Land records, tax assessments, and censuses between 1820 and 1860, show that several free black families owned property and/or resided in the northern extension of Georgetown, primarily in the unofficial subdivision of Wilberforce, opposite Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue.
One of the earliest buyers of house lots in Wilberforce was William Fealds (DC Liber P15 (1806) f.253/379). Fealds was a Georgetown bricklayer and plasterer who resided at––and probably was the builder of––the houses at the southeast corner of 29th and Dumbarton Streets. It is possible that he also built some of the houses in Wilberforce, but, if so, he is more likely to have been a landlord than a resident. As nothing survives showing to whom Fealds might have rented, the first tenant in our neighborhood remains unknown: history favors owners over renters.
Murray Barker, a recently freed slave, first appears on the Georgetown Tax Assessment in 1808 as the owner of an improved lot, worth $50, on High Street (Wisconsin Avenue) in lot 253, Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown. By 1810 Barker’s lot has a frame house on it, worth $200.
John Swan’s purchase in Wilberforce was in 1807. The deed mentions that his land had houses on it when he bought it, but Swan was not assessed for these houses until 1813. Swan, “Free Colored”, his wife, and a son appear in the 1820 census of the neighborhood.
(DC Liber R17 (1807) f.390/295; John Swan died October 9, 1820: William King Mortality Journal).
In 1822, Jane Swan of Washington, DC, willed to Ary [Ariana] Fleet, a house and lot on High Street in Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown; to Cleary Brown, my bed and furniture; to [John Brown crossed out] Jane Harbert, my cow; to Clarasa Brown, one new quilt, two new blankets, one iron pot, one spider; to Moris Carrel, my cloake, my bonnet, and one frying pan; to Suffia Murry [Sophia Barker, wife of Murray Barker?], one iron pot and pothooks.
Executor, Henry Fleet of George Town: Henry [his “X” mark] Fleet, witness, William Kuhns
(Wesley Pippenger, District of Columbia Probate Records, 1801-1852, p.115; (Arianna Fleet [Henry’s wife or sister?] was later involved in an 1840 land transaction in Wilberforce.)
The freedom papers of Moses Thompson show that he was born free, September 20, 1770, in Virginia. Thompson bought property in Wilberforce in 1817, but by the time of the 1820 census he had either died or moved away.
(Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861: Certificate of Freedom, Richmond County Clerk’s Office; DC Certificate of Freedom, DC Liber K10 (1804) f.34; Balch to Thompson $30, part of lot 253, Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown, unimproved: DC Liber AN38 (1817) f.119/88)
At least one of the free black families of Upper Georgetown can be placed west of High Street, near the intersection of Madison and Back Streets––i.e. Whitehaven Parkway and Tunlaw Road. Henry Ridgely, a Catholic, married Eleanor Jackson, at Trinity Church, Georgetown, on January 13, 1820. In the 1830 census––in the line above Murray Barker––Ridgley is listed as the head of a five-person household. In the 1850 census––the first to give names of persons other than heads of household––Henry Ridgely, laborer, 58, born Georgetown, appears, as does his wife Elen, 55, born Maryland. Their son, Henry Ridgely, married Anne Robinson (August 19, 1851, Trinity Church, Georgetown). The 1860 census shows only Henry Ridgely, age 70; and the 1870 census, only Ellen, age 60, “keeping house”, and a boy, Henry Gordon, age 4.
William Goszler swears he has known Ellen Ridgely, and her daughter Mary Jane Logan, for 26 years; they were freed by the will of Robert Sinclair, late of Richmond.
(Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861: DC Freedom Register, No. 2562, 1857)
An old colored woman in her eighties named Nellie Ridgely, living near the Catholic burying ground on the Heights, was burned to death. Her clothes caught fire from kerosene spilled on them. She begged neighbors to send a priest. Before Reverend Fr. Stonestreet could reach her she had died.
(Georgetown Courier, October 28, 1871)
The 1850 census was the first census to record what people did for a living. Thomas Landson, age 55, was a blacksmith, born in Maryland, and is listed in close proximity to Charles and Jacob Homiller, near Tunlaw Road and Calvert Street. His wife Serena Landson, age 45, was also born in Maryland. The household also included Margaret Gassaway, 25; Asbury Landson, laborer, 19; Samuel Thomas, 13; and Henrietta Landson, 3.
The given name Asbury suggests that the Landsons were Methodists; the Berry family were probably Methodists as well, as Berry family freedom papers record that they were freed by John Eliason, a prominent Georgetown Methodist, in 1824. The Berry family appears in both 1850 and 1860 censuses of our area; the 1860 census lists Samuel Berry, age 43, born DC, his wife, Elizabeth, and six children. The 1858 directory gives their address as 364 High Street. Samuel Berry was a tanner in the tannery that once operated where the Georgetown Safeway is now.
(Dorothy S. Provine, District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861)
The 1860 census shows that Alfred Bellows (Bellers/Bellis), age 39, “boatsman”, lived next to Joseph Weaver, and the 1858 directory gives his address as 344 High Street. His wife Margaret, age 36, was a laundress; their daughter, Mary, was 10.
After the Civil War
Up to this point this account has been one of the people classified by the census as “Free Colored”; with the exception Henry and Eleanor Ridgely, they lived in the unofficial subdivision of Wilberforce (the separate lots of which were later consolidated by the descendants of Michael Weaver).
Of the slaves owned by residents of upper Georgetown, only some former slaves of Charles Homiller were still in the area by the time of the 1870 census. Mary, Adelaide, Laura, and Banks Edgison, all former Homiller slaves, were living with Colbert Edgison, age 70, near what is now Tunlaw Road and Calvert Street.
Mary Ann Hawkins had also been one of Charles Homiller’s slaves; after the war Hawkins and her husband Abraham lived for several decades on Tunlaw Road. Their sons George and Abraham learned the butcher trade, George with his former owner Charles Homiller, and Abraham with neighbor Louis Schneider; in later years both brothers were butchers in Georgetown.
By the time of the 1880 census, only the Hawkins family is still in the neighborhood:
Abraham Hawkins, Laborer, born D.C., 1830
Mary Hawkins, Laundress, born Virginia, 1840
Jane Hawkins, In Service, born D.C., 1858
George Hawkins, Butcher, born D.C., 1859
Abraham Hawkins, Butcher, born D.C., 1860
Helen Hawkins, In Service, born D.C., 1866
Mamie [Mary] Hawkins, At home, born D.C., 1868
David Hawkins, At home, born D.C., 1870
Teenie Hawkins, born D.C., 1874
Mary I. Hawkins (granddaughter), born D.C., 1879
The Daggs family appears to have lived near Madison and Back Streets:
William H. Daggs, laborer, born D.C., 1845
Louisa Daggs, keeping house, born D.C., 1840
Eliza Daggs, born D.C., 1876
Alice Daggs, born D.C., 1877
Frank Daggs, born D.C., 1878
The Hawkins and Daggs families were exceptions; in 1880, most of the African American adults in this neighborhood were born in Virginia or Maryland, and had probably been slaves there; to judge from the birthdates of children born in the District of Columbia, these families came into being after the Civil War. Aside from those men involved in the butcher trade––the main business of the neighborhood––almost every black man was a common laborer––doing outdoor work that required no training––and every grown woman in service or a laundress, picking up loads of wash and taking them home.
The Minor family lived near High Street and Homiller’s Lane (i.e. Wisconsin and Calvert), and the men of the family appear to have been employed by the Homiller family:
George Minor, Works with Butcher, born Virginia, 1857
Sarah Minor, keeping house, born Virginia, 1839
Samuel Minor, Works with Butcher, born Virginia, 1859
Charles Minor, At home, Servant [of Jacob Homiller], born D.C., 1869
Joseph Minor, At home, born D.C., 1871
On Back Street:
George Stevenson, laborer, born Maryland, 1830
Mollie Stevenson, laundress, born Virginia, 1828
On Madison Street (Whitehaven Parkway), on the hill south of Holy Rood Cemetery, the 1880 census shows two African American households:
Zachary Harper, laborer, born Virginia, 1849
Rachel Harper, laundress, born Virginia, 1850
Ella Harper, born Virginia, 1872
Fernando Harper, born D.C., 1879
Samuel Honesty, laborer, born Maryland, 1858
Octavie Honesty, laundress, born Virginia, 1860
Mary Honesty, born D.C., 1876
Lidia Honesty, born D.C., 1879
For the scattered old houses along Back Street and Madison Street, and for their tenants, the writing was on the wall, as property owners anticipated residential development: Archer-Custard-Schneider Subdivision (1891); Mary Ann Weaver’s Subdivision (1894); Henry Weaver’s Heirs’ Subdivision (1899). That the conversion of the neighborhood from semi-rural to residential would go hand in hand with segregation was a given of the time; mixed neighborhoods––like Georgetown, for example––were old-fashioned.
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