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Georgetown's Hidden History

But the basic story is indisputable. The Indians were soon expunged by the settlers. Then, in the 18th century, white entrepreneurs realized that huge sums of money could be made from the insatiable demand -- in both Europe and the United States -- for the tobacco cultivated in Virginia and Maryland (of which Georgetown was then a part). Because of its position on the Potomac, Georgetown provided an ideal port from which ships laden with tobacco could sail to Europe; by the end of the 18th century, it was just about the largest tobacco port in the United States, an economic powerhouse to which slaves were brought to provide labor and to service the households of the tobacco merchants.

Slavery, of course, is as old as humanity. European powers -- first Portugal, followed by Spain, France and Britain -- began abducting men and women from Africa to work as slaves in the New World. To its everlasting shame, Britain, my own country, was responsible for the transport of probably more than a million slaves, many of them to work in the sugar fields of the Caribbean. But at the point when English abolitionists were finally forcing an end to my country's slave trade, America's exploitation of slaves on its soil had not even reached its zenith.

The year of Britain's Abolition of the Slave Trade Act -- 1807 -- has a special resonance for me, as it is the very year when Thomas Turner owned those seven slaves. I shudder to realize that just a two-minute walk from my house, a white man named John Beattie conducted a highly successful slave-trade business on what is now O Street, just east of Wisconsin Avenue, that flourished well into the second half of the 19th century.

Blacks thus became essential economic tools for the development of Georgetown, but were simultaneously feared and rejected socially. The first Georgetown law to oppress them came as early as 1795, forbidding them to congregate in groups of seven or more. The 1800 Census showed that, in a population of 5,120 in Georgetown, there were already 1,449 slaves and 277 "free blacks."

There was a lone exception to the congregating law: Blacks could go to church on the Sabbath. But they were still kept rigidly separate from whites. St. John's Episcopal Church, established in 1816 at 33rd and O streets NW, had an outdoor staircase built especially for blacks; it's still there today.

That same year, hardly surprisingly, a handful of free black men managed to start their own tiny church -- which was to become Mount Zion United Methodist Church, one of the churches that remain a potent black force in Georgetown today. It was another half-century, though, before Mount Zion was allowed to have its own black minister. Its burial crypt, still visible at the church's cemetery at 27th and Q streets NW, was reputed to be a hiding place for escaped slaves fleeing to the North via the Underground Railroad.

I imagine that at least the girls who formed part of the property of my house in 1807 were still alive when the 1848 "Black Code; Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown" was introduced. It is hard to convey the viciousness of the laws, so I will confine myself to just three examples: The code decreed that any black person swimming in the Potomac or Rock Creek at night "shall be publicly whipped"; that any black person who watched a cockfight could be punished with as many as 39 lashes; and that even flying a kite was punishable by whipping. That same year, 77 slaves tried to escape this kind of oppression on a ship called the Pearl; furious owners sent a posse on a steamer called the Salem to recapture them, and it caught up with the Pearl 140 miles downriver.

The black flight from Georgetown was already beginning. But blacks were still being bought and sold here as late as November 1861. The next year, President Abraham Lincoln signed a local law that freed slaves eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Furious white merchants demanded compensation, and an "expert examiner of slaves" was brought in. After examining their teeth and general health, he assessed the overall value of the slaves of Georgetown, D.C., at $300,000. Georgetown's whites then voted against a Negro Suffrage Bill by 712 to 1, passing a motion describing it as "wholly uncalled for, and an act of grievous oppression."

Blacks from the South, anticipating freedom, nonetheless poured into Georgetown. Between 1865 and 1870, its black population increased from 1,935 to 3,271. Over the next two or three decades, a skilled black working class started to emerge alongside a handful of black professionals. But countless laws and regulations that continued well into the 20th century prevented true economic and social emancipation: Only white passengers were allowed to ride on Georgetown's new electric streetcars, for example, enabling them to commute to Washington for well-paying jobs that were effectively denied to blacks.

Then came a series of economic blows that began to seal the fate of Georgetown's blacks. The Potomac silted up, virtually ending the industrial effectiveness of Georgetown's harbor. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which flowed through Georgetown and was crucial to many businesses such as flour and paper mills, flooded disastrously in 1889. Blacks were the first to lose their jobs when countless firms went bust. By 1910, the black population of Georgetown had peaked, and when the Great Depression struck 19 years later, more and more blacks found themselves displaced by whites taking menial jobs.

Perversely, FDR's New Deal then began to work against blacks in Georgetown. Thousands of well-paid white government workers poured into Washington, creating further demand for housing and pushing property prices ever higher in Georgetown. "The dispossession of the Negro resident [of Georgetown]," the Conference on Better Housing Among Negroes reported, "is jointly managed by the city's leading realtors and their allied banks and trust companies."

Two pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century by none other than Congress itself, though, were the final straws for Georgetown's blacks. The ostensible purpose of the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 was to get rid of slums; but I suspect that to a House with only one black member and a Senate with none at all, slums and blacks were synonymous.


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