Black ExperienceBlack History

Hidden in Plain View: The Overlooked History of Black Georgetown

This story is part of The Washington Informer’s Historic Examination of Black America 1619-2019:

One of my fondest recollections as a native Washingtonian was traipsing the streets of Georgetown in the mid-1980s, as the best buddy of two very distinct friends. One, Marlene Graham, was the stepdaughter of Georgetown University’s then-Assistant Dean of Admissions, the other, Thalia Nash, was a fifth-generation Georgetowner, whose family tree fruited African-American life in the District both enslaved to affluent. Graham and Nash played unofficial ambassadors and ombudsmen to me and others visiting them after school or for sleepovers, showing us a myriad of unmarked and overlooked historical spaces, hidden in plain view.

And while the area in the 1980s catered to an increasingly affluent, white and transient college crowd, vibrant and stable Black communities existed throughout its corridors from the canals of its lower end, to homes, businesses, and churches lining M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

A May 30, 1939, newspaper article from the Washington Daily News, detailing the current site of Dean & Deluca as a former slave auction house (Courtesy photo)
A May 30, 1939, newspaper article from the Washington Daily News, detailing the current site of Dean & Deluca as a former slave auction house (Courtesy photo)

“There are always people who ask me if I ‘have enough work’ when I exit my home, because they believe I am the maid and want to hire me. The thought never crosses their minds that I was born and reared inside my home, as was my father,” Nash’s neighbor told us one day. “It is the reason why I would never give up this property. It is my birthright and documentation of my family’s generational fortitude.”

That fortitude, as a teenager was often lost on me, despite feeling uneasy in certain areas of Georgetown between the Foundry on lower 30th (Thomas Jefferson) Street, and the Georgetown Market (on M Street). We blamed it on the spooky, steep steps from the film “The Exorcist,” which marked the area of M Street leading to the Key Bridge and Whitehurst Freeway. Only in recent years, on a lunch run through Dean & Deluca, did the basement of the market become identified as a slave auction site. The complexity of the market mimics the overall history of Georgetown.

In 1776, as the nation fought for its independence, Blacks made up over a third of Georgetown’s population and by 1800, the area documented 1,449 enslaved and 277 free Africans among a population of 5,120. As historian C.R. Gibbs details in his book “Black Georgetown Remembered: A History of Its Black Community from the Founding of ‘The Town of George’ in 1751 to the Present Day,” though, enslavement in D.C., operated differently that in more agrarian regions. Generally consisted of Africans working in skilled jobs as hired workers, who had to turn their wages over to slaveowners. These slaves lived away from the owners “in Georgetown wherever the master provided quarters: lofts, stables, attics, alleys, or shacks.”

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Many of those dwellings, according to Graham and Nash, held symbolic meaning to both the free and enslaved, whose safety relied on a complex system of rituals and codes of conduct to circumvent unjust laws – that included curfews, and the number of Blacks who could congregate publicly.

“Understanding that slavery existed in a way that allowed freedmen and the enslaved to live and work in the same spaces, the threat of being misidentified was great. With the Underground Railroad operating fully alongside everyday life, also complicated Black life,” Nash said. “And yet, we made it work and thrived by learning, teaching, building, and sustaining each other.”

More accurately, Georgetown, existed before either the United States and the District of Columbia, being officially founded in 1751. With First Nations, free and enslaved Blacks, immigrants, poor and working-class whites, and every imaginable socioeconomic group calling it home, Georgetown’s history lends itself to the larger “melting pot” story of the nation.

As The Washington Informer Charities prepares for its annual African American Heritage Tour unlocking the Black presence in Georgetown, many of those treasures will once again come alive.

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