Dr. Lowell Cheatham Wormley hadn't lived in Washington since 1931, when he completed medical training at Howard University and went off to practice in Harlem and later, as both a military and civilian physician, in Arizona. Yet his death last week in a Phoenix suburb at the age of 79 sends an echo back to this, his native city.
Wormley was a great-grandson of James T. Wormley, a black Washington restaurateur and hotel keeper in the post-Civil War period who became, as historians put it, a man of means and impeccable personal credentials accepted in black and white circles alike. He was, for example, a charter member of the Washington Board of Trade, that erstwhile bastion of economic stand-patism.
Had family fortunes and the resurging tide of racial bias not stood in the way, Wormley might well have created a local hotel dynasty comparable to that of the Willards. Both families remain prominent; a nephew of the just-deceased Dr. Wormley, Smith W. Davis, practices law in D.C.
James Wormley, a onetime steward on a Mississippi River steamboat, became so famous that President Andrew Johnson's envoy to Britain took him to London in 1868 to oversee the preparation of terrapin for diplomatic guests.
Not long afterward, Rep. Samuel Hooper (R-Mass.) built a 150-room hotel at the southwest corner of 15th and H streets NW -- later the site of the Union Trust Co., now the First American Bank -- and leased it to Wormley.
The hotel "had an elevator and private dining rooms, and the food and service were of the highest quality," James H. Whyte later recounted in "The Uncivil War," a history of that era. Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) died there, and Vice President Schuyler Colfax once made it his residence. It was favored by foreign diplomats.
"It was, ironically," Whyte wrote, "at this Negro-owned hotel that the agreement in 1877 by which the Democratic leaders consented to the contested and politically volatile election of Rutherford B. Hayes Republican, opposed by Democrat Samuel Tilden as president provided that federal troops were withdrawn from the south . . . . "
James Wormley died in Boston in 1881. When his body was returned to Washington for burial, the flags of other major hotels were at half-staff and the directors of rival, white-owned hotels were pallbearers.
Wormley left an estate of $150,000, large for the time. Some descendants went into the construction business. But one son, G. Smith Wormley, became principal of Randall Junior High School and was married to Mamie Louise Cheatham, whose father, Rep. Henry Plummer Cheatham (R-N.C.), served in Congress from 1889 to 1893 and later was the D.C. recorder of deeds. They were the parents of Dr. Lowell Wormley.