Opportunity: Race in Anacostia through the Civil War

The Federal City, created in 1791, sits squarely between Maryland and Virginia. In the earliest days of the republic, its location gave it a unique relationship to blacks in the U.S. More than half the blacks in the United States lived in Maryland and Virginia at that time, the heaviest concentration anywhere in the country; one third of the black population in those states was free.

From its beginning Washington had a significant black population: one quarter in 1800, most of whom were slaves. But by 1830, one half of all blacks in D.C. were free. Although Anacostia was home to many of Washington's largest slaveholders, its physical location and economic base provided opportunities for blacks, in terms of homeownership and manumission, which could not be found elsewhere in the region.

The area today known as Anacostia had been prized by Native American populations for 3,000 years prior to the arrival of John Smith in 1608 and soon became a famed trading spot for the English and other Indian tribes. A visitor in 1632 noted, "The Indians in one night commonly will catch thirty sturgeon in a place where the river is not above twelve fathoms broad. And as for deer, buffaloes, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them, and the soil is exceedingly fertile." (1) Although the Nacotchtanke tribe didn't last long after English exploration and settlement, which claimed the area as part of the Maryland colony, there was a period of contact which allowed them to harbor fugitive slaves from the area. A 1666 treaty between the Maryland colonial government and the tribes of the region read, "In case any Servants or slaves run away from ther Masters and come to any of the Indians Towns...that the said Indians shall apprehend them and bring them to the next English Plantation to be conveyed to their Masters and if any Indian convey or assist any such fugitives out of the Province that he shall make the respective Masters or Mists of such servt or servts such satisfaction as an English man ought to do in the like case." (2)

The fertility of the soil, the abundance of slave labor in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, and proximity of a navigable river encouraged the cultivation of tobacco. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, one-crop farming had depleted the soil and landholders were forced to diversify their practices. Many planted corn or wheat, while others turned to fishing and to construction of wharves and mills. The turn to less labor-intensive crops also allowed the landholders to hire out their slaves; the federal government was one of the first customers. The Capitol and the White House had to be ready for occupancy by 1800, and the government had a problem attracting free laborers to the area; thus, slaves formed the bulk of the early work force for the construction of federal buildings. Slaveholders received 75 cents a day for the labor of each slave, and the government agreed to provide the slaves one meal each day.

Mrs. Alethia Browning Tanner
Early economic hopes for the southeast section of the city ran aground when tobacco farming fell off, the planned canal through the city failed to be funded by Congress, and overfishing depleted the Anacostia river. Planters and speculators began to subdivide and sell off their land holdings. Planters sold slaves further south, or hired them out to nearby small landowners. A number of slaves were able to hire out their own labor and managed to save enough money to purchase their freedom; slaves kept small private garden plots and sold the produce in the D.C., Georgetown, and Alexandria marketplaces, and they hired out their labor on nearby farms or in construction projects. Tobias Henson, a slave in the Anacostia area, purchased his freedom in 1813. Through the 1820s and '30s, Henson bought twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren. Henson added to his landholdings and by the 1870s his family was the principal landholder in the black community of Stantontown; they remained on the land until the 1940s, when the federal government condemned the community to build the Frederick Douglass public housing project. Another Anacostia slave, Alethia Browning Tanner, was able to purchase her freedom in 1810, paying almost a thousand dollars over the market value for a female slave; in the following decades she manumitted thirteen other family members.

Although manumission became increasingly difficult elsewhere in the area, in Anacostia it remained possible thanks to the peculiar composition of the local government. Congress subdivided the federal territory into a number of smaller parcels: the city of Georgetown; the city of Alexandria; Washington City (the central part of the district); and Washington County, which included present-day Anacostia. Each area of the District followed the laws of its original state. In the case of Anacostia, this meant the laws of Maryland, whose manumission laws were substantially more flexible than those of Virginia. In addition, many free blacks elsewhere in the District moved to Anacostia because the Maryland court system was more liberal in its interpretation of the 1808 Black Codes, which regulated free blacks through curfews, employment limitations, and laws governing public conduct. Availability and affordability of land was another incentive.

The free black population in the District was a growing concern to whites living there. In 1820, Congress empowered the City Council to dictate the terms by which free blacks could reside in D.C. In addition to providing their titles to freedom, free blacks had to "enter into bonds with two freehold sureties, in the penalty of $500, conditional on his or her good conduct, that they will not become chargeable to the Corporation (or wards of the city) for the space of twelve months; the bond to be renewed every year for three years. On failure to do this, he or she must depart the city or be committed to the workhouse not exceeding twelve months in any one imprisonment." (3) It was understood that the two 'freehold sureties' would be white residents, often the former slaveowners.

By 1835, tensions between blacks and whites in the city were high. Nat Turner's Rebellion and continued abolitionist pressure on the federal government led to an 1835 Congressional gag rule on all antislavery literature in D.C. In the same year rioting erupted after Beverly Snow, a free black restaurant owner, allegedly insulted the wives and daughters of white Navy Yard mechanics. White mobs destroyed the homes of free blacks as well as their churches and schools; the worst damage occured in the central part of the city. Congress and its appointed local government enforced the Black Codes more strictly in the wake of the Snow Riot, revising the 1820 law so that free blacks had to "enter into bond with five freehold sureties in the penalty sum of one thousand dollars for their good behavior and self-support." (4)

East of the Anacostia River, antagonism towards blacks manifested itself in the creation of Uniontown, a working class whites-only settlement intended primarily to serve Navy Yard workers, with lots purchased for three-dollar monthly installments. John Van Hook, John Fox, and John Dobler, partners in the Union Land Association, bought up land at the intersection of Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road and laid out Uniontown in 1854. The contract clause forbidding "negroes, mulattoes, pigs, or soap boiling" had particular appeal for many white Navy Yard workers who feared the increasing numbers of free blacks in their neighborhoods and at their work. Uniontown embodied white working class resentment towards free blacks, but it existed in a heterogeneous space which also included wealthy slaveholders and their slaves, fairly prosperous working and middle class communities for free blacks in Stantontown and along Good Hope Road, and a sizeable German immigrant population of tenant farmers and small landowners.

Cedar Hill, the home built by John Van Hook and later owned by Frederick Douglass
In Uniontown absentee speculators bought up a good number of the lots. By the 1870s the Union Land Association had sold 672 of the 700 lots, but only 70 to 80 families actually lived there. The financial panic of 1873 and the slowdown in production at the Navy Yard during the 1870s spelled hard times for the founders of Uniontown. John Van Hook had built a sizeable home in the area but lost it in 1877 to Frederick Douglass, who broke the all-white covenant.

Following the Civil War, thousands of other blacks joined Douglass in D.C.; the black population of Washington tripled in a decade. The lives of the blacks who settled in Anacostia continued to be different, and in a number of ways more privileged, than many of the black communities in the central part of the city.

Making a Home: Reconstruction and Integration


1  Louise Hutchinson, _The Anacostia Story:  1608-1930_, 5.

2  Hutchinson 7.

3  Hutchinson 39.

4  Hutchinson 46.