African American History and Georgetown: Contradictions, Cruelty and Reconcilitation

Last night at the ANC meeting, the often hidden, yet deep, relationship between African Americans and Georgetown was on display. The reason for this sadly infrequent foray was the decision to publicly recognize three notable Georgetown residents from the past.

As previewed yesterday by GM, the ANC took up the history of Yarrow Mamout. The discussion was one of unusual reverence for an ANC meeting. Chairman Ron Lewis pinned a copy of the famous Charles Wilson Peale portrait of Mamout to the wall, and recited Mamout’s stunning life story. As the book, From Slave Ship to Harvard, by Jim Johnson, depicted, Mamout came to America in chains, was brought to Georgetown, where he lived in bondage until he was 60. He became a master brick worker, and as mentioned last night, homes throughout Georgetown may contain his bricks.

When Charles Wilson Peale came to Georgetown to paint prominent residents, Mamout-then a freedman-was one chosen. As emphasized last night by Jim Johnson himself, there were approximately 9.2 million people stolen from Africa: Mamout is one of only two that we have a portrait of. That’s how special he is.

And the tie of Mamout to Georgetown is even deeper than the history told so far indicates. Mamout was owned by the Beall family. The Beall family was one of Georgetown’s founding families. And monuments to their wealth and influence dot Georgetown, whether it’s the Beall-Washington house, or the plaque at St. John’s to Ninian Beall. You cannot miss their place in Georgetown’s history.

Yet one of the men they owned, and whose labor they exploited to enrich themselves, has, for now, nothing but an empty lot and hope that the ground he once called home still contains his artifacts, if not his bones. It would be hypocritical and delusional to fret over that Beall-Washington house, as Georgetown currently is, and ignore the life of a remarkable man owned for decades by that same Beall family. And to the community’s credit (perhaps inspired by a Colbert King column) it is taking the matter seriously. The ANC passed a resolution asking the city to take steps necessary to preserve the status quo of the property. At the very least, the property needs to be fully excavated.

Even better, the property ought to be acquired and converted into a historical landmark. Yarrow Mamout, his owners, and Georgetown stand at the epicenter of the contradiction between of America’s ideals and its practices. Georgetown was founded as a port town primarily to ship tobacco, tobacco that was sown and reaped by stolen labor across Maryland and Virginia. Georgetown got rich on this business. And testaments to that wealth are plenty. It is absolutely critical for Georgetown to also acknowledge the cruelty at the heart of Georgetown’s original wealth, a cruelty that was inflicted on Mamout and others. Regardless of the esteem he achieved late in life, he still had to wait until he was 60 years old to be considered a man.

For a century and a half after Mamout’s death, one could at least point to the sizable African American population in Georgetown as a living reminder of his life and struggle. But in a process we’re seeing replicated right now across the city, the forces of gentrification pushed out this population in the middle of the last century. Despite the fact that Georgetown was once 30% African American, there is little tangible evidence of that besides the churches and the Mt. Zion cemetery.

In addition to its resolution on Mamout, the ANC took another step last night to fix that error. It adopted a resolution suggested by the Friends of Rose Park to name the park’s tennis courts after Margaret and Roumania Peters. As profiled recently in Bleacher Report, the Peters sisters, who were born and raised in Georgetown, were the original Williams sisters. The sisters Peters took the tennis world by storm in an era where black athletes were confined to their own league. And they learned their first swings at Rose Park; it is a no-brainer to honor them by dedicating the courts to them. Funnily enough, Commissioner Monica Roache took lessons from the sisters when she was a child, and she enthusiastically embraced the idea.

During the discussion on Yarrow Mamout, Vernon Ricks Jr., Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, spoke movingly in favor of any action to preserve the property for research. He briefly discussed the effects gentrification had in driving out his community from Georgetown. The thing that caught GM’s ear, though, was his mention of the 1950 bill that became the Old Georgetown Act. Cherished by Georgetowners now, this bill has a far less favorable place in the hearts of Georgetown’s African Americans. As described in Black Georgetown Remembered, the Old Georgetown Act, and the preservationist movement in general, is widely blamed for tightening the pressure on Georgetown’s black families. Georgetown became chic, demand rose, and many of the black families didn’t own their houses. And those that did were less able to deal with the added burdens that rigorous preservationist laws demand. The inevitable result was a mass exodus.

It’s yet another contradiction at the heart of Georgetown: there is no Georgetown history without African American history, yet in our drive to preserve and enhance the physical shells of Georgetown’s history, we’ve driven out a critical part of that history.

Naming tennis courts after the Peters, or digging up 3324 Dent Place won’t fix that. But it’s a start towards bringing some reconciliation between the way we celebrate and preserve the history of Georgetown’s wealth, and the way we too often let the history of people whose stolen labor helped build that wealth silently slip into the forgetfulness of the past.

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3 responses to “African American History and Georgetown: Contradictions, Cruelty and Reconcilitation

  1. Pingback: Rose Park Tennis Court Renaming Moves Forward | The Georgetown Metropolitan

  2. Pingback: ANC Roundup: Yarrow Edition | The Georgetown Metropolitan

  3. Pingback: A Small Correction | The Georgetown Metropolitan

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