by Jackie L. Williams, Ph.D.
The Pearl Initiative celebrates the 175th anniversary of the Pearl Escape on Saturday, April 15 from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 16, 2023 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at Westminster Church and the Southwest Waterfront at the Wharf in Washington, DC. This commemorative event engages the community to celebrate the historic escape to freedom from slavery of 77 African American men, women, and children from the Washington, DC waterfront on a wooden schooner called the Pearl. Underground Railroad historians and scholars distinguish the Pearl escape as the single largest escape by water of enslaved people in U.S. history.
Hear the voices of the ancestors through their descendants as they tell their stories of hopes and fears. As descendant communities, Southwest DC residents and the broader community place themselves in this history and walk in the footsteps of those who were enslaved from Westminster Church to the Southwest Waterfront Wharf to Pearl Street where a historic marker is placed in the cobblestone. This “Remember the Pearl” pilgrimage is a walking path to experience the presence of ancestral spirits through singing spirituals and freedom songs, chanting “remembering the Pearl,” and meditating.
Along this memorial walk, beginning at the corner of I Street and 4th Street SW to I Street and 7th Street SW, is the former site of the Notley Plantation of the late 1700’s where two hundred enslaved families resided. At I and 7th, pause and look toward the north – toward the National Mall’s former site of the slave pen at 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW. At this site, a historic marker tells the story of Solomon Northrup, the author of Twelve Years a Slave. As the walk continues toward the river, pass by the historic Riverside Baptist Church at 7th Street and Maine Avenue SW to Pearl Street on The Wharf. From Pearl Street, the walk ends at the river’s Recreation Pier. At the pier, pause for calling of the names – “say their names” and pouring of libations.
“Won’t you celebrate with the Westminster Church, Southwest community and beyond this historic moment and spiritual walk through one of Washington, DC’s most iconic communities,” said Reverand Brian Hamilton of Westminster. “This is one of the most important historical events to occur at the Southwest waterfront and by preserving this legacy we honor the struggle of enslaved people to find freedom then and now.”
Featured speaker Dr. Richard Bell has discussed the Pearl escape in the context of the domestic slave trade and enslaved people’s resistance. In his recent book Stolen, he tells the true story of five boys who were kidnapped in the North and smuggled into slavery in the Deep South, and their daring attempt to escape and bring their captors to justice. Dr. Bell is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and his B.A. from the University of Cambridge. His research interests focus on American history between 1750 and 1877. Bell is the recipient of more than a dozen teaching awards, including the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor for teaching faculty in the Maryland state system. He has held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress and is the recipient of the National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar award and the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. He serves as a Trustee of the Maryland Center for History and Culture and as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Also participating is Dr. Clarence Lusane, Professor of Political Science at Howard University and author of the recent book Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice and Democracy. Dr. Lusane lends his scholarly guidance to this citizen’s group committed to the preservation of this important history and its meaning for us today in our local community context.
The Pearl Initiative is made up of Southwest DC community residents initially assembled by Vyllorya Evans and Reverend Ruth Hamilton of Westminster Church to renew interest in the story of the 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 Group include: Audrey Hinton, Vania Georgieva, Dr. Shelia S. Walker, Jean Shulman, Patricia Bishop, Jonathan Holley, Ed Henderson, Georgine Wallace, Kenneth Ward, Dr. Jackie L. Williams, Rev. Brian Hamilton and Christopher Williams (Chief Curator). More information and updates can be found at rememberthepearl.org.