By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009
From an office high above 16th Street in downtown Lafayette Square, Maureen Collins, a secretary for the AFL-CIO, often steals a moment to peer down at the entrance of the Hay-Adams Hotel, trying to catch a glimpse of history.
"I feel good that he's my neighbor," Collins said of President-elect Barack Obama, who, with his family, is staying temporarily in the hotel.
One day this week, Collins said: "I saw his daughters being taken to school and knew he was upstairs. It gave me a warm feeling. It's history."
History permeated this extraordinary District neighborhood long before Obama's arrival Sunday: There is the court building that was once the site of a pretty yellow house where a former first lady died broke, the Chamber of Commerce building that was once home to a secretary of state whose black butler helped plot a daring escape attempt by slaves and a Treasury Department annex that was once a major black bank that went belly up and hurt the reputation of a great abolitionist.
To live in the Washington area is to be surrounded by history -- a reality often lost in daily routines -- but with the Obamas' arrival, historical consciousness has been heightened.
Wall's Barber Shop sits on 15th Street NW, around the corner from the Hay-Adams. Talk of Obama's history-making campaign eventually yields to talk of the shop's history.
"It is one of the last old-fashioned barbershops left in the city," owner Dale Simmons said.
He recounted that it was opened 70 years ago by an Italian man, who sold it to a Tuskegee Airman, who sold it to Simmons.
He said he hopes that Obama will one day walk through his shop's door and ask for a shave and a shoeshine. That, he said, would add to his shop's rich story.
In a barbershop such as his, in a deeply historic place such as Lafayette Square, Simmons said, Obama "would be right at home."
Lafayette Square today is a mix of mammoth government buildings, restaurants, churches, hotels, coffeehouses and an occasional barber shop. But at one time, houses ringed the square.
"It has an incredibly rich history," said Cindi Malinick, executive director of the Decatur House on Lafayette Square, the former home of Secretary of State Henry Clay, whose slave Charlotte Dupuy sued him for her freedom and lost.
"About 700,000 people come to Lafayette Square and President's Park, but there's not a guide out there to tell people what they're seeing," Malinick said. The Decatur House now offers an audio tour that can be dialed up by cellphone.
"This is not your local square. It's the national square. It really kind of illustrates in a microcosm the nation's history, the growth of our cultural life, the history of African Americans, the growth of our government. It illustrates how the nation grew," she said.
About a block from the AFL-CIO headquarters on H Street NW, where the U.S. Secret Service has erected a Green Zone-like barrier to protect Obama, is the house where first lady Dolley Madison, who hosted the first inaugural ball, died in poverty.
D.C. government tow trucks that lined I Street NW, waiting for police commands to haul away cars parked anywhere near the Hay-Adams, idled in the shadow of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once the home of Daniel Webster, a former secretary of state whose black butler, Paul Jennings, was an ex-slave of President James Madison and his wife's and secretly helped plot one of the most daring slavery escapes in the city's history.
In the days leading to April 1848, Jennings and members of the Underground Railroad helped get slaves aboard a schooner called the Pearl. The slaves included Mary Ellen Stewart, who also worked for the Madisons.
The escape attempt failed when the boat hit bad weather and dropped anchor off Maryland. It was overtaken by slave owners who were in pursuit. About 70 black people, slave and free, were jailed, and many were sold.
The history sometimes went full circle. Jennings, who bought his freedom, took food baskets from Webster to Dolley Madison and sometimes gave her coins from his pockets.
When Obama's motorcade zooms past Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue, it passes an old bank that failed. Frederick Douglass became president of the Freedman's Savings and Trust unaware that it was on the verge of collapse and that 61,000 black depositors would lose $3 million.
Lafayette Square has been the site of a graveyard, a racetrack, slave auctions, a zoo and a camp for soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
At St. John's Church at H and 16th streets NW, Hayden Bryan, the executive director of church operations, understands the area's history more than most. And he knows, too, how history can sometimes be inconvenient.
Since Obama's arrival, the church has been surrounded by a moat of concrete and metal. Bryan fears the barriers could dampen the will of church members to come downtown and worship. "It's not easy to build a congregation, particularly for a downtown church," Bryan said. "We don't want people to turn away."
Workers navigate the barriers, too. When Kevin Byrne came to work Monday, he carefully approached the barricade and got a little nervous under the cold glare of a police officer.
"I pulled out my work ID, and I was like, 'I work here.' " The officer shrugged and waved Byrne through.
"He was, like, 'Good for you, buddy,' " Katrina Blomdahl said, teasing Byrne, her co-worker.
To Blomdahl, the police, the K-9s, the snipers, the roadblocks and the tow trucks are no big whoop. It's worth working across the street from where the Obamas are living temporarily and being a small part of history.
"I am completely mesmerized," Blomdahl said.