Jerry McCoy, Retiring Georgetown Historian, Bequeaths His Own Lasting Legacy

By David Edwards

“I’ve taken better care of the Peabody Room than I think my own house,” says Jerry McCoy, who prefers to describe his days working as the Special Collections Librarian in the Peabody Room as “play”—a substitution reflective of the joy and enthusiasm he brings to the room and shares with everyone who visits it.

The Peabody Room, a part of the People’s Archive which collects and showcases Georgetown history on the third floor of the Georgetown Neighborhood Library on R Street, has been McCoy’s playground for 24 years now. It is named after philanthropist George Peabody, who left money in 1867 for a Georgetown library, and whom McCoy considers himself as his press agent.

McCoy’s tenure, which began in 2000, will end the last day of July as he wraps up a fittingly historic career in preservation, curation and — he emphasizes — “entertainment.”

Before joining the People’s Archive, McCoy worked as a photographer at Children’s National Hospital. In fact, it was his photography that originally put McCoy in contact with the District of Columbia Public Library. Hired by the Washingtoniana division, he spent roughly a year printing a collection of glass plate negatives, identifying their locations by spotting background details and cross-referencing them with historical documents. During this project, McCoy says the HR director at the time “saw the local D.C. history spark in my eyes. She said, ‘Boy, if you had a master’s in library science, we’d hire you today.’ ”

After leaving Children’s National Hospital, McCoy became a licensed D.C. tour guide in the summer of 1997, unsure of what the future held. But inspiration came from his next-door neighbor who was in the process of completing her own master’s degree in library science at Catholic University. “I was sitting at her kitchen table, bemoaning: What am I going to do for the rest of my life? And she said, ‘Well why don’t you go to library school? You’ve always loved history and books and reading.’ ” Once again, McCoy’s appreciation for history made an indelible impression on those around him, highlighting a path for him even where he did not yet see it.

While studying for his master’s degree in library science, McCoy secured a position at “a library and state services organization,” working at an in-house library that served state legislative and lobbying offices. He worked there until hearing about a dual position open at the Peabody Room and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s Washingtoniana division. In an extremely rare occurrence, McCoy says: “I was actually hired before I even got my library degree.” His passion for the role so obvious that the People’s Archive took him on as soon as they could—clearly an excellent decision in hindsight.

Now, the Peabody Room and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library have been McCoy’s home for over two decades. But McCoy will correct anyone who mistakenly believes that he has the longest career of the Peabody Room’s curators: “Mathilde Williams has me beat by four years,” he says with a gracious chuckle.

The current Peabody Room is nearly all McCoy’s doing though. After a dramatic 2007 fire at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library destroyed the Peabody Room but miraculously left many artifacts intact enough for successful restoration, McCoy had a veritable blank slate while rebuilding. The new room has allowed McCoy to forefront art and other eye-catching items in the collection. He adds: “I think most people like to look at things. That’s certainly how you engage them in conversation because they’ll see something and say ‘Well what’s this?’ ” The room compels visitors to ask questions, filled with historic paintings, news clippings, material artifacts and a bright red jacket—McCoy has succeeded in shaping an educational and visual feast.

“I’ve always felt like I was a born entertainer, and I think the best way to educate people about anything is to make it fun and lively,” says McCoy, who estimates that about 50 percent of people who stop by the Peabody Room are tourists, directed up to him by the front desk of the library. McCoy encourages them to send anyone his way, but especially people visiting from out of town. 

“I’ve met people from all over the world—it’s just been amazing,” McCoy says. “I always try to have them leave here with one fact about Georgetown in their brains, and usually it’s that Georgetown is the oldest neighborhood in D.C., 1751.” 

Being a librarian and historian, for McCoy, is just as much about the present and the people who fill it as it is about the past. The Peabody Room exudes the sense of historical significance and grandeur that a good archive does, but it also feels inviting and non-intimidating, encouraging questions and curiosity. It’s possible to read almost 70 years of The Georgetowner Newspaper there on microfilm.

As he leaves the Peabody Room, though, McCoy is certainly not leaving behind his dedication to history. “One thing I’ll be doing in retirement is getting things [in my home] organized. I’m also the founder and president of the Silver Spring Historical Society—so that’s in my basement,” which he says is filled with various historical artifacts acquired by and for the society.

At his in-home museum, McCoy’s favorite item is a New Deal era dedication plaque for the Silver Spring Post Office, from 1935. When the building was sold and privatized, the plaque disappeared for some time, before McCoy received a letter from a man explaining that he had it stored in his chicken coop.

In the Peabody Room, McCoy says his two favorite items are a bound volume of the 1776 Maryland Gazette, a local paper which includes an original publication of the Declaration of Independence (buried on the second page!) and a portrait of Georgetown’s own Yarrow Mamout, “an incredibly rare portrait of an identified, formerly enslaved African American.”

While McCoy will leave the Peabody Room this month, he will forever remain a part of its history. The care and dedication he has given the room will ensure that his spirit lives on as the archive continues to entertain, inform and inspire its visitors.



3 comments on “Jerry McCoy, Retiring Georgetown Historian, Bequeaths His Own Lasting Legacy”

  • Bill Brown says:

    I hope the leadership of the DCPL continues its support for the Peabody Room and doesn’t relegate it to some afterthought of The People Archives (formerly the Washingtoniana Division). The CAG and others need to be vigilant that DCPL doesn’t assign someone to Peabody without the requisite qualifications (of course, no one can ‘replace’ Jerry) and ensure they don’t stoop to some typical DCPL/DC Gov’t solution of, “On, the Peabody Room? It’s open on the 5th Thursday of every month.” (hint, check you calendars for how many there are a year… I’ll help ~ 4 per year!)

  • Jerry, I worked with you for about a decade as I researched and wrote books about Georgetown. You were always helpful, interested, and a pleasure to work with. I have moved out of town and hope that your replacement (is that even possible???) will be as valuable a resource to people trying to learn about Georgetown.

    Very best regards and thanks, Peter Higgins

  • Wendy Gasch says:

    Jerry’s shoes will be difficult to fill. He’s an amazing and delightful person — truly dedicated to preserving DC’s history and always exhibiting an infectious sense of humor. He deserves all the best in his upcoming “retirement.”

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