Serendipity on the SW DC Waterfront


[Washington Window] On April 15, 1848, 77 African Americans slipped down to the District’s Southwest waterfront under cloak of darkness and boarded a schooner named the Pearl.

It was the largest attempted slave escape – motivated by a free man’s unsuccessful attempts to buy his nine children out of slavery – and the men, women and children on board were almost successful. They sailed all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, where they docked to avoid a storm.

The following day, former first lady Dolley Madison awoke to find some of her slaves missing. A search party caught a cab driver who had delivered some young women to the dock and beat the story out of him. The pursuers set off in a steam ship, and ran into the Pearl at Point Lookout.

The escapees surrendered peacefully, singing spirituals on their way back to the District, where they were shackled and marched across town. Some were sold down the river to New Orleans at a slave market in Alexandria near what is now the Torpedo Factory. Others – along with the schooner’s white captain and first mate – were held in the D.C. jail.

Former president and abolitionist John Quincy Adams rushed to the defense of the captain and first mate. As for the slaves who remained in the District, “eventually most of them did get their freedom,” said David W. Smith Sr., executive director of The Pearl Coalition, an organization founded by his grandfather that aims to foster a modern cultural understanding of slaves, slavery and escapes from slavery in the Washington D.C. area. “But it took 10, 20 years.”

After the Pearl incident, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that suspended a formal conversation on slavery for 10 years. But the story had already entered the public narrative.

“It made the North and the South have to take a look at the fact that you have free people – white and black – that are willing to die for this issue,” Smith said, explaining that at its heart, the Pearl is an American story.

“This is about integration,” he said. “This is about American history.”

Despite the Pearl’s enormous impact, it is a little known story, he said. So is the fact that the Southwest waterfront was the hub of the Underground Railroad, and that the area’s numerous churches – black and white – were instrumental in the movement’s success. When Smith’s grandfather, Lloyd D. Smith, first stumbled upon the story in his own historical research, he asked his grandson, “Now, why didn’t they teach you that in school?”

Sharing the story, Lloyd Smith believed, would offer the District’s disaffected youth a source of pride in place and “an example of what it really takes to get your freedom.” Additionally, as a developer, “he wanted to use the Pearl story as a drawing point that would bring people to the Southwest waterfront.”

Lloyd Smith died in 2004, and his grandson has shouldered the work he started. As well as offering educational programs, the coalition plans to build a replica of the Pearl that will put the schooner back to work, uniting people of all colors on the Southwest waterfront.

As in the 1840s, Smith said, churches have a significant part to play in sharing this message – and the racially diverse Episcopal congregation of St. Augustine’s has stumbled right into its new role.

In June, the church’s vestry took part in a retreat titled, “Christ on the Waterfront,” led by the Rev. Martin Smith, senior associate rector at St. Columba’s and author of the Bearings column in this newspaper.

“One of the things he had us reflect on was the monastic practice of amor loci – the love of place,” said the Rev. Martha Clark, priest-in-charge.

Smith sent the vestry members out in pairs into the surrounding community, asking them to pray for the people they encountered.

Church wardens Claire Pitzer and Kwasi Holman wandered down to the waterfront and ran into a group at the spot where the Pearl had docked 161 years ago.

“They came back with this story, and we had never really talked about it as a congregation,” Clark said. “This happened two docks away, and it’s part of the history of the place where we are. We felt like we needed to respond; that it was a gift.”

Parishioners got in touch with David Smith, who will give a presentation at St. Augustine’s on Aug. 30, and also have been in touch with historian Josephine F. Pacheco, author of, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, who has been invited to speak at a forum in November.

“What we’re hoping to do this coming April – and every April from now on – is to gather at that site on the waterfront and commemorate it,” Clark said. “We’re hoping to facilitate a community commemoration.”

“To me, it is like a natural progression,” Smith said. “Almost a divine connection.”

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 78, No. 6, September 2009