By Reverend Ruth Hamilton

The public is invited to gather at the corner of 4th and I Streets Southwest (by Westminster Church) on Friday, April 15 at 6:00 p.m. to begin a “Remember the Pearl” memorial walk to The Wharf.  

On April 15, 1848, a total of 77 men, women, and children enslaved by prominent families in the District of Columbia made their way to the Southwest waterfront, where they boarded a schooner called “The Pearl” and began a heroic and historic bid for freedom. Though the coordinated effort failed, due mostly to bad weather on the Chesapeake, their burning desire for freedom still inspires and instructs today.

“This dramatic and important story deserves to be known by all who live in or visit the District,” said Southwest resident and director of Cultural Tourism DC Steve Shulman. 

This second annual season of commemoration in Southwest will include a colorful History Tent located by the market at 4th and M Streets SW. It will include 16 art panels to bring the Pearl story, its context, and other hidden histories to light. The Friday night commemorative walk will go down Pearl Street at The Wharf, which is named after this event, and by Hank’s Oyster Bar where there is a small plaque in the cobblestones. Chauntice Rodriguez, General Manager of Hank’s, is very excited about this story and finding ways to share it with her guests. Among other ideas, Hank’s and the Pearl Street Grille are hoping to feature a special drink in honor of the heroic passengers. The walk will conclude on the public pier near the flame with remarks and the presentation of a wreath made by the Southwest Sea Scouts of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. A flotilla of boats will symbolically head toward freedom.  

This major escape attempt and its aftermath contributed to the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC. Each year on April 16, DC marks Emancipation Day. This year, Emancipation Day events will include the first Southwest Freedom Fest from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Westminster Church (400 I Street SW).  The festival will feature an exhibit of esteemed artist Kristen Hayes-Campbell, a descendant of a Pearl family, the band and dance team of Richard Wright Public Charter High School and complimentary food and drink. Descendants are invited to come and share their stories, and organizations with a freedom focus, such as College Bound, will be welcomed to set up informational tables.

 “Like a pearl itself that begins with a grain of sand, this saga, started in pain, keeps growing into something beautiful and inspiring,” said Southwest resident and cultural anthropologist Dr. Sheila S. Walker. “That’s the experience of all who get to know this amazing story and why we want everyone to ‘Remember the Pearl.’” 

Among the long-range goals of this effort is to fulfill the vision of the late Lloyd D. Smith, founder of the Pearl Coalition, who planned to build a life-size replica of the Pearl schooner that could be docked on a District waterfront, taking passengers on informative tours and serving as an economic generator for the African-American community. Although this visionary leader died in 2005, his dream is alive.  Another goal is to see the establishment of a Southwest History Museum to tell all the marvelous and too often hidden histories of this vibrant, diverse neighborhood in the nation’s capital.

For more information, please visit https://westminsterdc.org/remember-the-pearl  and https://thepearlcoalition.org/

Reverend Ruth Hamilton is co-pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest.

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