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Black Washingtonians: The Anacostia Museum Illustrated Chronology

Black Washingtonians: The Anacostia Museum Illustrated Chronology

by Anacostia Museum and Center For African American History and Culture, Eleanor Holmes Norton (Foreword by)

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The Black Washingtonians


A history of African American life in our nation's capital, in words and pictures

From the Smithsonian Institution's renowned Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture comes this elegantly illustrated, beautifully written, fact-filled history of the African


The Black Washingtonians


A history of African American life in our nation's capital, in words and pictures

From the Smithsonian Institution's renowned Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture comes this elegantly illustrated, beautifully written, fact-filled history of the African Americans who have lived, worked, struggled, prospered, suffered, and built a vibrant community in Washington, D.C.

This striking volume puts the resources of the world's finest museum of African American history at your fingertips. Its hundreds of photographs, period illustrations, and documents from the world-famous collections at the Anacostia and other Smithsonian museums take you on a fascinating journey through time from the early eighteenth century to the present.

Featuring a thoughtful foreword by Eleanor Holmes Norton and an afterword by Howard University's E. Ethelbert Miller, The Black Washingtonians introduces you to a host of African American men and women who have made the city what it is today and explores their achievements in politics, business, education, religion, sports, entertainment, and the arts.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
* "...brings the rich history of black Washington to life, taking readers from the early 18th century to the present, exploring African-American achievements in politics, business, education, religion, sports, entertainment and the arts." ( Publishers Weekly , December 8, 2003)

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Turner Publishing Company
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First Edition
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7.90(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.41(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Black Washingtonians

By Eleanor Holmes Norton

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-40258-3

Chapter One


The First Black Washingtonians

Before the District of Columbia was chartered, Congress wrangled over where to put it. Congressmen representing slaveholding states were determined that the capital be in a region favorable to slavery-somewhere under the influence of wealthy plantation owners and out of the hands of eastern industrial capitalists.

A ten-square-mile district-Virginia's Alexandria, Georgetown, and the rural countryside of Maryland-fit the bill. African Americans-some free, most enslaved-lived on the few settlements and plantations. To their numbers were added the first influx of black Washingtonians. They came as hackney coachmen, carpenters, bricklayers, painters, laborers, and other construction workers to build the city's new public structures and private buildings. Blacks helped to construct the Navy Yard, from 1800 to 1806, and then worked there. Free black women and hired-out slave women came to wash clothes and to sell produce, poultry, small game, fish, and whatever else they could to the workers. Blacks were also cooks, stewards, caterers, and porters for the boardinghouses, hotels, and restaurants that served the population. Some blacks also owned and operated such establishments.

As the capital grew, blacks dominated certain hospitality and service occupations, such as hauling and transporting, drivingcoaches, baking, cleaning and washing, and especially working as waiters. E. S. Abdy, traveling through the District in the early 1830s, observed that virtually all of the menial jobs-particularly in the hotels-were held by slaves, and that by the time of his visit, many free blacks eschewed these positions, having access to better ones. In Alexandria the fishing piers and the bakeries employed large numbers of black men. The Potomac River was also an important source of income. The historian Letitia Woods Brown writes in Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846: "The fishing landing in Alexandria continued to offer extensive job opportunities. In 1835 one booster for the District maintained that there were 150 fisheries on the Potomac requiring 6500 laborers. The 450 vessels used in the shad and herring fishing business used 1350 men to navigate them."

A Fluid Labor Market

Letitia Brown suggests that despite popular notions of a nineteenth-century black society rigidly divided along the lines of free and slave, black people in the District of Columbia experienced widely diverse work relationships and thus enjoyed very different levels of citizenship. Slaves for life, slaves for a specified term of service, indentured servants, hired-out slaves, and runaway slaves in hiding-all struggled toward freedom. In Free Negroes she writes,

With the peculiar demands for building and service skills which grew with the capital, and the absence of a firm tradition that slavery was the only possible accommodation of black to white, a variety of work relations did occur. Many Negroes took advantage of the situation to work out arrangements that netted freedom. The same fluid labor market made it possible for free Negroes to survive. Humble as their jobs were, for the most part, they could find employment sufficient to sustain themselves.

Black men, both slave and free, were essential to the trade between eastern cities and the territory west of the District. They operated flatboats, sailing craft, and other vessels, and drove wagons loaded with merchandise and produce. Within the District, they provided public transportation between the boardinghouses and residences in Alexandria and Georgetown and the public buildings near Capitol Hill. Brown further notes, "Coachmen, dray-men, waggoners, and hostlers were generally recruited from among the Negroes, slave and free."

Free blacks-African Americans who sold their own labor-were, however, at a distinct disadvantage. They had to compete with slaves in the District and those from Maryland and Virginia. After the 1820s a wave of Irish immigration drove many free blacks from jobs that they had traditionally held. In large-scale projects, such as the construction of the major canals in the late 1820s, managers hired mainly immigrants to fill the lowest levels of labor, instead of free blacks as they had previously done.

A Free Majority

After 1830 the absolute number of slaves and their percentage relative to free blacks began to decline. By 1840 the majority of the black population was free, as noted by Keith Melder in City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Washington, District of Columbia: "Of all cities in the slave states, only in St. Louis, Baltimore, and Washington did free black people attain a majority in the African American community before the Civil War." Many free blacks immigrated to Washington from states such as Virginia and North Carolina, where existing laws were much more restrictive than in Washington. Other blacks in the District gained their freedom by being manumitted upon their owners' death (that is, by last will and testament), or they were deeded their freedom by their owners. Still others managed to buy their freedom-and often that of family and friends as well.

The growing community of free blacks formed a base of support for others' efforts to make their way out of slavery. Many free blacks made loans or contributed from their own savings to help friends meet their purchase price. Others donated in church or responded to petitions from strangers who needed to raise money to buy their freedom. Often such petitioners went door to door in the District, seeking contributions.

The Black Codes

The city was a hostile place for free blacks. By 1808 black codes regulated the movement and the activities of free blacks, and in 1812 the city council devised a pass system. Free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the city's teeming slave markets. Parents who were lax about keeping an eye on their children might find them chained to a slave coffle. Adults were waylaid, rendered unconscious, and sold south, where no one could verify that they had been free. Survival under such conditions depended on blacks' forming alliances with white people, preferably with men of wealth or power who would vouch for a black person's character in writing-as required by city statutes-and act as a safeguard for that individual's freedom. This dependence created a galling and insecure existence but was preferable to not having an endorser at all.

Black codes crippled the development of African American businesses and institutions: for example, certain ordinances in 1836 required large bonds of free blacks, restricted them to certain occupations, and placed them under permanent curfew. Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria Goodwin write in The Guide to Black Washington: Places and Events of Historical and Cultural Significance in the Nation's Capital:

The prohibition of "all secret or private meetings or assemblages whatsoever" beyond the hour of 10 o'clock p.m. was peculiarly oppressive and also inhuman, because directed against the various charitable and self-improving associations, including the Masonic, Odd-Fellow, and Sons of Temperance brotherhoods which the colored people had organized, and the meetings of which, to be dispersed before 10 o'clock, could be of but comparatively little benefit to the members. These societies in those years were more or less educational in character, and an important means of self-improvement.... These restrictions were, moreover, rigorously enforced, and it was but a few years before the war that a company of the most respectable colored men of the District, on their return from the Masonic lodge a few minutes of 10 o'clock, were seized by the scrupulous police, retained at the watch-house till morning, and fined.

The Center for Slave Trading

After 1830 Washington became the center of the interstate slave trade. According to Frederic Bancroft in Slave Trading in the Old South, "Because the slave population in the District was small, trading depended on slaves brought from Maryland and Virginia, and fully nine-tenths were for distant markets.... What might be called the daily life of local trading was in or near the taverns or small hotels, at the public or the private jails, and about the country markets." Slave-owning farmers visiting open-air markets were often approached by traders seeking to buy the farmers' slave assistants. Most slave pens in the District were located downtown.

Local newspapers were filled with boldface ads for the sale and the auction of slaves. Some ads specified particular kinds of slaves that were wanted or were available. Until the market was thoroughly canvassed, newly purchased slaves were held in the city's public jails. Bancroft continues: "The largest gangs were likely to be from Baltimore, where the agents of District traders grouped selections from the best slaves received from the Eastern shore. The women with little children were carried in some vehicle. When more than a few, the men, handcuffed in pairs, fastened to a chain and followed by boys and girls, walked in double column, and the trader's mounted assistant brought up the rear."

After the slave trade was outlawed in 1850, local enforcers threw themselves into the Fugitive Slave Act, and the city's black codes were made even more stringent.

Free Black Academies

Washington's free black community went to heroic lengths to build educational institutions for black residents. The first black school was started in 1807 by Moses Liverpool, George Bell, and Nicholas Franklin. According to David L. Lewis's District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History, "A nominal tuition was required and, 'to avoid disagreeable occurrences,' an early announcement emphasized, 'no writings are to be done by the teachers for a slave, neither directly nor indirectly, to serve the purpose of a slave on any account whatsoever.' Great caution was essential; Mayor Robert Brent, sympathetic to their endeavor, had barely succeeded in quashing a council resolution to ban the instruction of free blacks." After the establishment of the Bell School, free black academies followed pell-mell. Mrs. Mary Billings of Georgetown opened her school on Dumbarton Street in 1810, moving to H Street in Washington City eleven years later. America's first black historian, George Washington Williams, wrote that "many of the better educated colored men and women now living ... received the best portion of their education from her, and they all speak of her with a deep and tender sense of obligation."

The Great Influx of the 1860s

Before the great influx of ex-slaves during and immediately after the Civil War, the black population was concentrated north of the central city, southwest of the central core-in an area known as "the Island," because the Tiber River cut it off from the rest of the city-and in Foggy Bottom. Herring Hill, named for the main food staple that neighborhood families fished from Rock Creek, was a fifteen-block area that was home to east Georgetown's black community.

But after the 1860s, the District's black population was also "scattered throughout the southeast quarter of the city. The greatest concentration was along 4th Street, between the Navy Yard and East Capitol Street, with the blocks between 3rd and 5th Streets SE (east of the present Folger Library and the Library of Congress Annex) having the largest number of black homeowners. Black property owners resided elsewhere on Capitol Hill and along 9th and 10th Streets in the southwest section. The majority of blacks in the District lived in the northwest section, south of P Street and west of New Jersey Avenue." (Letitia Brown and Elsie Lewis, in Washington from Banneker to Douglas, 1791-1870.)

Many poor blacks lived in alleys, places with colorful names such as Slop Bucket, Temperance Hall, Willow Tree, Goat Alley, Pig Alley, and Tin Cup Alley. The living conditions in the alleys varied-some were dismal, squalid, and unhealthy; others were thriving communities of poor laborers and domestic servants.

A visitor to the District in the 1860s would have noticed the introduction of public streetcars. Although black coachmen protested the takeover of the city's lucrative transportation trade by these modern horse-drawn vehicles, the coachmen were unable to prevent the decline of their occupation. It was a troubling sign of the times.


November 9. Benjamin Banneker is born in rural Baltimore County, Maryland. The son of Robert and Mary Banneker, an ex-slave and an English indentured servant woman, he teaches himself mathematics in his spare time. In 1753 he draws considerable attention from neighbors in the surrounding Maryland countryside when he constructs a working clock made entirely from wood. The wooden clock attracts many visitors, and Banneker becomes somewhat of a local celebrity. Borrowing books and a telescope from neighbors, including his friend and patron Andrew Ellicott, he teaches himself the fundamentals of astronomy.


May. The Virginia Assembly passes legislation that spells out the legal requirements for manumission: slaveowners are allowed to free slaves by last will and testament or by written deed.


March 23. Tom Molyneux is born to slave parents in Georgetown. His father, Zachary, considered the "founder of boxing in the United States," must have seen potential in Tom, who subsequently won local renown as a young boxer. When Tom was still a teenager, his master promised him freedom and $100 if he could defeat a local slave in the ring. Molyneux won the bout and, in doing so, won his freedom. He left for London, where he enjoyed success in the ring for a number of years.


Holy Trinity Church is established in Georgetown. Its founding members include both white and black Catholics.


Maryland cedes land for the capital. Some of the free black families living within the boundaries of the ceded territory include the Butlers, Days, Fletchers, Harmons, Hollands, Proctors, Rounds, Savoys, Shorters, and Thomases. Prominent free black families in Prince George's County include the Allens, Grays, Nicholses, Plummers, and Turners.


April 30. George Washington is inaugurated as the first president of the United States.

Virginia cedes land for the capital, including the town of Alexandria. Free black families in Alexandria at this time include the Coles, Fletchers, Jacksons, and Pisicoes.

Josiah Henson, the model for "Uncle Tom" in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, is born to slave parents in Charles County, Maryland. As a young man, Henson sells produce at the markets of Georgetown and in the District, where he meets abolitionists for the first time. Henson later moves to Kentucky, where he escapes with his family, and in the 1840s becomes a well-known abolitionist.


July 16. Congress passes the Residence Bill, making way for the construction of the national capital on a site along the Potomac River, using land from both Maryland and Virginia. The laws of each state will govern the territory that each ceded to the District until Congress makes other provisions. The bill also gives the president the right to appoint three commissioners to oversee the development of the city.

Black laborers (slave and free) break ground, clear roads, and haul construction materials-including limestone from Aquia Creek quarry. Hired-out slaves provide much of the labor for buildings in the new capital.


President Washington hires Major Andrew Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the ten-mile District of Columbia. Ellicott chooses Benjamin Banneker to assist him, despite Banneker's advancing age.

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appoints Pierre Charles L'Enfant to draft plans for the sites of major public buildings and primary streets of the federal city, which is to be called Washington City. Banneker occasionally joins Ellicott and L'Enfant at dinner in Suter's Tavern to discuss their progress. After working only three months, Banneker leaves Ellicott in Washington and returns home at the end of April 1791, due to poor health.


The Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, an abolitionist group, helps Benjamin Banneker publish his first almanac, which is based on his own astronomical calculations. That same year Banneker writes to Thomas Jefferson, challenging Jefferson's belief in the racial inferiority of black people. Banneker publishes his almanacs yearly until 1797.


Excerpted from The Black Washingtonians by Eleanor Holmes Norton Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

The ANACOSTIA MUSEUM AND CENTER FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE, part of the Smithsonian Institution, explores American history, society, and creative expression from an African American point of view. The museum is renowned for its collections, exhibitions, and public outreach.

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