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The house of slaves

By Andrew Stephen

07/09/06 "
New Statesman" -- -- In the murky basement of his home in Washington's affluent Georgetown district, Andrew Stephen makes a discovery that leads him to some terrible truths about America, past and present

Flipping through some dusty files at my local library in Georgetown the other day, I made a horrifying discovery. I was looking up the deeds of my nearby house, which I already knew was built in 1795, and which is therefore - by American standards - almost literally a historic monument. Devoted readers, meanwhile, will recall my least favourite task in the house: crawling into a crude, darkly mysterious space beneath the basement to remove the bodies of huge rats when their stench becomes unbearable on hot summer days. Armed with a torch and crouching inside a crawl space where I cannot stand up straight, I would tread warily on the unmade surface of an old cesspit, and carefully peer in and around ancient brickwork and cavities that served, I vaguely assumed, some long-forgotten purpose.

But that day when I looked up the records all these mysteries became clear. The owner of the house in 1807 was one Thomas Turner, and the value of his belongings at the property was fully listed, viz:

2 negro men $300
1 ditto woman $150
4 ditto girls $150
2 horses $200
2 cows $30

Put simply, that day in the library, I discovered that the occupants of the crawl space under my house, before the rats, were slaves: fellow human beings, living in surreal degradation beneath a household in which more monetary value was put on the ownership of two horses and two cattle than the ownership of a black man, or woman, or four girls. The brickwork, I belatedly realised, was the remains of an old oven where the slaves cooked for Turner and his family; the cavities, barely more than two feet high, were probably where they slept. The discovery brought home to me (literally, this time) yet another reality of American history that says so much about the country today: this time, the roots of racial hatred and shame, and why their legacies persist well into the 21st century.

But somehow I could not leave it there. Who were these people? How did they come to be in my house? Why are there five all-black churches flourishing in Georgetown today but fewer than ten black inhabitants left in the current population of 4,800? We read so much about the fashionable four square miles that make up Georgetown and why they are so important in the nation's history; how Georgetown nestles on the Potomac that symbolically separates the historic south from the north; how successive presidents and congresses introduced unique legislation for such a tiny place because it was so personally important to them; how Abraham Lincoln went to church there; how John F Kennedy and his wife made it the chicest place on earth; and how even the likes of the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates in 2004 happened to live barely a block from each other in, naturally, Georgetown.

Yet we see or hear little of black people in Georgetown, save those who empty our dustbins or serve us, often surlily, in the drugstores. The only exception to this rule is on Sundays, when carfuls and busloads of well-dressed blacks pour into Georgetown to fill those five black churches. Walk past them on a Sunday morning and you hear the kind of gospel singing and choruses of "Yessir!" and "Right!" in response to the exhortations of the preacher that you expect to hear only in the Deep South, and certainly not in genteel, white Georgetown. Indeed, few inhabitants today know that black people once made up more than a third of Georgetown's population, or how a combination of consciously initiated legislative, social and economic pressures gradually forced them out so that Georgetown could become not only chic and expensive but exclusively white.

Subhuman treatment

Lest we forget, neither blacks nor whites lived at all in Georgetown - then known as Tahoga - until British settlers went ashore there in 1696. In those days, it was a peaceful village inhabited by Algonquin Indians, but they were soon expunged by the settlers. Then, in the 18th century, white entrepreneurs realised that huge sums of money could be made from an insatiable demand in Europe and elsewhere for the tobacco that was cultivated in Virginia and Maryland (of which Georgetown was then part). So black slaves, as US history textbooks have only recently started to tell American kids, were forcibly transported into labour in the tobacco fields.

Its geographical position made Georgetown an ideal port from which ships laden with tobacco could sail to Europe; by the end of the 18th century it had become the largest tobacco port in the United States, an economic powerhouse to which slaves were brought in (mostly from the existing tobacco fields but some direct from Africa) to provide the labour and to service the households of the white tobacco merchants. The blacks were treated as subhuman in just about every conceivable way, while the more successful of their white owners started to amass huge fortunes.

Perhaps, indeed, those white merchants included Thomas Turner? In peculiarly personal ways like this, the sheer evil of it all somehow makes me feel complicit. I shudder, for example, when I realise that just two minutes from where I now live a white man called John Beattie set up a highly successful slave-trading business that continued well into the second half of the 19th century. In my research odyssey, I found a newspaper ad from the time that read:

NEGROES WANTED: Persons wishing to dispose of Negroes from 10 to 25 years of age, (both sexes) can obtain the cash for them, by applying to the subscriber, two doors east of the Union Tavern Stage Office, Bridge street, Georgetown. N.B.
A smart likely [sic] GIRL, 11 to 13 years of age, would be desirable.

Black people had thus become essential economic tools in Georgetown, but were simultaneously rejected and feared socially. To the whites, it was as though dangerous wild animals were roaming the streets - a seemingly primeval white fear of blacks that led to the first legislative move to keep them as much out of sight and out of mind as possible. The first law designed to do just that came as early as 1795, when Georgetown had already become part of what was then known as the Federal City (later the District of Columbia), but was still entirely separate from Washington. The town passed a law forbidding black people from congregating in Georgetown in groups of seven or more. The 1800 census showed that, in a population of 5,120 in Georgetown, there were already 1,449 slaves and 277 "free blacks" - those who were technically not the property of white people, but who were treated as only marginally less dangerous animals.

Yet, against all the odds, a handful of "free" black men in Georgetown nevertheless managed to distinguish themselves - but then, crucially, remained oppressed and their achievements unrecognised. Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), for example, was of Ethiopian descent, but played an important role in surveying the new boundaries of Washington; he had somehow educated himself and even wrote a mathematical book containing data on astronomical formulae and eclipses. He still had to sleep in a tent in Georgetown while his white colleagues stayed in houses, and even the supposedly enlightened president Thomas Jefferson - who wrote later that black people were "improvident, sensual, extravagant and weak in faculty" - told a friend that, in reality, Banneker himself had "a mind of very common stature indeed" (which he did not mean as a compliment).

Jefferson would doubtless have been equally unimpressed by Yarrow Mamout (c.1736-1823), a Muslim who was born in Guinea but brought to Georgetown to serve nearly 50 years in slavedom. In his old age, Mamout was given his "freedom" by a relatively benevolent owner and somehow managed to amass enough money to buy a tiny house, an achievement so extraordinary that he attracted the attention of the celebrated portrait painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).

Rigid segregation

By this stage in my research, I was beginning to get a glimmer of what life must have been like for the former residents of my crawl space - though it was going to get worse, for them and for their descendants. There was one exception to that 1795 law forbidding them from congregating, however: they could go to church on the Sabbath, which explains why those five churches remain the one potent black force in Georgetown today. But blacks were kept rigidly segregated from whites, and when St John's Episcopal Church was established in 1815 - it's still there, only a five-minute walk away for me - it had an outdoor staircase built specially for blacks.

The following year, hardly surprisingly, a handful of "free" black men managed to raise a little money to start their own breakaway house of worship, which was to become the Mount Zion Methodist Church, one of the five black churches still very much thriving today (and, this time, barely a one-minute walk away for me). But the white Methodist church, at which Lincoln later worshipped, insisted that black churchgoers have white ministers in charge; it took half a century before Mount Zion, for example, was allowed to appoint its own black minister. On the secret "underground railroad" through which slaves were later smuggled north from the South, the Mount Zion burial vault was used as an important hiding place.

Knowing what I now know, I found it strangely moving when the Reverend Robert E Slade, chief pastor at Mount Zion today, who does not even live in Georgetown himself, told my son and me that "when we didn't have anything, the church was our everything . . . When there was nothing and no place to go, [it] was the one place to go." Just those words alone explained to me why the emotional bonds to the black churches in Georgetown remain so overwhelmingly strong for the black descendants of slaves who still attend today, even though the vast majority of them have never lived in Georgetown itself.

I imagine that at least the girls who lived in my crawl space in 1807, if not the adults, were still alive in 1848 - a year that should make every white resident of Georgetown today, thinking in retrospect, hang his or her head in shame. It was the year when just about the most despotic legislative measure imaginable, known as the "Black Code" of the Corporation of Georgetown, was passed into law.

I have the ten pages in front of me as I write, and it is hard to know quite how to convey the flavour of the legislation. Chapter XCIV, maybe, which ordered that "if any slave shall, before the hour of nine o'clock, PM, and after the hour of five o'clock, AM, bathe in the Potomac or Rock Creek . . . he shall be publicly whipped"? Or Chapter XCVIII, which laid down that "if any slave shall fly any kite or kites . . . such offender may be punished by whipping"? Or the law that any black person watching a cockfight could be punished by up to 39 lashes?

Or perhaps Chapter CII, which insisted that "if any free negro or mulatto person, living in this town" should have in his or her possession "any written or printed paper . . . of a character calculated to excite insurrection or insubordination among the slaves or colored people" he or she should be fined or "committed to the work-house"? That if a mere slave was to do the same he or she should receive up to 39 lashes and his or her white owner fined? And that if the owner refused to pay the fine, the slaves would then receive another 39 lashes? And so on, ad infinitum.

I went on to discover that in the same year, hardly coincidentally, 77 black slaves tried to escape this kind of oppression by sailing from Georgetown harbour on a ship called the Pearl. Furious owners sent a posse on a steamer called the Salem to recapture them, and they caught up with the Pearl 140 miles downriver. Though this attempt was unsuccessful and the slaves returned to their owners, the black flight from Georgetown was already beginning.

The atmosphere was such that black people were still being bought and sold as property in Georgetown as late as November 1861 - even though President Lincoln signed a local law the following year to free slaves eight months before his landmark Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. The white slave owners of Georgetown, DC (as it was then known, because it was not officially absorbed into Washington, DC until 1895) demanded compensation, and an "Expert Examiner of Slaves" was brought in - this was a local phenomenon that did not happen elsewhere in the country - who, after examining the slaves' teeth and health in general, assessed their overall value at $300,000.

Meanwhile blacks from the South, anticipating freedom following Lincoln's Emancipation Pro clamation, poured into both Georgetown and Washington. Between 1865 and 1870 the black population of Georgetown increased from 1,935 to 3,271. And yet white residents voted against the Negro Suffrage Bill 1866 by a majority of 712 to 1, declaring that giving "the elective franchise to persons of color is wholly uncalled for, and an act of grievous oppression against which a helpless community can have no defense". That helpless white community was still paying supposedly free blacks just $6 per month on average to work for them.

The records at the local library showed that my house was undergoing renovations and rebuilding at that time - and it was then, I suspect, that the brick kiln was abandoned and the human occupants of the crawl space finally moved to somewhat better housing. With hindsight, we can now see that the next two or three decades were a golden age for blacks in Georgetown: a skilled working class able to earn a reasonable living started to emerge, as did a handful of professionals such as doctors.

But there were countless laws and regulations that prevented true economic or social emancipation. Only white passengers were allowed to ride on Georgetown's new electric streetcars, for example, thus enabling them to commute into Washington for high-paying jobs that were in effect denied to blacks. The forces of racism were still raging, too: I came across one news item from the Washington Post of 1 September 1897, headlined "Mammy's White Mistress Was Fond of It, and Neighbors Objected". It told of how a white "philanthropic lady" of Georgetown had taken a shine to the "nigger baby" of one of her servants, leading to fierce protests from white neighbours, who objected to what the Post amusedly described as the baby's "osculatory performances" on the front porch of the white woman's house.

The Depression and dispossession

This kind of vicious racism, combined with such repressive legislation, was already driving black people out of Georgetown in droves - but it was a series of economic blows that then started to seal their fate. The Potomac silted up, virtually ending the industrial effectiveness of Georgetown's harbour. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which flowed through Georgetown and was crucial for many businesses such as flour and paper mills, flooded disastrously in 1889; black people were the first to lose their jobs when countless firms went bust. By 1910 the black population of Georgetown had peaked, and when the Great Depression struck, 19 years later, more and more black workers found themselves displaced by white people forced to take their menial jobs.

I discovered, however, that FDR's New Deal then perversely began to work against black people in Georgetown. It was intended to lift the poor out of poverty, but the effect in DC was that thousands of new, white and relatively well-paid civil servants flooded into the area to implement the new legislation. Their arrival had a knock-on effect on housing prices in Georgetown, putting homes hopelessly and finally out of the economic reach of black people. "The dispossession of the Negro residents [of Georgetown]," the Conference on Better Housing Among the Negroes reported at the time, "is jointly managed by the city's leading realtors and their allied banks and trust companies."

In the 20th century, however, two acts passed by none other than the mighty US Congress itself were the final straws for Georgetown's blacks; both were covertly racist pieces of legislation aimed specifically at Georgetown. The ostensible purpose of the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act 1934, for example, was to get rid of slums in Georgetown - but to a House of Representatives that had only one black member and a Senate that had none at all, slums were synonymous with black people. And many of the white members of Congress lived in Georgetown, after all.

Then the US Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act 1950 "to preserve and protect places of historic interest", but its real purpose - as everybody, black and white, knew - was to make the white gentrification of Georgetown legally enforceable. The result was that, less than a decade later, the black population of Georgetown had dwindled to less than 3 per cent. In 1972 the Washington Post reported that there were fewer than 250 blacks left, "so few that some Georgetown residents are unaware they are there".

Going full circle

The truth is that such entrenched racism in the heart of America's capital had become so casually institutionalised that even such iconic Democrats as the glamorous young senator John F Kennedy voluntarily signed a "restrictive covenant" when he bought his house on N Street - close to mine - which specified that the home should not "ever be used or occupied or sold, conveyed, leased, rented, or given to Negroes or any person or persons of the Negro race or blood". The likes of the Kennedys, Pamela Harriman and Kay Graham joined forces to create those Georgetown social salons of ludicrous legend, but the only black face I can recall ever seeing in such a place since I moved to Georgetown is that of Vernon Jordan, superlawyer and Mr Fixit for Bill Clinton.

Which brings us full circle to 2006. I went to the Reverend Slade's church the other Sunday - I have rarely felt more welcome anywhere, even though few white Georgetowners would even think of setting foot in the place - and spoke to an 84-year-old black parishioner called Carter Bowman, who was born in Georgetown but who has long since moved out.

With neat serendipity, I actually met three generations of Bowmans, because his son and grandson, who attends university in England, happened to be visiting. What was chilling to me, though, was to realise that if you go back another three generations, you find that all of Carter Bowman's great-grandparents were born and raised when slavery was at its most wickedly intense in Georgetown. They were all subject to the Black Code of 1848, for example. The birthplace of only one is recorded, and it was Madagascar. For all I know, they could easily have been residents of my crawl space.

Who, knowing all this, should be surprised that present-day black employees of drugstores in Georgetown are so often surly when they serve white customers like me? I have to have blood tests every month and have become chummy with the young black nurse who draws the blood; as she plunged her needle in the other day, I told her of my shock and disbelief reading the Black Code 1848 of Georgetown. "It can't be worse than the Willie Lynch letters," she responded. I had no idea what the Willie Lynch letters were and nor did any white American I later asked; white Americans, after all, prefer to forget about their country's systematic and ruthless oppression of black people.

But that gentle woman knows her black American history only too well - and she and her children and grandchildren and subsequent generations will not, I suspect, ever forget that their forebears were treated like rats. Nor should they, and nor should any of us.

Slavery in numbers

10-15 estimated millions of Africans transported to America as slaves

27 dollar price of an African male in 1638

70 cost per day, in cents, of a European's labour in 1638

1833 Britain's parliament passes the Abolition of Slavery Act

1862 slavery is abolished in Washington, DC

Research by Sohani Crockett

This article first appeared in the New Statesman : http://www.newstatesman.com

New Statesman 1913 - 2006

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