Over the water’s murmurs in Rock Creek Park, ranger Lisa Struckmeyer read aloud Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”:
“I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass;
And the river flows like a stream of glass. . .”
To celebrate the national park’s 124th anniversary Saturday, Struckmeyer led a group of area residents on an African American history hike through Rock Creek, one of many activities organized around Peirce Mill to mark the day that President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that would establish the country’s first urban nature park.
As the hikers overlooked the water, Struckmeyer used the famous African American poet’s words to recall the history of the D.C. park’s sunny banks, where many people, including wealthy slave owners, Irish immigrants and freed black families, used to live.
An Air Force veteran who later earned a degree in history with a special focus on slavery and the Underground Railroad, Struckmeyer, 49, created the hike earlier this year to share her interest with other park-goers. After two years serving as a seasonal ranger for Rock Creek Park, Saturday’s tour was her final official history hike before she starts at George Mason University, working and earning a master’s degree.
With the help of a three-ringed laminated deck of historical photos and documents, Struckmeyer started with slavery and walked the group through the Civil War, adding in local anecdotes along the way. The District, for example, was emancipated in 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Many freed blacks would join in the fight.
Tracing a path a little more than 2 miles, Struckmeyer built her talk around the life of Sarah Whitby, an African American woman whose family once rented a home on the land. Whitby was from North Carolina and moved north along with many African American families to the District, where many blacks had already established a strong culture and they had many opportunities that would include a hospital and Howard University. The site of the home where the Whitbys lived was excavated in 2005 and provided archeologists with hints — such as a cellar — that indicated how the family lived.
“It was nice to get a different sense of place, thinking about the people who lived here,” said Vanessa Thomas, 38, a Brightwood resident who joined the hike. The city has so much cultural richness to happen upon, she said, and she recalled passing a historical sign near Fort Stevens, in another area of the park, that had a peculiar photo on it.
“There was this little old black lady with all these white dudes standing around her in period dress,” Thomas said.
That lady was Elizabeth P. Thomas, Struckmeyer explained, who agreed to allow Union troops to use her land at Abraham Lincoln’s request. Thomas helped care for the soldiers, and the photo was taken at a commemorative event thanking her for her contribution. Two years ago, a road near the park was named in her honor.
Another lesser-known African American woman who made a mark on Rock Creek Park was Hattie Sewell, who operated a popular tea house out of Peirce Mill until she was forced to leave the establishment by neighbors who did not like the customers it drew, Struckmeyer told the group.
“These are the role models we want to put in front of our children, besides ourselves to look up to, so it’s not just entertainers and athletes,” said Shaun Hill, 49, who brought her two young children along for the hike. “Right in your back yard, there’s so much to see and learn, and it’s tactile. You can’t replace that kind of experience.”
For Struckmeyer, Rock Creek Park found its way into her blood, she said. “There’s so much here. It’s fantastic it’s been preserved here in D.C. . . . and it’s ours.”