The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Georgetown’s role in slavery is not tied to whether it was a slave port

An archaeological dig in 2015 at 3324 Dent Place NW in Georgetown, the site of the former home of Yarrow Mamout. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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James H. Johnston is a writer, lecturer and lawyer.

Is Georgetown’s history stained as a port in the transatlantic slave trade? Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced a bill for a memorial to Africans brought to the town’s waterfront in the 1700s. The theory lacks direct evidence to support it and overlooks major historical complexities. The sentiment is laudable, but Georgetown’s other documented stories about the slave trade make its slave-trade history unique.

I wrote about this in my book “From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family.” Forty-four years after enduring the Middle Passage, Yarrow Mamout lived in Georgetown as a free man, known by the wealthy White families. Included among them was the transatlantic slave trader Francis Lowndes, who helped bring Yarrow (a last name) to America. Lowndes owned Tudor Place, one of the toniest mansions in tony Georgetown.

But first, the historical complexities.

Slavery in the colonies and later the United States was rooted in tobacco. Tobacco cultivation in the colonies started in Jamestown, Va., in 1612, and moved slowly north. By 1720, it was being grown in Prince George’s County. The colonial Maryland legislature authorized a town and tobacco port at Bealltown on the Anacostia River. When the port silted up, Bladensburg, a few miles downriver, was chartered in 1742 as the new port.

It was there that Lowndes’s father, Christopher, built a tobacco warehouse and exported the cured crop to England. He sold imported goods at a nearby store. His family was among the larger slave traders in North America. Francis helped in the business. Christopher’s brother in Liverpool dispatched the slave ships. A cousin on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts routed the ships.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database provides an overview of the trade. The Lowndeses were responsible for 37 voyages carrying an estimated 9,637 enslaved Africans between 1746 and 1770. Importantly, no Lowndes ship sailed to Georgetown. (The slave trade was suspended in the early 1770s when England blockaded the ports of the rebellious Americans, and it never resumed in Maryland.)

Planters were the customers of slave ships, putting newly arrived Africans into the tobacco fields. The ships usually sold directly to plantations. Though the ships also stopped at major ports such as Baltimore and lesser ports such as Annapolis, urban dwellers were not the principal buyers. Enslaved house servants had to have experience and speak English.

Stopping at a port required organization. A local slave trader had to be found to put up posters and place advertisements in newspapers. Transactions commonly took place on the ships for security reasons because they functioned as prisons.

Nothing indicates this happened in Georgetown. Proponents who claim it was a slave port rely solely on a listing in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database showing “North Potomac” as a destination. Jumping to this conclusion is problematic because “North Potomac” refers to a British customs district at St. Mary’s, Md., and is the listed destination for ships bound up the Potomac for Maryland. South Potomac was for ships that stopped on the Virginia side. Ships listed in the database for North Potomac could have disposed of their enslaved cargo all along the 100 miles of the Potomac before the end of navigation at Georgetown. In any event, no record, document or history has ever suggested Georgetown was a port in the slave trade.

The database identifies only 10 ships for North Potomac. Six sailed between 1732 and 1740, when Georgetown was still farmland. Bealltown and Bladensburg were the active ports in the area. They were as close to the tobacco farms around Rockville in Montgomery County, five miles, as the Georgetown port would be, and the road was better. Not until 1751 did the legislature grant the necessary charter to lay out the town and port.

It is doubtful that any of these six ships reached even the Anacostia ports. The Prince William, William & Betty, Liverpool Merchant and Thomas stopped first on the York River or South Potomac, presumably at plantations, and the George was confiscated in the lower Potomac, according to supporting records.

The fact that Yarrow’s buyer traveled from a plantation on Rock Creek to Annapolis in 1752 to buy from a slave ship further suggests Georgetown was not a slave port then.

As for the four later ships listed as “North Potomac,” the True Blue sold its entire cargo in Nanjemoy, Md., (near Port Tobacco) in 1759. The Sarah’s first destination in 1760 was South Potomac, and it carried only seven enslaved to North Potomac. The Upton is advertised in the Maryland Gazette as loading cargo at Leonardtown in 1761, which is probably as far north as it sailed. Backup records for the Venus in 1759 couldn’t be found.

Regardless, there are more astonishing stories of Georgetown and the slave trade. Of the estimated 370,000 Africans brought to North America on slave ships, Yarrow was one of the few whose name and life story is known. We can look on his face, painted by artist Charles Willson Peale, a painter of presidents, and by local artist James Alexander Simpson. The latter portrait hangs in the Georgetown Public Library, only two blocks from where Yarrow lived.

Lowndes’s Tudor Place is about five blocks from Yarrow’s property. Yarrow was known to the “respectable families” of Georgetown, and, sadly, slave trader Lowndes was part of one. Documents show Yarrow worked for Robert Peter, who bought Tudor Place from the Lowndes family, and Yarrow probably had worked for Lowndes as well.

Francis Lowndes didn’t just sponsor slave voyages; he also captained three. He personally managed the imprisonment of hundreds of Africans through three Middle Passages. In 1767, the schooner Good Intent, owned in part by Lowndes, went down off Cape Hatteras with 300 souls confined in its hold.

The descendants of Francis Lowndes’s cousin settled in Charleston, S.C., and entered politics. When Gen. Andrew Jackson led military expeditions through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expel Native Americans, he was accused of being heartless. Rep. William Lowndes of Charleston defended him on the floor of the House. In gratitude, the three Southern states that gained land from the expulsion named counties in his honor. Racially motivated violence and the murders of three civil rights workers in Lowndes County, Ala., earned it the name “Bloody Lowndes.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was in Lowndes County.