Early 1790s

When George Washington selected the site of the capital city in 1791, there were already blacks--slaves and possibly a few free blacks--living on the land that was to become Washington, D.C.

Nearly two centuries later, blacks are a majority in the city's population and government.

But the passage from bondage to full civil and human rights for blacks in Washington has been far from smooth.

This if the first installment of a review of the landmark events and developments of Washington's two centuries of black history, roughly divided into four periods: slavery, the early years of freedom, legal segregation, and the beginning of the modern-day civil rights movement.--Most of the blacks living in what was to become Washington, then a federal territory governed by Congress, were slaves. Many of them worked on hired construction gangs building the Capitol, which was completed in 1800. Slaves outnumbered free blacks by five to one, but the ratio gradually altered as more blacks were given or purchased their freedom. 1808-A constitutional prohibition on the importation of Africans into the United States took effect, leading to increased interstate slave trafficking. Washington and Alexandria became major slave-trading centers, layover points for slaves being shipped south to the Carolinas and Georgia. The principal slave pens and auction blocks ringed the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall and even appeared in the back yard of the White House.

Congress ignored a plea from the City Council and other citizens to forbid the shipment of slaves through the city. 1812--The City Council, fearful of a possible influx of freed blacks into the city, tightened existing laws governing the conduct of slaves and free persons of color. Freedmen were unwelcome in most southern cities because it was believed their presence would stir discontent among slaves.

Among other requirements, freedmen were ordered to register and carry a certificate of freedom at all times or run the risk of being re-enslaved. Those laws became increasingly restrictive until, in 1836, Congress adopted a "gag rule," prohibiting even the discussion of slavery in public places. 1817--The American Colonization Society (A.C.S.) was incorporated in Washington. Neither abolitionist nor antislavery, it publicized the belief that sending free blacks to Africa would unite the country and "solve" the race problem. Active in both northern and southern states, A.C.S. was supported by government funds, although it was a private organization. It managed to settle a group of blacks in what became the West African nation of Liberia in 1822. 1820--Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church was established as the first independent black congregation in Washington, and others soon followed. The church was to become the center of black social life, as well as a spiritual haven from racial prejudice. 1821--William Costin, a free black, challenged the city ordinance requiring that blacks appear before the mayor with their freedom papers and post a "peace bond" of $20 with a respected white man to guarantee their good behavior. Costin, a longtime and trusted messenger for the Bank of Washington, was fined for refusing to obtain the bond.

On appeal, Costin's fine was reversed, but the law was upheld. His action heightened self-respect in the black community. 1835--The attempted murder by a slave of Mrs. William Thornton, widow of the architect who designed the U.S. Capitol, set off a riot by whites which came to be called the "Snow Riot" because it destroyed the fashionable restaurant of mulatto Beverly Snow.

With the memory of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion in southern Virginia still alive, the mob demolished a school, a church, several tenements and a brothel in the black community. Snow's restaurant was reopened within a year by another mulatto. 1848--On the night of April 15, more than 60 slaves and free blacks seeking escape sailed from Washington aboard the Pearl, a ship commanded by Capt. Daniel Drayton. Forced by violent winds to take shelter at Cornfield Harbor below Point Lookout, about 140 miles from Washington, they were overtaken by whites who had been alerted by a traitorous black. Drayton was jailed and the blacks were sold. 1850--The slave trade was abolished in the District by the Compromise of 1850, which quelled a long and bitter dispute between the North and South over the spread of slavery to new states. The South agreed to admit California as a free state and ban slave trading in the District, while the North agreed to the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed the arrest and return of escaped slaves. 1862--The 3,100 slaves in the District were freed by an act of Congress in April, nearly nine months months before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing blacks in the rest of the country. Blacks celebrated with a parade to the White House, where the president greeted them, then gathered in Franklin Square for speeches and prayers.