On April 15 and 16, more than 250 people convened at Westminster Church to commemorate 175 years since the Pearl Escape. Courtesy of R.A. Dean
by Jackie L. Williams, Ph.D.
Commemorating 175 years since the Pearl Escape of 1848 has come to institutionalize the significance of this historic incident as a Washington DC, American, and global story. This account lives at the intersection of faith and freedom – then and now. A cornerstone of the Pearl Initiative, the mission is to give the escape of 77 enslaved men, women, and children on the Pearl schooner launched from the Washington, DC waterfront on April 15, 1848, its rightful place in the Africa diaspora and African American history. The aim of the Pearl Initiative is to showcase events and educational programs with a focus on “Remember the Pearl” and the valiant effort of its passengers to claim their freedom by remembering the past, cultivating the present, and envisioning the future to keep the story alive.
Past – From the Middle Passage to Slavery. The lineage of the 77 enslaved men, women, and children is a cascade of the Middle Passage that involved the slave trade from West and West Central Africa to the Americas. A part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Middle Passage resulted in the export of an estimate of between 11.9 million and 12.5 million West and West Central African people from their native lands between 1700 and 1810. The Transatlantic Slave Trade occurred between 1501 and 1867 with the first ship of enslaved Africans arriving in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 – the beginning of slavery in North America.
Taking a short walk on Southwest DC’s waterfront Wharf, there are three main historic markers that depict some aspects of the era of slavery in Washington, DC. The Notley Plantation of the late 1700’s marker is placed on the steps at the intersection of District Square and Wharf streets. A few walking steps toward the river on the District Pier is signage with a narrative about the Pearl Escape of 1848. From the pier to Wharf Street to Pearl Street is another Pearl Escape of 1848 historic marker placed in the cobblestone.
Present – From the Civil Rights Movement to Social Justice. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been enacted for the past 59 years, we continue to fight for freedom, human rights, equality, and civil rights. On April 15 and 16, 2023, more than 250 people convened at Westminster Church in Southwest DC to celebrate the stories of descendants, discuss research of historians/scholars, engage our beloved community in a dialogue about the Pearl event and performing artists celebrating through voice and dance.
Rena Marie Johnson, Marian Edmonson, Dawne Young, and Diane Young (Edmonson descendants) along with Melodee Quick and Earl Tucker (Bell descendants) shared their experiences about family history research. They discussed how they are connecting with relatives in other parts of the nation as a result of the “second middle passage” where those who were enslaved were separated from their families and “sold down the river.” The defining moment of the engaging conversation among these descendants is that they discovered that they are cousins – in that moment and time of the event.
Future – Where do we go from here? As the Pearl Initiative marches forward, we extend an invitation to Southwest DC residents and broader communities – local, national, and global – to the welcome table. At this table, we hear the voices of descendant communities. We hear our ancestor’s hush harbors and ring shouts. We hear the cry and seek freedom. Together, we chant “Remember the Pearl.”
For more information and volunteer opportunities contact: Vyllorya Evans at (202) 257-7619 or visit https://westminsterdc.org/remember-the-pearl.
The Pearl Initiative is made up of Southwest DC community residents initially assembled by Vyllorya Evans and Rev. Ruth Hamilton of Westminster Church to renew interest in the story of The Pearl and its powerful meaning for today. The group honors the long-standing work of The Pearl Coalition led by David Smith, grandson of founder Lloyd Smith. Community members of The Pearl Initiative include: Audrey Hinton, Vania Georgieva, Dr. Sheila S. Walker, Jean Shulman, Patricia Bishop, Jonathan Holley, Edwin B. Henderson, II, Georgine Wallace, Kenneth Ward, Dr. Jackie L. Williams, Rev. Brian Hamilton and Christopher Williams.