Wed, December 01, 2021


Del. Norton wants a memorial for enslaved Africans who may have arrived at the Georgetown port

WASHINGTON - At the Georgetown Waterfront, where wealthy boaters parked their yachts, Andrena Crockett started seeing slave ships instead.

The Georgetown University graduate went looking for the stains of slavery all over the neighborhood, finding them obscured by the diners and shoppers who throng the waterfront park and main drag of the famous D.C. neighborhood.

At the building that once housed the old Georgetown Market and Dean & DeLuca, discolored bricks marked what Crockett thought could be the only vestige of a tunnel that led into the market's basement, where she learned enslaved people awaited auction.

She believes an untold number of them were trafficked through the old Georgetown port - disembarking after a harrowing journey on the Middle Passage.

"I said, 'I don't want anybody else to not know this information,' " said Crockett, the founder of the Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project.

Now, as the nation celebrates Juneteenth - the new federal holiday marking the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 - Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has introduced a bill to establish a federal memorial on the waterfront commemorating an unknown number of kidnapped Africans who may have landed at Georgetown in the mid-1700s.

The history is largely unsettled due to a lack of records, with some scholars disputing slave ships reached Georgetown while traveling the North Potomac. An investigation is underway, with the help of the National Park Service, to learn more.

Crockett's organization would help oversee the creation of the memorial - a "powerful marker of truth-telling and remembrance," Norton said. She added that, if approved in Congress, it would still need to go through a federal process to select a design and location.

"I think people forget that the District is as old as the 13 colonies, and that means among other things that slavery was thriving here. It thrived on the Georgetown waterfront," Norton said in an interview. "It's known as a glamorous part of the city today, but it's not sufficiently memorialized as a place for the slave trade."

The Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project is now working with the architect of the African Burial Ground National Monument to study 18th century ship records that could illuminate whether enslaved Africans arrived at the Georgetown port.

The architect, Rodney Leon, said he'll be leading a master's course at Yale University this fall that will investigate at least 11 Middle Passage journeys recorded as docking at "North Potomac," according to Emory University's Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database.

The goal, Leon said, is to determine which of the ships, if any, docked specifically at Georgetown, while framing those details in the broader context of the growth of the slave trade in colonial America.

"If we can identify that in our historic research, that will go I think a long way in establishing how this memorial can be manifested and how it can start to tell that story," said Leon, who also designed the United Nations' memorial to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The National Park Service, which oversees the waterfront park and has held informative events about its slavery history with Crockett, is also assisting in the research.

Jim Johnston, the biographer of Yarrow Mamout, an enslaved Muslim from Guinea who gained his freedom and became a prominent Georgetown property owner and entrepreneur, is skeptical. The author of "From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family" said he welcomed the investigation but found it unlikely that slave ships would have docked at Georgetown.

The "North Potomac" notation in the Emory University database refers to a British customs station at St. Mary's where ships passed through before continuing up the river to sell enslaved Africans they were carrying. Johnston said there is a lack of primary sources or newspaper announcements indicating the ships traveled as far as Georgetown. Mamout's enslaver, for example, traveled to Annapolis, where Mamout arrived, even though the enslaver lived in Washington.

"They would have stopped at all the plantations along the way that they know of and try to sell slaves," Johnston said of the ships that passed through North Potomac. "Georgetown was the end of the line."

Crockett said she became engrossed in learning Georgetown's African American history after her alma mater revealed that its Jesuit priests sold 272 enslaved laborers in 1838 to save the school financially. She thought about the buildings she sat in through classes years ago, having no inkling of the hundreds of enslaved laborers who could have walked the same grounds.

And she started to see that same story in bustling downtown Georgetown, where shoppers and diners and boaters, she thought, could be overlooking significant Black history hidden in plain sight.

Her research took her almost building by building. The slave pen on O Street that is now a block of rowhouses. The historical Mount Zion United Methodist Church. The residence of Yarrow Mamout.

Two years ago, she said, the waterfront earned a UNESCO "Site of Memory" designation, for historical places associated with slavery.

She developed a historic tour around all the key sites, tracing the rich religious and cultural landmarks established by the once-booming Black population in Georgetown. Her organization has placed bronze markers at eight locations, with two more on the way.

But the history of the arriving slave ships at the Georgetown port is more uncertain. Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown University, said that "in a way, that's a beautiful thing" - because "everything is up for discovery."

"We do know slave ships came there. We know the names of a couple. But we don't know much more than that," Jackson said, referring to the North Potomac ships. "We know that slaves were dropped off there. And we know that the Georgetown port was a major slave depot."

The port long predated the incorporation of Georgetown in 1751, but Johnston said that if any enslaved people arrived at Georgetown it would more likely have happened been after 1751 when the town was more established. The port grew into a busy trading hub, mirroring the growth of tobacco exports - and by extension, the slave trade. Before long the port rivaled the Alexandria and Annapolis ports, where enslaved people were bought and sold.

Records from Emory University's database show that ships carrying enslaved Africans began docking at "North Potomac" in 1732, first on a ship called the Liverpool Merchant. More than 1,400 people, mostly from Gambia, would pass through North Potomac over the next three decades before being sold into slavery at locations Crockett said she hopes the investigation uncovers.

"We just want to remember their contributions," Crockett said of the effort to establish the federal monument. "We want them to know that we honor what they did. We are here because they survived. And all we want to do is call their names, uncover who they are."

Published : June 22, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Meagan Flynn