The House of Slaves: In the Murky Basement of His Home in Washington's Affluent Georgetown District, Andrew Stephen Makes a Discovery That Leads Him to Some Terrible Truths about America, Past and Present
Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Flipping through some dusty files at my local library in Georgetown the other day, I made a horrifying discovery. I was looking up the deeds of my nearby house, which I already knew was built in 1795, and which is therefore--by American standards--almost literally a historic monument. Devoted readers, meanwhile, will recall my least favourite task in the house: crawling into a crude, darkly mysterious space beneath the basement to remove the bodies of huge rats when their stench becomes unbearable on hot summer days. Armed with a torch and crouching inside a crawl space where I cannot stand up straight, I would tread warily on the unmade surface of an old cesspit, and carefully peer in and around ancient brickwork and cavities that served, I vaguely assumed, some long-forgotten purpose.
But that day when I looked up the records all these mysteries became clear. The owner of the house in 1807 was one Thomas Turner, and the value of his belongings at the property was fully listed, viz:
2 negro men $300 1 ditto woman $150 4 ditto girls $150 2 horses $200 2 cows $30
Put simply, that day in the library, I discovered that the occupants of the crawl space under my house, before the rats, were slaves: fellow human beings, living in surreal degradation beneath a household in which more monetary value was put on the ownership of two horses and two cattle than the ownership of a black man, or woman, or four girls. The brickwork, I belatedly realised, was the remains of an old oven where the slaves cooked for Turner and his family; the cavities, barely more than two feet high, were probably where they slept. The discovery brought home to me (literally, this time) yet another reality of American history that says so much about the country today: this time, the roots of racial hatred and shame, and why their legacies persist well into the 21st century.
But somehow I could not leave it there. Who were these people? How did they come to be in my house? Why are there five all-black churches flourishing in Georgetown today but fewer than ten black inhabitants left in the current population of 4,800? We read so much about the fashionable four square miles that make up Georgetown and why they are so important in the nation's history; how Georgetown nestles on the Potomac that symbolically separates the historic south from the north; how successive presidents and congresses introduced unique legislation for such a tiny place because it was so personally important to them; how Abraham Lincoln went to church there; how John F Kennedy and his wife made it the chicest place on earth; and how even the likes of the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates in 2004 happened to live barely a block from each other in, naturally, Georgetown.
Yet we see or hear little of black people in Georgetown, save those who empty our dustbins or serve us, often surlily, in the drugstores. The only exception to this rule is on Sundays, when carfuls and busloads of well-dressed blacks pour into Georgetown to fill those five black churches. Walk past them on a Sunday morning and you hear the kind of gospel singing and choruses of "Yessir!" and "Right!" in response to the exhortations of the preacher that you expect to hear only in the Deep South, and certainly not in genteel, white Georgetown. Indeed, few inhabitants today know that black people once made up more than a third of Georgetown's population, or how a combination of consciously initiated legislative, social and economic pressures gradually forced them out so that Georgetown could become not only chic and expensive but exclusively white.
Lest we forget, neither blacks nor whites lived at all in Georgetown--then known as Tahoga--until British settlers went ashore there in 1696. …