Harriet Hemings was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. After twenty years of living as as her father's slave, she moved to Washington to begin her life anew... and promptly disappeared from the historical narrative.
Josiah Henson is not a well-known name in American history—or even in the Washington area, where he was enslaved for many years. Born into bondage in Maryland, he lived in Montgomery County before eventually escaping to Canada—there, he served in the army, became a preacher, and established a prosperous settlement for escaped slaves. He was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, serving as the inspiration for the titular character. But though the novel made him a well-known and popular figure in the nineteenth century, Henson was determined to tell his own story. As he says, the truth is stranger than fiction.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.
During the Union army's occupation of Alexandria from 1861 to1865, young Confederate ladies would have had no one around to drop a handkerchief for other than Union soldiers. Well, that wasn’t going to work, not when "the slight difference of color [between gray and blue] symbolized all the difference between heaven and hell." So what's the next resort? Obviously, forming a local branch of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle.
The Civil War changed Washington, D.C. tremendously, but one of the biggest impacts came from the thousands of former slaves who fled from the South and journeyed northward to seek refuge in the nation's capital. By early 1863, an estimated 10,000 of the refugees had arrived in the city, doubling the city's African-American population. The new residents were impoverished and in desperate need of basic wants, and often had no idea how to survive in a city.
Gouvernuer gives a snapshot of the capital in very distinct time of the city — still a young city and still immersed in that peculiar institution of slavery. This description, especially concerning the haphazard city planning, falls well in line with previous Impressions of Washington we've posted on the blog. She also gives an enlightening summary of the commercial life in Washington.
It's easy to remember the battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Antietam and more — but the Washington, D.C. area was also home to many other significant Civil War events, too. After all, it was here that Col. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and followed his home state of Virginia to the Confederacy; it was here that President Lincoln directed the Union's war effort; it was here that the President was assassinated in 1865.
And, it was also here that thousands of African Americans first experienced freedom after generations in bondage through the "contraband" camps, which the federal government created on the abandoned lands of secessionists during the war.
In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.
Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.
In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves. From her autobiography:
With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.
In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.
Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.
Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.
We all learned in history class that Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in Confederate states by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. But did you know that until April 16, 1862, slavery was still legal and widely practiced in Washington, DC? On this day, DC celebrates its own Emancipation Day, marking the passage of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act that legally freed all slaves owned in DC.
1848 was a busy year for the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington monument was under construction and Congress was hotly debating the question of slavery in the new territories. Closer to home, most white Washingtonians favored slavery though many had objections to actual slave-trading taking place in the capital. D.C.’s large free black population, which contained a great many marriages between enslaved and free, sought freedom for those who didn’t yet posses it, and were spurred by an increasing number of abolitionists flocking to the city.
To put it mildly, Washington was a tense place in April 1848, and it was about to get even more so. Enter the Pearl.