by Thomas C. Battle, Ph.D.

"Who would be free themselves strike
the first blow." Frederick Douglass, 1883

     The general history of the nation’s capital has been well recorded, but the presence, survival and achievements of its Black citizens in the face of great odds have often been omitted or obscured. Blacks were the largest population group in the area when the site was selected for a federal district in 1791, and their labor supported the region’s plantation economy. When the new city was created in 1800, more than a quarter of its population was Black, a good percentage of whom were free. As abolitionist activity increased, Washington became a symbol and a battleground in the long struggle for freedom and equality. Those enslaved served as an embarrassing reminder of the contradictions of the developing nation. The city’s free Blacks reflected the kinds of advancement which could be nurtured if the shackles of bondage were broken, although they, too, remained fettered by Black codes and other forms of discrimination. White abolitionists would eventually succeed in achieving an end to slavery and the slave trade, but Blacks in Washington themselves made an important step by founding their own school in contradiction to common practice, which largely forbade the education of Black Americans. This 1807 effort by formerly enslaved George Bell, Moses Liverpool and Nicholas Franklin would presage the well-educated Black community and intellectually stimulating environment which would later develop despite a climate of racism that would last well past the middle of the twentieth century.

     Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in the Spring of 1862 and after many years of the city serving as the focal point of abolitionist activity in the U.S. Congress. With the coming of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the following year, the city became a haven for Blacks seeking to escape the ravages of war. Not surprisingly, many of these migrants settled around several forts which dotted the area. By the end of the Civil War, some 40,000 contrabands and freedmen had settled in the nation’s capital. They came primarily from Maryland and Virginia where education was prohibited.  In addition, they had few other skills to aid them in adapting to an urban environment. These circumstances, coupled with their threat to the status quo of Washington’s already established Black residents, contributed to the deterioration of relations between these groups. 


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November 2000