[This is the first in a series of fact sheets highlighting the history of African Americans in Washington, D.C.]
Washington D.C. has been home to African Americans long before the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. In Georgetown today, we see a high-end and vibrant enclave of shops, hotels, parks, homes worth several million, and a little old school named Georgetown University. This tiny village, however, less than 2 miles northwest of the White House, was once home to one of the largest AA communities in the region, well before the Civil War. In fact, Georgetown’s history of AA residents spans from tobacco plantations and slave labor to a majority and thriving population of free African Americans, up to the 1930’s gentrification wave.
Georgetown was first known as Tahoga (sadly, the only recent nod to this is a now-defunct restaurant which carried the name. A faux-french bakery chain now stands in its’ place), where the Nacotchanke lived peacefully until the English arrived in the late 1690’s.
Sitting on such a prime spot on the Potomac River made it an indisputable location for a commercial tobacco and slave port in the early 1700s. In 1751, before Washington DC was even named, Georgetown was incorporated. AAs were there, on every street in Georgetown, such that the town’s first oppression law hit the books in 1795. It forbid blacks from congregating in groups of seven or more. The exception was church on the Sabbath. The 1800 census counted 400 “free persons of color or Indians not taxed” and 2,072 slaves out of a total Georgetown population of 8,144. Later, one in three residents of Georgetown were African Americans. Most were slaves, but a significant number were born free or had achieved freedom by escape, manumission, or purchase.
Herring Hill, a 15-block enclave between Rock Creek and 29th St, NW was the heart of Black Georgetown. It is said to be named for the herring caught in Rock Creek. According to historian Mary Mitchell, by 1860 Herring Hill was a self-sustaining community with a population of 951.
Laborers lived alongside professionals, and black-owned businesses were the norm: candy stores, mom-and-pop groceries, coal and ice sellers, barbershops and beauty shops, cleaners, movers, feed stores, and everything else necessary to life. People were baptized in Rock Creek.
Herring Hill’s homes survived the gentrification of the 1930s to become sought-after townhouses that still stand today.
Several landmarks remain:
· Georgetown Station Post Office on 31st Street NW, formerly a customs and ‘holding’ house for slaves arriving from Africa and the Caribbean.
· Mount Zion United Methodist Church, Female Union Band Cemetery and Heritage Center on 29th Street, NW (formerly Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church), the oldest black congregation in the District of Columbia, founded in 1816.
· First Baptist Church of Georgetown on Dumbarton Street, NW founded by Reverend Sandy Alexander in 1862.
· Jerusalem Baptist Church (formerly Seventh Baptist Church) on 26th and P Streets, NW
· Patrick Francis Healy Hall, Georgetown University
Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910), a Jesuit priest born into slavery (in Georgia) who became president of Georgetown College, now Georgetown University
· Holy Rood Cemetery Wisconsin Avenue, NW where 1,000 free and enslaved African Americans are buried, now owned by Georgetown University.
· Yarrow Mamout Residence Site Dent Place, NW
Yarrow Mamout a well-known resident who lived to a very old age (and maintained his Muslim lifestyle after being freed by manumission. He owned bank stock and his own home.