Prior to the Civil War, Washington had long had a vibrant free Black community and an unusually upwardly mobile slave population. The city had stable families such as those of John F. Cook, James Wormley, and William Syphax and later attracted many notables, among them Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, and Francis and Archibald Grimké. The Black community had its own pecking order based upon education, economic status, social standing, and, in some instances, color consciousness, although this factor was not as prevalent in the antebellum District of Columbia as in other parts of the South. This color and class consciousness often served to divide as well as to unify Washington’s Black community. Differences which were made among various Blacks by themselves were generally ignored in relations with whites, who regularly made little distinction between classes of Blacks, settling instead upon commonly held racial attitudes. This monolithic, stereotypical view by whites contributed to a schism within the emerging Black community, but it did not prevent the established Black community from assisting its less fortunate brethren wherever possible. Indeed, it may have been more the inability of free Blacks to accommodate the grave needs of those newly emancipated, rather than color or class consciousness within the Black community, which contributed to whatever negative relationship there was.

     Before the Civil War, Blacks in Washington, while surely not completely self sufficient as a group, had managed to provide for many of their own community needs. They had built churches, organized fraternal and cultural societies, and developed educational institutions. The Contraband Relief Association, established by Elizabeth Keckley, who had been a White House seamstress, represented the kind of self-help which was promoted within the Black community. Other private philanthropy coupled with national efforts, such as the Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, the National Freedmen’s Relief Association of the District of Columbia and the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, contributed much to the survival of Washington’s fast growing Black population.

     One of the major problems facing Blacks who settled in the city was the preponderance of rural skills in a largely urban environment. While they may have had the desire to work, those newly emancipated generally lacked the education and the acquired skills which longer residents of the city had obtained. Eventually many would become vendors, merchants, barbers and domestics, with unskilled labor predominating. 


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November 2000