Abolitionists, Then and Now

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Washington, D.C., is one of those places where the sweep of centuries can be compressed into a single day. Wednesday provided an example. Two events came together with a commonality easily overlooked in a city eternally restless for breaking news: the commemoration downtown of D.C. abolitionist Leonard A. Grimes and the unveiling of Sen. Barack Obama's urban policy agenda across town in Southeast.

It began for me at the corner of 22nd and H streets NW, on the campus of George Washington University. About 50 scholars and guests, led by GWU President Stephen Trachtenberg and Ambassador Ronald Palmer, a GWU professor emeritus, gathered to dedicate a plaque commemorating Grimes, a black man born free in Virginia who became an antislavery activist and an organizer of the Underground Railroad.

The house where Grimes lived between 1836 and 1846 was on the corner where the plaque is now embedded in the ground. His home, however, was more than a dwelling place.

Washington in the 1830s housed slave pens, slave traders, slave auctions and slave masters. In an act of defiance, Grimes allowed his Foggy Bottom home to be used as a safe house for escaped slaves from Virginia. Their first stop on the way north to freedom was Washington, according to Underground Railroad historian Hilary Russell.

Grimes's coach business was cover for his Underground Railroad work. He transported many slaves to freedom, but not without a heavy cost. After helping a slave and her six children escape from Loudoun County, Grimes was arrested in Washington and sentenced to hard labor in a Richmond prison from 1840 to 1842. The jailing, however, didn't dampen his antislavery spirit. In 1846, Grimes and his family moved to New Bedford, Mass., where he continued his work as an abolitionist and minister. He settled in Boston in 1848 and started a church that became a haven for fugitive slaves.

Grimes was multiracial (he had black, white and Indian blood), according to Virginia historian Deborah Lee, and by one account he was so fair-skinned that he could have passed for white. But the sight of blacks, with whom he identified, in bondage moved him to act.

As Grimes was being honored in Foggy Bottom, Obama was east of the Anacostia River in a section of Washington where, as the senator put it, "every other child . . . lives below the poverty line. Too many do not graduate and too many more do not find work. Some join gangs and others fall to their gunfire."

Obama described the community as a place where a child's destiny could be "determined before he takes his first step" and one where a little girl's future can be "confined to the neighborhood she was born into." It sounded like the Washington in which Grimes labored.

True, Grimes's foe was slavery. More than a century later, Obama's is urban poverty.

But Obama's description of poverty -- poverty "so difficult to escape; it's isolating and it's everywhere" -- sounds like slavery to me.

Hear Obama speak of a D.C. community within 10 minutes of the Capitol -- and visualize Grimes's 19th-century Washington: "If you are an African American child unlucky enough to be born into one of these neighborhoods, you are most likely to start life hungry or malnourished. You are less likely to start with a father in your household."

Obama is running for president, so his speech was treated by the media as a political statement. But don't get bogged down in Obama's policy prescriptions to fight poverty.

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