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Funkstown: What Do the Underground Railroad and the GWU President’s House Have in Common?

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

By Frank Leone

On the night of April 15, 1848, 13-year old Emily Edmondson left Foggy Bottom to join her sister and four brothers who boarded the schooner Pearl. The passengers, a total of 77 enslaved people, sought to reach freedom in the North. At the time she left, Emily had been “hired out” to work as a maid for D.C. merchant Alexander Ray. Ray lived on G St. between 20th and 21st St. NW, but he later bought the house at 1925 F Street. That F Street House, marked with a plaque identifying it as the “Alexander Ray House,” is now the official residence of the President of George Washington University. The connection of Emily Edmondson to Alexander Ray and the F Street House has not been widely acknowledged.

Ray House Plaque (F. Leone, 2021)

Many of the Pearl’s passengers, like Emily, had positions that were viewed as high status for enslaved people, but they took advantage of the Pearl’s opportunity for freedom. After midnight, The Pearl left the Seventh Street wharf to sail down the Potomac. Bad weather in the Chesapeake Bay stalled their journey. Ships from D.C. overtook them the next morning and all were captured. Most of the enslaved people were sent to New Orleans and sold there. The attempted flight to freedom on the Pearl led to riots in D.C., Congressional debates, and increased northern support for emancipation in D.C. and the South.

Edmondson Sisters Statue, Alexandria, Va. (City of Alexandria)

After the capture of the Pearl, Emily and her sister Mary were also sent to New Orleans, but returned to an Alexandria, Va. jail when yellow fever threatened. Their parents – John who was free and Amelia who was enslaved – obtained funds to buy the sisters’ freedom, with the assistance of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The sisters then studied at Oberlin College's Preparatory School. Mary died of tuberculosis, but Emily returned to D.C. She served as an assistant teacher at Myrtila Miner’s School for African American girls, spoke out in favor of abolition, married, and eventually moved to Anacostia with her family.

Emily’s enslaver, Rebecca Culver, had hired out Emily to Alexander Ray. Ray (1799-1878) was one of D.C,’s wealthiest citizens. As a shipping merchant, he transported coal down the C&O Canal to seagoing ships at the City’s wharfs. He also operated a flour mill on the Georgetown waterfront (b. 1847). Ray lived at G and 22nd Streets at the time of Emily’s flight, but that house no longer exists. He bought the 1925 F. St. house in 1869 and lived there until his death. There is no record of Ray’s reaction to Emily’s flight.

The house’s first owner was Naval officer Charles Steedman (and it is sometimes called the Steedman-Ray House). Built in 1849, it is one of the few remaining pre-Civil War Greek Revival houses in the city and reflects the then existing wealthy Foggy Bottom neighborhood. It went through a variety of owners including the Civil War Commissary General of Prisoners, Chinese and Lithuanian diplomats, and American University. It housed the exclusive F Street Club from 1933 to 1999. GWU bought the house in 1974 and made it the first official residence of the GWU President in 2007.

F Street House (F. Leone, 2021)

Note: Mary K. Ricks in Escape on the Pearl asserts that Emily fled from the house of Alexander Ray. Her principal source was John Paynter, the grandson of Emily’s oldest sister Elizabeth, who interviewed family members – including his uncle Samuel (who was on the Pearl). Paynter’s Fugitives of the Pearl states that Emily worked for a man named Ray, whose house was located near the corner of G and 22nd Streets. The Boyd’s Directories for the District of Columbia from 1846 and 1850 identify Alexander Ray as residing on the North side of G Street, between 20th and 21st Streets. Although the addresses are not identical, they are close and support the contention that Ray, later owner of 1925 F St., employed Edmundson.

Sources: Mary K. Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: The heroic bid for freedom on the Underground Railroad (2007); John H. Paynter, Fugitives of the Pearl (1930); Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery community in Washington D.C., 1828-1865 (2003); Mrs. Elden Billings, “History of 1925 F Street N.W.,” unpublished manuscript prepared for the Columbia Historical Society (1961-1963); Alexander Ray House, National Register Nomination, 1990; Steedman-Ray House, HABS No. DC-44 (June 1984); Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).



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