Georgetown's Hidden History
First, it was a slave port. Later, it was a thriving center of black life. Today, it's a virtually all-white enclave. Why?

By Andrew Stephen
Sunday, July 16, 2006; B01

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.

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.

Then, in 1950, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act "to preserve and protect places of historic interest," but it had the effect of making Georgetown's gentrification legally enforceable. It was pushed through despite fears from "Negro groups," The Washington Post reported at the time, that it "might drive them from the area." Less than a decade later, Georgetown's black population had dwindled to fewer than 3 percent, and in 1972 The Post noted that fewer than 250 remained, "so few that some Georgetown residents are unaware they are there."

Blacks were thus becoming invisible by the time the likes of Democratic doyenne Pamela Harriman started creating Georgetown's all-white "social salons" of such ludicrous legend. Indeed, racism was so entrenched in the nation's capital that even the glamorous young Sen. John F. Kennedy voluntarily signed a deed containing a "restrictive covenant" when he bought his house on N Street NW in 1957, agreeing that the home should not "ever be used or occupied or sold, conveyed, leased, rented, or given to Negroes or any person or persons of the Negro race or blood."

Which brings us full circle to 2006. My son and I went to Mount Zion church on a recent Sunday morning and met an 84-year-old black parishioner named Carter Bowman, who was born in Georgetown but who long ago moved out. With neat serendipity, we met three generations of Bowmans because his son and grandson, who attends university in England, happened to be visiting. But if you go three generations in the reverse direction, you find that all of Carter Bowman's great-grandparents were born and raised when slavery was at its most intense in Georgetown. For all I know, they could have resided in that crude basement in my house, or someplace like it.

Knowing what I know now, I found it strangely moving when the Rev. Robert Slade, chief pastor at Mount Zion -- who doesn't live in Georgetown -- told my son that "when we didn't have anything, the church was our everything. . . . When there was nothing and no place to go, [it] was the one place to go." Slade's words, to us, explain why the emotional bonds to the black churches in Georgetown remain so strong.

It took a 16-year-old to bring all these realities of life in Georgetown, past and present, home to me. As a foreigner who remains deeply attached to America, I find it bewildering how so self-reverential a country can proclaim that all men are created equal but then proceed to implement racist oppression that manifestly expresses the reverse. The truth that my son and I discovered is that for many decades, blacks in Georgetown were treated little better than rats. He will never forget that, and neither will I.

Andrew Stephen is the U.S. editor

of the New Statesman magazine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company