Dialing Up the Drama of Lafayette Square; Tour Reveals Rich Black History

Article excerpt


Press your ear closely to the phone, and the voice on the other ends sounds nearly as strong and true as if it were a real diva singing to you, and not just some old recording.

Who knew you could dial up the past so easily?

You can, thanks to Decatur House's new tour, "Half Had Not Been Told to Me: The African American History of Lafayette Square," which makes use of new "guide by cell" technology to tell the story of the enslaved and free black people whose lives intersected at the square, just north of the White House.

The voice on the phone is part of that story: It is that of the celebrated opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti, who gave a triumphant recital at the Belasco Theater on Lafayette Square's east side in 1932 - just after New York's Metropolitan Opera House barred her from performing.

But the connections work on a number of different levels.

"When you read histories of Lafayette Square, you hear about Daniel Webster, Dolley Madison, and Stephen Decatur," says Carla Jones, assistant director at Decatur House, which started the project with the help of grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"But it turns out there was a large number of African Americans living here, working here and enslaved here. It is a chronology with a connection to a larger American history and allows us to tell a story that hasn't been told before."

Wealth and slavery

Long associated with power and wealth, Lafayette Square - named for the Marquis de Lafayette after his triumphant return to the United States in 1824 - has been home to some of the best-known names in American history, like Webster, statesman Henry Clay, and Decatur, the American naval hero who built the imposing mansion that still stands on the Square's northwest corner.

The square also has seen its share of tragic events, like the 1859 killing of Philip Barton Key by Congressman Daniel Sickles, the bloody assassination attempt in 1865 on Secretary of State William Seward and the 1885 suicide of Clover Adams, noted photographer and wife of writer Henry Adams, in her home at what is now the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Less well known is the role of black Americans in the life of the space. But their presence is here, from the preserved slave quarters behind Decatur House to the ghosts of the sheds that housed the slaves who built the White House, to the names of both enslaved and free people found in the marriage registers at St. John's Church.

Now, in the tour narration by Togo West, former secretary of the Army and of Veterans Affairs, with an introduction by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, their stories are told in a way that connects them to not just their owners but to the life of the square and the fight for respect beyond it.

"It shows how intertwined the lives of people were who were living on Lafayette Square," says Katherine Malone-France, director of Collections and Programs for Decatur House and the tour's project leader.

In fact, there's so much history here that even a cell phone tour can't deliver it all.

"There's no shortage of material," says Ms. Malone-France. "One of the advantages to using the cell phone technology is that you can go back and expand what you have."

Technology and history

To produce the tour, Decatur House uploaded its audio files to a system run by Guide by Cell, Inc., of San Francisco, which bills itself as the country's leading provider of cell-phone-based audio tours.

It's a service used by several cultural institutions around the country, and in Washington at various times by the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the U.S. National Arboretum - mostly as guides to specific exhibitions but in some cases as general tour guides. …