How Black Women Brought Liberty to Washington in the 1800s

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Washington DC, womens history

Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of American History & Culture and a professor of history at William & Mary.


Acity of monuments and iconic government buildings and the capital of a global superpower, Washington, D.C. is also a city of people. Originally a 100-square-mile diamond carved out of the southern states of Maryland and Virginia, Washington has been inseparably tied to the African-American experience from its inception, starting with enslavement, in part because of commercial slave-trading in Georgetown and Alexandria. In 1800, the nascent city’s population topped 14,000, including more than 4,000 enslaved and almost 500 free African-Americans.

Before the Civil War, Virginia reclaimed its territory south of the Potomac River, leaving Washington with its current configuation and still a comparatively small city of only about 75,000 residents. After the war the population doubled—and the black population had tripled. By the mid-20th century Washington DC had become the first majority-black city in the United States, called “Chocolate City” for its population but also its vibrant black arts, culture and politics.

In a new book, At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, & Shifting Identities in Washington, DC, historian Tamika Nunley transports readers to 19th-century Washington and uncovers the rich history of black women’s experiences at the time, and how they helped to build some of the institutional legacies for “chocolate city.” From Ann Williams, who leapt out of a second story window on F Street to try and evade a slave trader, to Elizabeth Keckley, the elegant activist, entrepreneur, and seamstress who dressed Mary Todd Lincoln and other elite Washingtonians, Nunley highlights the challenges enslaved and free black women faced, and the opportunities some were able to create. She reveals the actions they women took to advance liberty, and their ideas about what liberty would mean for themselves, their families, and their community.

“I was interested in how black women in particular were really testing the boundaries, the scope of liberty” in the nation’s capital, Nunley says. Putting Washington into the wider context of the mid-Atlantic region, Nunley shows how these women created a range of networks of mutual support that included establishing churches and schools and supporting the Underground Railroad, a system that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. To do that, they navigated incredibly—sometimes impossibly—challenging situations in which as black people and as women they faced doubly harsh discrimination. They also improvised as they encountered these challenges, and imagined new lives for themselves.

Her research took her from the diaries of well-known Washingtonians such as First Lady Dolley Madison to the records of storied black churches to the dockets of criminal arrests and slave bills of sale. Finding black women in historical records is notoriously difficult, but by casting a wide net, Nunley succeeds in portraying individual women and the early Washington, D.C. they helped to build.

A beautiful photograph of Elizabeth Keckley adorns the cover of your book. She published her memoirs called Behind the Scenes about her life in slavery and then as a famous dressmaker. What does her life tell us about black women in 19th-century D.C.?

Early in the Civil War, as a result of emancipation, many refugees were flocking to the nation's capital and Keckley rose to the occasion, along with other black women, to found the Contraband Relief Society. She's collecting donations, having fundraisers, working her connections with the wives of the political elite, leveraging the Lincoln household, and the Lincoln presidency and her proximity to it in order to raise her profile as an activist in this moment and do this important political work of addressing the needs of refugees. We often assume a monolith of black women. But Keckley was seeing this moment not only as a way to realize her own activism in helping refugees, but she's also realizing her own public persona as someone who is a leader—a leading voice in this particular moment.

Read entire article at Smithsonian

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