Black Georgetown Overflows with History

When people think of Georgetown, images of chic stores, restaurants and upscale boutiques often fill their minds. In addition, Georgetown conjures up thoughts of multimillion-dollar mansions where the nation’s elite reside and entertain members of the world’s upper-crust echelon.

Some reflect on its cavalcade of noteworthy socialites including Pamela Harriman, Perla Mesta and Katherine Graham, the chairman of the board of the Washington Post, all of whom entertained world leaders, wealthy individuals and stars in entertainment and business in their luxurious dwellings.

Then, there are those whose memories harken to Georgetown University and its world-famous academic research or the school’s nationally-renowned men’s basketball program which first rose to fame under the leadership of Coach John Thompson and currently guided by former Georgetown standout and NBA great Patrick Ewing.

And if you’re a horror movie fanatic, you’ll undoubtedly remember those infamous steps upon which Father Damien Karras descended to his death hoping to eradicate the demonic possession of Regan McNeil in the thrilling 1973 hit movie, “The Exorcist.”

However, for the 53 people who journeyed throughout Georgetown under the auspices of the Washington Informer Charities Black history tour on Saturday, thoughts about socialites, basketball and horror movies were far from their minds. Instead, they went on the tour to learn about the rich history of the African-American presence in Georgetown under the leadership of noted historian C.R. Gibbs.

Gibbs, co-author of the acclaimed book, “Black Georgetown Remembered,” first published in 1991, has engineered tours of African-American sites in this District community for many years. The book chronicles and celebrates the rich but little-known history of Georgetown’s Black from the colonial period to the present. But the tour unveiled images of the past in a way that allowed tourists to actually experience history for themselves.

And so, as the group rode in four motor coaches to Georgetown last weekend, they first stopped at the at the heralded bastion of higher education, Georgetown University in Healy Hall, named for one of the University’s earliest leaders, Father Patrick Healy. There, they listened to Father Raymond Kemp share highlights from the rich history of Georgetown University and its role in African-American history.

Kemp talked about the little-known fact that Father Healy served as the first Black president of Georgetown University from 1874-1882 and his accomplishment as the first African American to lead a predominantly-white institution of higher learning.

Kemp also articulated the struggle in vivid detail of how slaves saved the university from financial ruin after being sold and how slave quarters once surrounded the University during the days of slavery.

But what did those taking the tour glean from their daylong experience? We share their reflections below and on subsequent pages with photographs that speak volumes to their newly acquired memories.

Johnnie Baccus on Georgetown University Stop

“This was an excellent stopping point on this tour and I’ve learned about Georgetown University so much during this time. I really understand why reparations are important to the descendants of the people who were enslaved by this university. It was their ancestors who were sold in order to keep the university from becoming bankrupt.”

“That is why their descendants deserve free scholarships to this institution, the wrong has to be righted. I also agree that those descendants have to be academically qualified to attend this school.

“When I think of Georgetown, I think of [former men’s basketball coach] John Thompson. He put this school on the map and made it a lot of money too.”

Slave Ports of Pain

The tour group passed by but didn’t stop at the former Slave Port of Georgetown off of the Potomac River. Gibbs noted that the Georgetown slave port, at its heights, brought in thousands of Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean.

He noted somberly that slaves not only worked in nearby plantations but also on the docks. Gibbs said a trans-Atlantic link of Liverpool (England), Africa and Georgetown made some people very wealthy off of the blood, sweat and tears of Africans.

He also noted that the C&O Canal served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Wanda Lockridge on Final Resting Places

The group made it way north on Wisconsin Avenue., N.W. to the Holly Rood Cemetery. Gibbs said that this cemetery became one of several burial places of Blacks in the Georgetown area.

“I am a native Washingtonian and I just found out about this cemetery. I find it interesting that there are 1,000 free and enslaved Africans buried here and you cannot find many of these graves.

“I also found it interesting that many of the Black people who lived in this area during segregation had to walk to Dunbar High School [about three miles east] to get an education. I also didn’t know that behind the present Alice Deal Junior High School that there was a school for Blacks in this area called the ‘Reno School.’

“We are descended from a strong people and it is important that we remember and celebrate our African American history.”

Gary Evans on Mt. Zion UMC, the Oldest Black Church in D.C.

The tour group visited the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the oldest Black church in the District. It was learned that Mt. Zion broke off of its “mother” church, Dumbarton United Methodist Church in 1816, because that church’s leadership practiced racial segregation in its worship services.

The Rev. Johnsie W. Cogman serves as the pastor of Mt. Zion, the first Black female in that position.

Mt. Zion had a community house where various activities took place for Black people in the Georgetown area.

“It was really nice to visit Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. This church has a lot of history in the city and we should try to preserve it as much as possible.

“I am impressed that our people maintained their dignity during slavery and kept the church going despite challenges and hurdles. It makes me glad to see the people who attend the church now take a great deal of pride in it and want to keep it going into the future.”

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