Editor’s note: This article originally ran on Feb. 25, 1991.
Debris clogs the entrance to the old cemetery vault in Georgetown, broken wine bottles, food wrappers, a tattered sleeping bag and pillow, household goods left by homeless people who sleep there on frigid nights.
The tiny 8-by-8-foot brick cell looks the same as it did two centuries ago, when it was used to store corpses headed for the nearby cemetery. Daylight seeps through tiny peepholes in all four walls. Ivy and overgrown grass shield the cell from intruders’ eyes.
Just as homeless men and women find refuge there now, historians say, slaves once sought temporary sanctuary inside the dark vault during their journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“This was a safe place for the slaves because it was deep in the woods and covered over so that it was only visible from one side. And since bodies of the dead were kept here, nobody would have thought to look inside,” said Neville Waters, 62, a historian who grew up in Georgetown.
“People used to leave food and water and whatever they could down here for the slaves,” he said. “They would come in the vault and rest up before continuing the trip. It was all kept very secret.”
Historians say more than 100,000 blacks escaped slavery between 1825 and 1860 using a network of trails and hiding places known as the Underground Railroad, which stretched from the South to the North, as well as Canada and Mexico.
Though it is known that thousands of slaves escaped from the Washington area -- newspaper ads detailed some escapes, as did records kept by slaveholders -- little documentation is available about specific locations and the names of people who assisted the slaves.
Though historians identify some locations as possible sites, they are quick to note that there is little or no written proof in most cases.
But stories passed down since the early 1800s tell a tale of several stations in the Washington area, from farmhouses in Virginia and Maryland to churches in the District. Of more than 20 possible sites identified in the area, only a few still have all or part of the original buildings used by slaves.
And for every site that has been identified, historians say, there are probably dozens more that will never be known because of the secrecy surrounding the escapes.
“The problem is some of these buildings are going the way of parking lots and other commercial activity,” said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), who proposed a bill passed into law last October authorizing the National Park Service to study the Underground Railroad and determine the feasibility of establishing a national trail system to commemorate it. In two years, the study will be presented to Congress.
“It’s part of American history,” Kostmayer said. “We literally ripped people from their homes and brought them here manacled to machinery and separated them from their families. America needs to remember the mistreatment toward so many people and the people who helped them to escape.”
Martha Catlin, a historian who chronicles Quaker history, said Grandview, a two-story house on the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation in Fort Belvoir, is believed to have been a station.
A church built in 1803 next to what is now Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria is believed to have been used to hide slaves. The old church, called First Colored Baptist Church of Alexandria, is also believed to have been used as a hospital during the Civil War, said church historian Rose Robinson.
The Meeting House, now called Mount Zion United Methodist Church, on 29th Street NW in Georgetown, was used by slaves headed north toward Philadelphia, Waters said. Historians also identified Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW, and John Wesley AME Zion Church, then on L Street NW near 18th Street, as refuges.
Quaker history enthusiast Sarah Hadley said Walcott House, on Decatur Place NE near Florida Avenue, also is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Other sites identified by historians include the former home at 85 E St. SW, where former slave and minister Anthony Bowen hid slaves he had met during regular outings to the Washington wharf. Bowen’s home once sat on the site that is now L’Enfant Plaza.
Assateague and Chincoteague islands, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, also are believed to have been stopovers for slaves who had tried to swim to freedom.
In Maryland, the Indian Creek home of Samuel Green, who was jailed on charges of assisting slaves, was a station, said Phebe Jacobsen, a retired archivist with the Maryland State Archives. Historians say many of the Underground Railroad stations in Maryland were in and around Baltimore.
D.C. historian Louise Daniel Hutchinson said the District’s black churches played a major role by hiding slaves and collecting money to help them resettle.
“This area is rich with this history,” she said. “A lot of the slaves considered this area the promised land. They thought they would receive sanctuary and protection from slavery here.”
The District’s black population soared in the latter half of the 19th century and the new residents included many escaped slaves, historians say.
“The Underground Railroad is significant in history for a number of reasons,” said Vincent deForest, a D.C. historian. “From an African American point of view, it showed that slaves were not passive and that they tried to escape. Harriet Tubman and other African Americans were (prominent figures) on the railroad.”
Several Quakers in the region were among the conductors.
“The house that I lived in as a boy in Loudoun County was a station on the Underground Railroad,” said Werner Janney, 78, citing family and town legend. Janney is the great-nephew of Quaker abolitionist Samuel Janney, who was indicted for inciting slaves to riot after publishing a newspaper article critical of slavery. Samuel Janney’s house, Springdale, is now a bed-and-breakfast on Route 722 near Purcellville.
“There was a hole in the wall covered over by wainscoting that was hidden from view,” Werner Janney said. “He never admitted that he was a conductor because the Underground Railroad was a clandestine operation and Quakers are not supposed to participate in clandestine operations.”
The 5-by-2 1/2-foot cubbyhole is the inn’s back stairway, a narrow passage lighted by a single light bulb that has been added since his family moved.
“Can you imagine going up these stairs with a candle or oil light?” Werner Janney said. “My reaction is that it was much more hidden than it is now. It was very dark.”
The Underground Railroad followed two basic routes: a series of trails from Louisiana and Alabama through the Midwest into Canada, and a Georgia-Carolinas line through Virginia and Maryland and farther north. The trail also stretched into Mexico. Stations were about 20 miles apart.
One trail from the South followed the same path as Interstate 95 does today, said Charlottesville historian Jay Worrall, who spent 20 years chronicling the Underground Railroad in a history of Virginia Quakers he will publish later this year.
“That was slave and plantation country,” he said. “Unlike in West Virginia, where things were calm, there were night patrols and people out looking for runaways in Virginia.”
Many found the old burial vault in Georgetown, next to Mount Zion Cemetery, Waters said. From childhood, he was told stories of slaves who hungered for freedom and the free blacks and abolitionists who helped them attain it, Waters said.
“This place is a part of American history,” he said. “Not just black history.”
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SITES
These sites have been identified by historians as possible stations in the
1 -- Old Burial Vault, on the site of what is now Mount Zion Cemetery, 2600
Q St. NW, in Georgetown. Vault was a stop on the route where black people
2 -- Montgomery Street Baptist Church, on the site of what is now Mount
Zion United Methodist Church, 1334 29th St. NW, in Georgetown. Church
members, most of whom were free blacks, assisted slaves because churches
were less likely to be searched by slave hunters.
3 -- Anthony Bowen residence, on the site of what is now L’Enfant Plaza, 85
E St. SW in D.C. Former slave who purchased his freedom used to meet slaves
who had escaped by water at the D.C. wharf and take them to his house for
meals and rest before sending them on their way. 4 -- Grandview House,
Woodlawn Plantation, 9000 Richmond Highway, Fort Belvoir. House was owned
by Jacob Troth, a Quaker abolitionist who formed the Woodlawn Friends
Meeting Quaker group.
5 -- Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now Metropolitan AME
Church, 1518 M St. NW.
6 -- Alexandria Wharf, where several owners of boats assisted slaves by
offering them rides on voyages headed north.
7 -- D.C. Wharf, near Sixth Street SE, where slaves who escaped from the
South went for the last leg of the trip to Philadelphia. Some slaves
stopped in D.C., which was considered “the promised land.”
8 -- Several Quakers who lived in what is now Old Town Alexandria and
opposed slavery are rumored to have been conductors, but no historical
documentation is available to support the claim. Some Quakers who were
outspoken in their opposition to slavery were: Mordechai Miller, who lived
at 212-214 N. Washington St.; John Janney, a relative of Samuel Janney’s,
who lived at 211 S. St. Asaph St.; Benjamin Hallowell, who lived for a
while at Lloyd House, now a historical and genealogical library, located at
220 N. Washington St.
OUTSIDE D.C. AREA (Not Shown on Map)
9 -- Assateague and Chincoteague islands. Slaves swam to freedom to prevent
detection over land by dogs of slave hunters. Boats allegedly met the
slaves and took them on to safety.
10 -- The home of John B. Crenshaw and his son, Nathaniel, who are believed
to have assisted slaves at what was once Rocouncy Farm, five miles north of
Richmond near a road that later became Interstate 95.
11 -- Butterton, Md., in Dorchester County. The home of the Charles Turner,
who barely escaped being lynched by a mob that accused him of assisting
slaves. Samuel Green, who was jailed in 1857 for assisting slaves, also
lived in Dorchester County.
12 -- Baltimore. Elijah Tyson, a prominent merchant who assisted slaves,
was believed to have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad.