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Pearl Coalition wants to boost awareness of escape attempt

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; C04

The Pearl Coalition, which hopes to educate people about a 160-year-old D.C. story -- the largest recorded slave escape attempt in American history -- thinks it has found the perfect learning tool: a schooner the same size as the slaves' original getaway boat. The only problem: The vessel is stuck in El Salvador awaiting $300,000 in repairs before it can sail to its new home in the District.

"The story of the Pearl is classic. It is the American dream at its best," said David Smith, executive director of the coalition, a team of D.C. movers and shakers, historians and educators. "It is something to be proud of."

On April 15, 1848, more than 70 slaves from Maryland, the District and Virginia gathered at the Seventh Street pier in Southwest Washington and boarded the Pearl, hoping it could take them to freedom. Stormy weather left them stalled in the Chesapeake Bay long enough to be recaptured, but the attempt brought fame to some of the passengers and buoyed the abolition movement.

"Freedom might have been geographically close but a very different thing to achieve," said Mary Kay Ricks, an author of a book on the Pearl's history. "It was an event that shook Washington. It shook Congress."

The Pearl Coalition was originally formed by Lloyd D. Smith, David Smith's grandfather and a D.C. planner and community leader.

Robert Nixon, a member of the board, was one of those who took up Smith's dream after he died in 2004.

"The original vision of Lloyd Smith was this story empowering the men and women of Washington, D.C. I think that is why we are working so hard to bring this story back," Nixon said. "This tactile piece, floating piece of history that everyone can participate in and celebrate."

Raleigh Marshall, 26, learned within the past two years that he is a descendant of Paul Jennings, a slave who helped plan the escape on the Pearl. Knowing his family's extensive history in the District, Marshall has been trying to support initiatives he feels his ancestors "would have wanted me to be involved with," including the Pearl Coalition.

"Providing [area youth] with this type of history, there is this incredible community of people who lived right here, where you are living right now, who pulled off this incredible event," Marshall said. It gives them "a sense of history, a sense of belonging and a sense of pride."

The ship's reincarnation, dubbed "The Spirit of the Pearl," has been en route since last year, when Nixon and his friend M. Maxwell Kennedy -- an author, lawyer and son of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy -- found it in San Francisco. Its engine was replaced and other major repairs were made in Monterey Bay before it was moved to the mouth of the Lempa River in El Salvador. But for the 80-year-old ship to make it to Washington before hurricane season, it will need new decking, masts, rigging, sails and more.

Smith would like to start a program in which youths would learn hands-on skills of carpentry and boatmaking while repairing The Spirit of the Pearl in El Salvador. Once the boat arrives in D.C., those youths could work to get the vessel ready for educational cruises for schoolchildren and tourists.

The coalition is still in discussion with city agencies and the Southwest Waterfront development project to secure a place for the vessel.

A plan to redevelop 26 acres of land south of Maine Avenue, abutting the fish market and 26 acres of water, must include a cultural use, according to the agreement with the District, said Elinor Bacon, a partner of the Hoffman-Struever development firm.

"The idea that [from] every single bridge, when you cross over the Potomac you will see the flag flying from the top mast of this vessel and people are going to have to say, 'What is that?' " said Kennedy, the coalition's captain. "People are going to have to learn this story."

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