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Funkstown: Slavery in Foggy Bottom

By Frank Leone


April 16 marked D.C.’s Emancipation Day – the date in 1862 when President Lincoln signed legislation freeing enslaved people in D.C. (while providing compensation to owners who remained loyal to the Union). This act preceded the Emancipation Proclamation which freed those in the states in rebellion (Jan. 1, 1863) and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed all slavery (Dec. 5, 1865). The “first freed” included “persons held to service or labor” in Foggy Bottom. “Slavery was part of the social order from the very beginning” of the City of Washington and in earlier colonial times.


In 1632, English King Charles 1 granted land to George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, to form the colony of Maryland as a refuge for Catholics (who had been expelled from Virginia). Scottish and English settlers arrived in what became D.C. early in the 1700s. They were “cultivators of the soil” who raised tobacco, corn, wheat, and cattle with assistance from enslaved people, who also served as domestic and skilled workers.

City of Washington, Foggy Bottom section, 1792 (Library of Congress)

One of the earliest plantations was Widows Mite (1664), purchased in 1714 by Thomas Fletchall, who may have been the first settler to actually live in the area. In 1763, part of Widows Mite was sold to Jacob Funk to create the new town of Hamburgh (Funkstown). In 1791, the town and plantations were incorporated into the new City of Washington. Some local slaveholders included the following.


Thomas Peter (1771-1837) and his bride Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854), the granddaughter of Martha Washington, lived at a house built in 1795 by his father Georgetown merchant Robert Peter. The three story duplex was located at 2618-2620 K Street and was demolished for the Potomac Freeway in 1965. Peter was a major landowner, slaveholder, merchant, banker, and horse racing enthusiast. In addition to enslaved people Thomas held, Custis brought 90 of Martha Washington’s enslaved people with her. The enslaved people held by the Peters mostly worked at the Peters’ tobacco plantations in Maryland. But at K Street, the Peters employed enslaved people as domestic servants and they also had a tobacco house (barn) behind their house.

Thomas Peter's Account Book, listing enslaved people received as part of Martha Park Custis dowery (excerpt), 1796 (Leslie L. Buhler, Tudor Place, White House Hist. Ass'n 2016)

In 1792, Davey Burnes sold the land for the White House to the federal government, but kept the land at 17th and Constitution Ave. (now the Organization of American States). He had 600 acres of tobacco and orchards. According to the 1790 census, Burns also held twelve enslaved people, who lived in cottages elsewhere on the property. The property was subsequently occupied by the Van Ness family, who also held captive workers.


John Tayloe III’s Octagon House (18th and New York Ave.) was built in 1800, in part by enslaved people. Tayloe was a Virginia tobacco planter and race horse breeder whose family held over 400 captive workers who labored at 13 estates. The Tayloes occupied the Octagon during the winter months with 10-20 enslaved domestic servants, who lived primarily in the house’s basement.


Foggy Bottom’s early industries likely utilized enslaved people. William Easby opened a shipyard in1829. He had worked at the Washington Navy Yard where skilled enslaved workers (including shipwrights and caulkers) worked, but captive workers at the Foggy Bottom yard have not been documented. In 1828, Easby joined 1,000 D.C. citizens in a petition to congress to abolish slavery in the District.


Free African Americans also populated Foggy Bottom from its earliest days. For example, in 1825 Roderick Hampton, a free African American, purchased property in Square 5 (now the Potomac Freeway) and African Americans owned property in surrounding blocks.


Sources: Leslie L. Buhler, Tudor Place, White House Hist. Ass'n, 2016; George McCue, Octagon, Being an Account of a Famous Washington Residence: Its Great years, Decline & Restoration, American Institute of Architects Foundation, 1976 Letitia Brown, "Residence Patterns of Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1800-1860," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 69-70, (1971); Foggy Bottom Association History Project.


NOTE: April 15, 2023 was the 175th Anniversary of the largest freedom seeking effort in American history – the 77 enslaved people who left Washington’s 7th Street wharf on the School Pearl. Read more about the effort and Emily Edmondson who left from what is now GWU.

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