“Bondmen, according to the slave code, were not allowed to meet or hold any kind of meeting unless a white man was present. Nor were they allowed to be out after ten o’clock at night without a pass, or to have two or more congregate on the street at one time. If they did any of these things, they thereby violated the sacred laws of bondage and suffered imprisonment and persecution. Thus handicapped in their worship, they . . . prayed for a deliverer, and he came in the person of a young lawyer from Philadelphia. By his earnest endeavors in their behalf, they were released without being sentenced to jail or whipped. But, nevertheless, they were driven out of Georgetown, across Rock Creek, and into Washington, where they worshipped for a while in the house of William Beckett on the corner of 23d and L Streets.”
— John W. Cromwell, describing
Georgetown circa 1850 in the January 1922
volume of The Journal of Negro History
If this year’s celebration of African American History Month focuses mainly on seminal events in the civil rights movement, such as the 1963 March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration, then the commemoration, which begins Sunday, will be in vain. Those crucial moments in civil rights history indeed represent decisive turns in the long and painful odyssey from the horrors of the slave deck to today.
But getting from there to here involved more than marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and legal victories — essential as they were.
Long before those events, institutions largely unrecognized today promoted cohesion and structure in black life. These were the forces that brought blacks together and propelled them forward. Chief among them, black churches and black schools — preachers and teachers. Together, they are two unsung heroes of African American history.
A decade before the Civil War broke out, slaves in the District could hire out their services and live apart from their masters, and free blacks could operate private schools. The men banished from Georgetown had hoped to build a church at the corner of 28th and O streets NW, according to John W. Cromwell’s history. (In 1856 others would build the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church there. The church moved to Fort Washington in 1983.) They wanted a church that was not segregated like the white church they attended on the western side of Rock Creek. After their banishment, they bought a lot and built a frame chapel at 23rd and L. It became Union Wesley Church, located one block from where I lived with my family in the 1940s and ’50s.
The chapel didn’t last long, however. Two white men with the Hibernian fire company across the street burned it to the ground.
So it went, as free and enslaved blacks organized churches before, during and shortly after the Civil War. Among those still serving the city: Asbury United Methodist, John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Metropolitan A.M.E, St. Augustine Catholic , Shiloh Baptist and my church, St. Mary’s Episcopal.
The significance of these churches to Washington extended far beyond the refuge and pastoral care they provided thousands during times of endemic segregation and racism.
They were community strongholds. They operated schools and social service centers, and they were the home base for black culture and intellectual development.
They had to be: D.C. public schools, established by Congress in 1802, were for white children only.
Not until 1862, six decades later, did Congress mandate that all D.C. children, black and white, receive three months of education a year, albeit segregated.
Black churches and teachers, privately supported, filled the void.
They did more than preach and teach. They inspired confidence and self-respect. They raised, nurtured and guided leaders and trailblazers.
Regrettably, the historic role played by these institutions has largely gone unnoticed, ignored or unappreciated by a new generation of D.C. residents.
The history of black advancement in this city is the history of black churches providing sanctuary and schools, as well as the spiritual glue that helped bond families, neighbors and community.
It is a history of blacks going to college and, against the odds, becoming teachers in understaffed, underfinanced and dilapidated schools where they taught black children with used books and resources handed down from white schools.
Black history in Washington is the story of brave, determined and talented black Washingtonians soldiering on through slavery, civil war, emancipation, Jim Crow and disenfranchisement to help get us to the 21st century.
Now that’s a black history legacy worthy of praise — and emulation.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.