The Forgotten Past

Georgetown's Hidden History

By Andrew Stephen
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Two negro men $300

One ditto woman $150

Four ditto girls $150

Two horses $200

Two cows $30

It was a shocking discovery . Flipping through files at the local library a few months ago for a school project, my 16-year-old son chanced upon the deeds of the house in which we live. He already knew it was one of the oldest in Georgetown; now he learned that in 1807, it was owned by a Thomas Turner and valued at $3,500. But it was the valuation of this other property, listed so matter-of-factly in the records, that stopped him cold: Slaves, he realized, had once lived in our house.

This awful knowledge set him on a quest for the hidden history of Georgetown, exposing unpalatable truths that had been lost, if not willfully forgotten, over the decades: that the supposedly chic Georgetown of today had once been the center of a thriving slave trade, a significant port of call for traffickers in human flesh transported in from Africa and plantations in Maryland and Virginia.

Yet so obscured has this history become that not even most Washingtonians are aware of it. Nor are they aware of the flourishing black community, mostly descended from those slaves, that once occupied a large portion of Georgetown -- until a combination of legislative, social and economic pressures gradually forced nearly all the black people out, turning the neighborhood into the wealthy, effectively all-white enclave it is today.

My son's research unearthed one part of this forgotten narrative of our neighborhood. A second hint lay in a curious Georgetown phenomenon that had always puzzled us: the continuing existence of several thriving black churches, filled every Sunday morning with African Americans who do not actually live here.

The history of our own house, though, still seemed surreal -- until, that is, very recently. Deep in the bowels of our house, there is a crude crawl space beneath the basement, a darkly mysterious place in which it is impossible to stand upright. It is filled with an ancient cesspit, cavities, brickwork and ledges that I had vaguely assumed served some long-forgotten purpose; one of my least-favorite tasks is crawling into it to remove the bodies of our share of the huge Norway rats that swarm all over the neighborhood. A month or so ago, an electrician had to crawl into the space, and afterward I apologized that he'd had to do so. "No problem," he replied. "You can see that was where slaves did the cooking."

For me, at least, the penny suddenly dropped. In that space below my house where only rats now live, we concluded, fellow humans had almost certainly cooked for Mr. Turner and his family -- and may even have slept there, too. This thought brought home to my family and me some realities of U.S. history that so many white Americans choose either not to know or to forget: the roots of racial animosity and why their legacy persists to this day.

Lest we forget, there were neither blacks nor whites in Georgetown -- then known as Tahoga -- before British settlers came ashore around 1696. It was a peaceful village inhabited by the Nacotchanke Indians. Straightforward facts and precise dates of Georgetown history are difficult to establish; much of the subject is undocumented, and accounts differ.

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