Washington, DC has always been considered one the most powerful cities in the world. But the importance of it’s rich Black history, even among African Americans, is not as widely known as one might expect.
Although often forgotten today, Washington, DC was very much a southern city until the 1980s. The northern and the southern civil rights stories are quite different and DC belongs among the latter. Nonetheless, the city’s segregation was almost entirely by custom rather than by law and it had a number of curious anomalies.
Washington always had a large number of free blacks and was considered, even during slavery, as a relatively good place to be compared to other parts of the south.
One of the early free blacks, Yarrow Mamout, a devout Muslim, earned enough from his hauling business to buy a house in Georgetown in 1800.
Aletha Tanner purchased her own freedom in 1810, then went on to free her older sister and five of her children, eventually helping 18 people become emancipated.
In 1813, Tobias Henson, a slave in the Anacostia area, purchased his freedom. He would later buy twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren.
In 1800 more than a quarter of DC was black and nearly 20% of the blacks were free. By 1820 the number of slaves had doubled but thereafter declined. The number of free blacks continued to grow.
There was also an active abolitionist movement even though in 1835 Congress banned anti-slavery literature in the city.
Being free, however, meant living under conditions that in our day we associate with apartheid. For example, in 1808 the city passed a series of Black Codes that included fines for blacks out after ten pm, requirement that freedmen carry documents, fines for playing cards or dice, and forty lashes for slaves caught at disorderly meetings. There were also cash bonds that were required.
DC was also a major slave trading center and the restrictive laws increased include on that required every black family to post a peace bond. By 1835 business licenses were denied African-Americans for everything except driving carts and carriages.
Nonetheless, Washington was considered much better than further south and the black population continued to increase. In fact, one of the threats the city’s slaveholders used was that they would send unruly servants to “hell,” i.e. further south.
In 1835, Beverly Snow, a free black restaurant owner, allegedly insulted the wives and daughters of white Navy Yard mechanics. In the riot that followed white mobs destroy the homes, churches, and schools of free blacks. In the wake of the riot, Congress increased the bonds required of free blacks.
In 1848, 77 slaves surreptitiously boarded the sailing vessel “Pearl” for a planned escape that was aborted when the ship was captured 140 miles from Washington. In an interesting example of the conflicts involved in class and race, a free black hack driver reputedly blew the whistle on the Pearl – angry that one of the slave women aboard had refused his hand in marriage. He was allegedly also angry at others who had tipped him insufficiently when he drove them to the pier.
I guess you can say this was the first documented case of a Black person being hated on by another Black Person.
Check back on whur.com through out the month of February for other Black History facts about Washington, DC.
How many people know what significance this mural’s subject has to Washington, DC and Black History? And how many people know where this picture was taken?