By Dr. Sheila S. Walker
A harsh cold wind drifted through the evening, chilling a gathered procession of rememberers at the Southwest Duck Pond on April 15. The cold souls gathered in honor of the memory of 77 enslaved African Americans who daringly sought to escape from bondage 173 years earlier, in 1848. The discomfort was a reminder of the terror and utter lack of comfort that those embarking on the sailing schooner named The Pearl (at a place in Southwest now associated with the Spirit, the Odyssey, and The Wharf), experienced.
That Thursday’s stiff wind contrasted with winds desperately needed to fill sails to escape to freedom. For the Pearl, winds initially absent, later became treacherous. That the defenseless escapees were apprehended by an armed posse traveling on a steam-powered vessel points to structural inequalities foundational to U.S. society, and still prevalent today. Inequalities that a receptive public is beginning to see with clarity given the many of events of 2020.
The name of the boat inspired The Pearl Group to plan a commemoration to contemplate what a pearl is and what it represents. It also became symbolic of our mission.
Pearls are hidden inside mollusks, like oysters – hidden like plotting the escape of enslaved African Americans by freed men and women and their White abolitionist allies. The story of this monumental event has been less justifiably hidden in a District history that trivializes it as The Pearl “Incident.”
Pearls begin as irritants in mollusk shells, around which the animal secretes layers of protection that harden into valuable commodities. Enslaved Africans, human beings who were bought and sold as merchandise, were the most valuable “commodities” commercialized in the Atlantic world – the misery of millions enriching very few.
Pearls, though, only become valuable when the mollusk shell is opened and the pearl brought to the light.
The goal of the April 15 “Remember the Pearl” commemoration was to bring the story to light for all who had forgotten or never heard it. The event began at Westminster Church with informative presentations by DC historian C.R. Gibbs and Dawne Young, a descendant of the Edmonson family prominent in the story of The Pearl (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqycikFk7Y0 ).
The assembly then walked in a procession to the Duck Pond, led by soloist Jonathan Holley singing evocative spirituals such as Steal Away and Wade in the Water. In an environment illuminated by 77 luminarias, Lavonda Broadnax and Marcia Cole of FREED, Female Re-Enactors of Distinction, in period dress, read poems, and those assembled called out the seventy-seven names of heroic men, women, and children.
In an April 9 opinion in The Washington Post, Colbert I. King referred respectfully to the “anniversary of one of the most courageous acts in antebellum America that most Americans have never heard of.” Learning that information is readily available of this event leads one to speculate about how so much could have been so easily forgotten, hidden, excluded from the story of the nation’s capital.
Gillian Brockell’s April 16 Washington Post article about the commemorative event included a link to an extensive 2002 Washington Post Magazine article by Mary Kay Ricks, author of a book about The Pearl, that provided a wealth of information.
A linked Smithsonian Magazine article vividly described the unforgettable image of a “coffle” of hundreds of enslaved and shackled African American men, women, and children assembled at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria. It was the headquarters of notorious dealers in human lives, Franklin & Armfield, where African American slaves were marched more than a thousand miles into brutal deep south slavery. Being “sold down the river” was the fate of most of the passengers on The Pearl.
Perhaps the DC government might be persuaded to discuss in its future April 16 Emancipation Day celebrations the paradoxical fact that such a celebrated “emancipation” from slavery, proclaimed by President Lincoln, was predicated on the “compensation” of former enslavers for being deprived of the human property whose uncompensated labor was the basis of their wealth.
Ironically, April 16 is also the anniversary of the day The Pearl escapees were apprehended. Celebrating the initiative and bravery of enslaved people, who risked everything to secure their freedom 14 years before DC’s emancipation proclamation, is tarnished by the fact that the “emancipation” of the enslaved further enriched their former enslavers.
These injustices persist. For example, the great Lloyd D. Smith, a city leader and part of the Wharf development before his death in 2004, started the Pearl Coalition – a black-owned economic justice and history project with a working replica of The Pearl at the Wharf – which has yet to come to fruition. We think it is still a marvelous vision.
The Pearl Group began small due to COVID, but has quickly grown with many who want to give this monumental act of human courage its rightful place in the story of the District, and in the minds and hearts of its inhabitants. The group intends to create annual commemorations of the valiant effort and to encourage schools to include the event in educating pupils about the history of the nation’s capital.
This year, Pearl Group member Georgine Wallace, of the Friends of the Library, delivered the children’s book about The Pearl to every school in ANC6D.
Please consider joining in this important work. Contact Rev. Ruth Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.