About 60 percent of Washington, D. C.'s 572,000 residents are black, and their history in the area predates the 1791 creation of the federal district by Congress. That makes the nation's...
WASHINGTON About 60 percent of Washington, D.C.’s 572,000 residents are black, and their history in the area predates the 1791 creation of the federal district by Congress. That makes the nation’s capital rich in black heritage, from the Colonial era to the antebellum and Civil War eras, to contemporary urban life.
“There was always a sizable free black population in the District of Columbia,” said James Horton, a professor of American studies and history at George Washington University.
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Yet for decades after the capital was established, slave markets flourished in the area that is today the National Mall, particularly along what is now Independence Avenue. Slaves and free blacks helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol as both laborers and craftsmen.
Although President George Washington personally took part in placing the south cornerstone for the future Capitol at a spot known as Jones Point, eight miles north of his Mount Vernon estate, it was the surveyor Benjamin Banneker who performed the calculations needed to position 39 other stones along a route measuring 10 miles on each side. Banneker was a well-known black inventor, mathematician and astronomer who had been born free.
Wide array of craftspeople
“Washington was dedicated to having high quality craftsmen and workmanship,” said Stephanie Brown, a Mount Vernon spokeswoman. Many of the 316 slaves living at his estate at the time of his death were trained as coopers, millers, blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers and distillers.
At Mount Vernon, many slaves lived in the “House for Families,” a communal quarters. Although the original building burned early in the 20th century, it has been reconstructed.
Neighborhoods created by and for blacks in the capital, including shops, churches and homes, survive today. Some were sometimes intricately involved in surreptitious escape plots. The Georgetown section of Washington had several “safe houses” used by conductors on the Underground Railroad.
“It’s really only on the black history tours that slavery is discussed in any detail,” said LaNelle Daughtry, spokeswoman for the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.
According to Daughtry, a village established for runaway and freed slaves was located on the grounds of what is now Arlington National Cemetery. It once had a population of 30,000. Section 27 of the cemetery contains their graves, and those of the U.S. Colored Troops, the Union Army’s official designation for its black units during the Civil War.
Anderson Cottage, the summer retreat where President Lincoln spent about a quarter of his presidency, was declared one of America’s Treasures at Risk in 2000. The 14-room home on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home in northwest Washington, D.C., is where Lincoln wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.
The home where abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass lived during the last 18 years of his life is also a national historical site. The Victorian mansion sits on an eight-acre site overlooking the city from one of the highest points in the district east of the Anacostia River. Records indicate that Douglass did much of his civil-rights work during Reconstruction in the home’s small library.
The National Park Service also administers the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, where the National Council of Negro Women was founded. Bethune, who founded Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College, was a confidante of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The district is also home to the African American Civil War Memorial. The bronze statue features the images of black troops and sailors as well as so-called contraband slaves liberated by union forces during the war. Stainless-steel plaques are inscribed with the names of 209,145 soldiers and 19,000 sailors who served with Union forces.
“Virtually every black family in the United States has a name on this wall,” said Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Museum.
Cultural Tourism D.C. has worked with the city government, the National Park Service and others to promote a local African American Heritage Trail.
“There are more than 60 museums off the National Mall that people seldom find,” said Kathryn S. Smith, consulting historian on the project.
One museum that focuses on African American history and culture is the Anacostia Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, with permanent and seasonal exhibits. And near the White House is Decatur House, a 19th-century house-turned museum that includes one of the last intact slave quarters in Washington.