being an eyewitness to the fire and seeing Mayor Adrian Fenty and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans on the scene. A refrigeration truck was called in by library staff to prevent mold and rotting on materials soaked by the firefighters’ hoses.

Georgetown University newspaper The Hoya’s James Hilson reported that “Flames engulfed the Georgetown Neighborhood Library yesterday afternoon, collapsing the building’s roof and destroying several historical relics housed inside. Around 12:30 p.m., the three-alarm blaze drew nearly 200 firefighters to Wisconsin Avenue and R Street, where the library is located, causing Wisconsin Ave. to be closed and traffic diverted. The 12 people inside the building, including patrons and library employees, all left the building unharmed.”

“Flames appeared to originate on the second floor of the western side of the library before spreading east, engulfing the roof and upper floors,” Hilson reported. “Firefighters began to remove what documents and artwork they could from the building about two hours after the blaze began, before the fire was completely doused. They laid the items, some charred and soaked, along Wisconsin Ave.”

Hilson quoted Jerry McCoy who had arrived on the scene. Referring to the Yarrow Mamout portrait, “that’s the one painting I’m most upset about,” McCoy said, according to Hilson. “This is what I was going to save if this ever happened.” As Georgetown’s most significant Muslim freedman and businessman, Yarrow is of particular interest to historians.

In 2016 the Smithsonian American Art Museum borrowed the 1822 portrait of Yarrow Mamout (conserved after being water-damaged during the fire along with several other works of art displayed in the Peabody Room).  Over a three year period, Yarrow was viewed by nearly a million visitors.  The portrait was returned to the library in 2019 and is permanently on display.

Valuable materials rescued from Georgetown Library Fire of 2007, including 1822 portrait of Yarrow Mamout (foreground).

Muhammad Abdur Rahim, doctoral student at Howard University in African and Islamic history; Jerry A. McCoy; Amir Muhammad, curator, America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, Washington, D.C. (and Yarrow Mamout reenactor); James S. Johnston, author, “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.”

McCoy’s Mapped Recollections of Georgetown

And here are other Georgetown recollections – so valuable to our local history — Jerry submitted to our Mapping Georgetown Project:

I moved to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1978 to attend American University as a transferring Junior. Because I had a car, Georgetown was easy for me and friends to get to as it was only a little over two miles from the campus. I didn’t go (out) much (wasn’t then or now much of a drinker), but there are places that stand out in my memories. Numbers are keyed to the map. 

Jerry McCoy’s story-map for the Mapping Georgetown project.

  1. Probably the first movie I saw at the Key Theatre, 1222 Wisconsin Avenue, was “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This movie was released in 1975 and by the time I saw it in 1978 or ’79, the whole dress-up-as-your-favorite character and yell back lines at the screen was in play. I know I saw lots of movies here before it closed in 1997, but the only other ones I remember are “Polyester” (1981), and the re-released Alfred Hitchcock films “Rear Window,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “Rope (1984). My ticket stubs for the last three films are in the “1222-26 Wisconsin Avenue” vertical file in the Peabody Room!
  2. Roy Rogers located at 1226 Wisconsin Avenue, was next door to the Key. I’m sure that the only time I went there was either before or after a movie. I loved their cheeseburgers.
  3. The first “real” restaurant I remember patronizing in Georgetown was Au Pied de Cochon at 1335 Wisconsin Avenue. The only thing I remember ever ordering there (Probably because it was the only thing on the menu that I could afford) was the French Onion Soup. The thick cheese and bread on top was incredible and more than enough for a meal. The restaurant closed in 2004.
  4. My first job after I graduated AU in 1980 was an office temp job at 1010 Wisconsin Avenue. I don’t remember what organization I was assigned to but I do remember the building as being terrible ugly (built 1976). And it is STILL ugly.
  5. The only person I ever knew who actually lived in Georgetown was Robert A. Lyle (1921-1996). I met him thru a mutual friend and contemporary of Bob’s, Robert A. Truax (1915-2009). Mr. Lyle lived at 3211 Cherry Hill Lane and was the Peabody Room “curator” from 1978 to 1995. And NO, that is not how I got my position at the DC Public Library/Peabody Room. During the time I knew Mr. Lyle, I never dreamt that I would one day have this job. All he seemed to care about was Georgetown and for his birthday or Christmas I would always give him a vintage Georgetown postcard, which he would add to the collection at the Peabody room. Life, I guess, works out in strange ways and now I have been the steward of the Peabody Room (with a Master’s in library science, which Bob did not have), two years longer than he. I still come across the postcards I gave him thirty-plus years ago.
  6. The Georgetown Neighborhood Library’s Peabody Room at 3260 R Street has been my home-away-from-home since 2000 when I started working there part-time (the other half of my time is at DCPL’s Washingtonia). I LOVE the Peabody Room and my position there as the now second-longest steward of the collection. Mathilde Williams had the longest run at 28 years (1950-1978). I have ten more years to go until I surpass her and I might make it!”

Thank you, Jerry McCoy, for creating another Georgetown ‘church’ for all of us who love to visit and thank you for all you have done to help keep our stories alive!

These Mapping Georgetown stories can be viewed in full at https://mappinggeorgetown.com/2019/05/16/our-very-own-jerry-mccoy-of-the-mccoy-peabody-room-at-the-georgetown-public-library/.

To complete our Mapping Georgetown collection, we need your stories too! Don’t hesitate to contact Marilyn Butler with any questions or for help. Blank templates can be printed from the home page of www.mappinggeorgetown.com or picked up from The Georgetown Public Library.

To learn more about the Mapping Georgetown project see https://georgetowner.com/articles/2021/07/19/marilyn-butlers-vision-for-mapping-georgetown/. Marilyn Butler can be reached at marilyn.butler@gmail.com.

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