The Role of Slavery in Washington D.C.'s History

The rousing, dedicated speeches have stopped for no longer do individuals defend others rights over their property.” Few people today are ready to admit they look favorably upon African slavery in the Americas in our not too distant past. The arguments to not just maintain slavery within their borders, but nevertheless to expand the institution into neighboring states has thankfully come to a close. No longer will armies of white men fight to defend the wealthy’s dominion over the black community.

While this apparent moral obligation rings clear through our minds today, a mere 150 years ago this fight was all but concluded. The Civil war raged on between the Northern and Southern states, each side vying for a number of issues to fall its way. Of course, one of the centers for this conflict was the enslavement of African-Americans. 150 years is not a long time. Huge factories toward over the northern population and telegraphs and photography were very much common place.

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Yet the moral issue of slavery had yet to be put to rest.

Throughout novels like Mary Kay Ricks’, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad, and articles like “A Capital Under Slavery’s Shadow,” the discussion of slavery’s disturbing and ironic role in our Nation’s capital is explored. In truth the Adam Goodheart’s, “A Capital Under Slavery’s Shadow” takes us back to a time where people much like ourselves looked upon African slavery as a good thing and fought, even though the President and legislation itself discouraged the notion, to maintain it.

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While Goodheart’s article provides great insight to the ideas and thoughts of both sides of the powerful individual’s point of view regarding the issue, Ricks’ work explores more of the slave’s and abolitionists feeling toward slavery.

Both works bring us closer to analyzing the idea of somebody’s morality allowing them to participate in such a practice, and the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. First I wish to observe the bureaucratic practice of that day. It is interesting to note that the nation’s capital itself was a hub of slavery activity. Goodheart points out: “Enslaved cab drivers greeted…travelers…and drove them to hotels…that were staffed largely by slaves. In local barbershops, it was almost exclusively black men – many of them slaves – who shaved the whiskers of lowly and mighty Washingtonians alike” (2). Slavery was normal in many locations down the East Coast, and Washington was no different. After all, why shouldn’t it be? Ten of the first fifteen presidents were slaveholders, naturally forming the argument that if the president could do it, so could the people.

Luckily the 16th President of the United States arrived with a different attitude. Even though immersed in slave territory, his first public speech revolved around sharing his will feeling” toward the practice. Through his actions and constant battles over the course of his tenure as president, he would play a huge roll in the outcome of the century long debate. This first article truly showed some characteristics that most overlook in a study of the nation’s capital. We brag about being the “home of the free” but clearly that has not always been, and arguable still is not, the case. A country founded by refugees seeking freedom in all forms is resting on the back of the oppressed to keep the elite comfortable. This also brings up another fascinating ideological debate about Washington D.C. and those who run it.

Perhaps the government does not always have the solution nor always arrive at the proper conclusion on how to handle an issue. Maybe the conclusions reached are not always the best for the people. It does not make sense to me the correct conclusion over whether or not imprisoning and selling human beings is morally sound took an assassination, a war, legislation, and more than a hundred years of speeches and rallies to be reached. The one amazing revelation I did have when reading this essay though, was that the practice and law did change. Yes, it took forever, but it changed, and for the better! This does show that through perseverance laws can be changed and there is no better place to fight that battle than Washington D.C. While it was a location of oppression, the horrors and truth were brought to light. This story is very similar to the woman’s suffrage movement in the 1900s and the LGBT movement of today.

When we set aside our differences and realize we are all human made by the same creator. Even though we are still trying to reach an optimum today, America’s ideal of freedom for all is slowly starting to expand over all peoples. Washington continues to be a place where individuals can fight to facilitate this movement. It is as true today as it was back then. Washington D.C. is the center for change. While the article reflected many thoughts of the elite of the time, Escape on the Pearl showed valuable insight to the mindset of a slave during this period. A statement at the beginning of the novel truly hit on the oppression of the time: “The 10:00 curfew bell rang for all blacks, free or enslaved” (Ricks 9). There were laws about everything to ensure blacks were below whites. Ricks even mentioned that 13 was the common age when blacks were sent to earn a living for their masters. I do not even remember what I was doing at 13! The laws for very restrictive of black people in general.

That being said, though, there were many slaves that were placed in positions that, considering the circumstances, were not all that bad. Some served affluent white owners that played a prominent role in society. Some were even lucky enough to stay with family. This begs the question, then, why they would try to escape. The reason given in the novel is the possibility of being sold or separated from their family as a result of the owner’s death. I do not blame them. I would have fought to be free no matter what. There is a Netflix show called “Prison Break,” about a man who goes into prison with the sole purpose of escaping and bringing his brother with him. It may have taken years to develop a flawless plan, but by golly I would devote my life to it.

No human being on this planet should be put through the humiliation of being enslaved by another individual. If the slave owners had “Constitutional rights” to keep slaves, then those slaves had the same rights to attempt to escape! One last note, I think the bravery of those members of the Underground Railroad is uncanny. I do not know if I would be able to step up like that. While clearly I feel passionate about the issue, I may have went through legal measures to make my point! Lobbying congress or giving speeches. As a free person and respected member of society, I do not know if I would be able to risk my neck the way they did. The book makes it very clear that both the slaves and those helping them to escape were fully knowledgeable about their future fate if they were caught. It makes it all the more admirable that they would fight to be free, in the case of the slaves, and stand up for what they believe in, the abolitionists.

Slavery was a harsh issue of the time and even more a horrific topic today. However, the story needs to be told and I enjoy hearing it from multiple perspectives. It is not the best moment in the story of the United States history, but it is a part that makes up the larger whole. In the end the right side prevailed and we are miles ahead of where we were back in the 1800s. This speaks to our country’s resilience and ability to fight for the freedom.

Works Cited

  1. “A Capital Under Slavery’s Shadow.” Opinionator A Capital Under Slaverys Shadow Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2016.
  2. “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad Paperback – January 29, 2008.
  3. “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad: Mary Kay Ricks.

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The Role of Slavery in Washington D.C.'s History. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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