Last week, the City Tavern Club put out for permanent display a photograph of Alfred Delaney Clarke. Clarke, along with several generations worth of family members, was an enslaved resident of the building in the decades leading up to the Civil War when it was host to the Georgetown Hotel. The photo is the only known photo of any resident of the historic tavern building.
The photo was in the possession of descendants of Clarke, seventeen of whom were present for the dedication last week:
Clarke and his family were enslaved by Eleanor Lang, who ran the hotel from 1832 until 1865. This relationship first began when Lang purchased two teenage girls in the 1820s. She would ultimately enslave no fewer than eleven members of Clarke’s family.
The connection between the tavern building and the Clarke family has been rigorously researched by Yvette LaGonterie (who is also one of the members of the family). She gave a fascinating talk at the City Tavern Club in the weeks before Covid hit. (It was probably the last time GM was in a crowded indoor space!) The club itself has actively welcomed and encouraged this research and this display is part of its own reckoning with its past. Or as Mary Beth Torpey, president of the club, stated in the event’s press release “it is through the Clarke lineage that we collectively can honor and appreciate the full story of the building’s past.”
Brooch and cufflinks worn by Clarke and his wife, Virginia Cole Clarke.
Georgetown, frankly, does not do a very good job acknowledging African American history, let alone the specific history of slavery in the neighborhood. The large estates, in particular, are very inconsistent on this front. Tudor Place, for example, does discuss some of the enslaved residents, but it’s hardly robust. Dumbarton Oaks, once owned by the rabidly pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun, among others, doesn’t mention enslaved people at all, as far as GM can tell.
But it’s not just an oversight by a few museums. African American history and the history of slavery are tightly interwoven into almost all aspects, grand or humble, of Georgetown’s past but those threads have been bleached away through neglect and forgetfulness. The Georgetown African American Historic Landmark project is an admirable attempt to pull this forgotten history forward into the present. But surely there is more we can do to keep the memories fresh.