My Black city and its significant history
The promise of America brought my ancestors here. Unwillingly. Forced into ill-fitting costumes to deny their humanity, they survived here. In this country of red, white and blue they stitched these costumes onto their own bodies, made of the same cotton they toiled for in fields, also used for a flag representing freedom won through their stolen children and used to fight a war over their bodies. This is the same country that freed them on April 16, 1862 in Washington, DC.
I was born and raised here. My parents were born and raised here. My mother’s family has potentially been here since at least the 1890s. I did not realize the significance of this day as an elementary school student being chauffeured to museum after museum on school trips. Or while participating in Black history celebrations such as re-enacting Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial or even as a high schooler re-imagining Rosa Parks’ life in a McKinley Tech multi-purpose room.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t often associate slavery with DC simply because we live in an urban area and I grew up learning about slaves on southern plantations. The District’s enslaved population did not work in fields, instead they labored under harsh conditions to build the White House and Capitol. The slave trade was as prominent here as it was anywhere else in slave-owning states.
3,100 slaves were freed on April 16th. Slave-owners were compensated up to $300 for each Black body they possessed. The deal also offered $100 each to help newly freed slaves migrate to Liberia or Haiti or wherever America wasn’t. Freed Blacks that stayed had their freedom but were only beginning to learn the terms of their new bondage. With limited to no access to healthcare, jobs or housing, a typhoid epidemic overwhelmed the newly freed black population on the east coast.
The District’s free Black population was lucky enough to reside in the same city as the Freedman’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital), but due to overcrowding and other issues, many people lost their lives.
As I stood at Freedom Plaza for the Emancipation Day concert the Saturday before last watching four of the former Miss District of Columbia’s line dance with children, I realized I couldn’t name any of them. Another piece of history I didn’t know about my city.
DC natives have this joke about being here for however many years and still not seeing the museums and exhibits that draw thousands of tourists every year. What if we stop joking about it and actually visit these places? How about we take it a step further and intentionally learn about our city?
CHF created a racial equity timeline to help us understand how we became the city we are now. I encourage you to check out this resource as a first step in your learning journey.