Prior to the Civil War, the “Underground Railroad” helped tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans travel north to their freedom by providing with them passes, transportation, food, and shelter. The paths to freedom passed through Washington DC, including through Foggy
Bottom. Leonard Grimes was an important Railroad “conductor” and George Washington University marked with a plaque the location of his house on the corner of 22nd and H Streets. A 2021 Arts in Foggy Bottom installation (26th St., near Queen Anne’s Lane) honors 77 freedom seekers who tried to sail north on the ship the Pearl, including a Foggy Bottom resident, 13-year old Elizabeth Edmundson. And in the Foggy Bottom Historic District (25th and I Streets) there currently stands a blue wood framed house, which may have been associated with the Underground Railroad.
Leonard A. Grimes (1815-1873) resided with his wife and two children in a house he owned on 22nd and H Streets NW from 1836-1846. Grimes
was born as a free African American in Leesburg, Virginia. By the 1830s, he owned a successful hackney coach business, transporting passengers around DC and beyond. He took advantage of the opportunity to transport
enslaved people to freedom.
In 1839, Grimes successfully rescued from slavery the wife and six children of a free black man in Loudoun County. But he was observed by a woman who kept a coach stop he passed by and was suspected of aiding the escape. On January 20, 1840, the enslaver swore out a warrant against Grimes. He was arrested and his trial attracted great attention. Grimes was convicted and sentenced to two years in the state prison in Richmond plus a $100 fine, a relatively light penalty, due to “the former good character of the Prisoner.” In 2003, the National Park Service designated the Loudoun Courthouse where Grimes was tried as part of its Underground Railroad Network To Freedom Program.
Upon Grimes’ release, he became a minister. In 1846, he moved to first to New Bedford, and then to Boston, Massachusetts, where he was an active abolitionist. He served as pastor of new Twelfth Baptist Church for 27 years, and because many of its members had escaped from slavery, it became known as the “Fugitive’s Church.” As stated in GWU’s plaque (set in 2007), “he distinguished himself as a cleric, abolitionist, and statesman.”
Emily Edmundson and the Pearl: This year’s Arts in Foggy Bottom included an installation by Lynda Andrews-Barry called “Pearl Dream.” It
commemorated the extraordinary attempt by 77 enslaved people working in area homes and hotels to escape on the schooner Pearl in 1848. The ship made it down the Potomac, but winds prevented it from heading up the Chesapeake Bay to safety in the free state of Pennsylvania. The passengers were captured and most were transported to New Orleans and sold.
Elizabeth Edmundson had been “hired out” to work for Alexander Ray, who lived in Foggy Bottom on the north side of G street, between 20th and 21st Streets NW. Her father, who was free, launched an effort to purchase her freedom and that of her 15 year old sister Mary. Extensive fundraising efforts in New York were successful. Emily went on to study at Oberlin
College with the support of Harriet Beecher Stove, serve as an assistant in Myrtilla Miner’s DC teacher’s school, aid in the abolitionist movement, and raise a family.
The Foggy Bottom Historic District Blue House: For the security of freedom seekers and those who assisted, secrecy was essential, and few written records were kept of safe houses. But FB Historic District documents – and neighborhood lore – indicate that the blue wood-framed house at the corner of 25th and I Streets in the historic district (830 25th St.) may have been associated with the Underground Railroad. The official date for construction of the house is 1872, but property records (when available for review) may show earlier construction. We do know that house is the oldest and only remaining wood-frame house in the historic district and that over the years it housed a saloon and a grocery store.
Sources: Jenny Masur, Heroes of the Underground Railroad around Washington, D.C., Charleston SC: History Press, 2019 (Ch. 8, Leonard Grimes); Mary K. Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid from Freedom on the Underground Railroad, New York: Harper Perennial, 2008; Lynda Andrews-Barry, “Pearl Dream,” Arts in Foggy Bottom (2021), http://artsinfoggybottom.com/current/works/12; National Park Service, Underground Railroad, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/index.htm