The Wright Dancers from Richard Wright Public Charter High School for Journalism and and Media Arts performed April 14 at the Pearl Initiative’s annual remembrance ceremony. Courtesy of Barby Halstead-Worrell.

By Wilma Goldstein 

On Sunday, April 14, The Pearl Initiative held its fourth annual commemoration to “Remember the Pearl.”  The large gathering of residents from Southwest and beyond were welcomed by Westminster Presbyterian Church and Reverend Brian Hamilton.  

“This citizen’s initiative is critically important to remind our community and the world of the remarkable courage of 77 enslaved persons in DC who came to the 7th Street Landing on the evening of April 15,1848 to board a schooner named The Pearl headed to freedom in Philadelphia,” Hamilton explained. “It was the largest attempted escape of enslaved persons in U.S. history, and witnesses to the determination of people to be free.”

“That this happened right in our backyard leaves us the responsibility to tell the story to ourselves, our children, and the newcomers who claim Southwest as their home,” Hamilton continued. “This incident was the ‘George Floyd moment’ of its time, reinvigorating the abolitionist movement and fostering a more profound resistance to slavery in DC and across the U.S. The Pearl Initiative is an ongoing project to research, evaluate, and interpret this historic incident far too few people know. The dilemma of social and racial injustice is still before us and requires our response.”

Historian and Pearl Initiative Planning Committee member Dr. Marjorie Lightman opened the program by telling the story of the Pearl and introducing the video “The Story of the Pearl Incident.”  

In her remarks, Lightman focused on the relationship between resistance and freedom that has been part of every social movement that has brought about change. She also made the point that resistance is never an easy choice and full of consequence. She closed her remarks by noting that, despite great leaders and courageous followers, we still have a journey in order to rid ourselves of the vestiges of slavery.

Planning Committee member Dr. Jackie Williams introduced newly minted Ph.D., Dr. Chris Williams, who took participants on a virtual walk through  historical sites in DC, pointing out the history of many of our ancestors whose names are on historical plaques, schools, recreational centers, and churches. Names like Bowen, Bell, Edmondson, and Pope, with some connected to Pearl passengers. Many of these historical figures we now honor bought land when they first became free and either by building on it or selling it were able to expand their entrepreneurial efforts and contribute to societal change.

Artistic contributions to the remembrance event were provided by two captivating and moving performances by the Wright Dancers from Southwest’s Richard Wright Public Charter High School for Journalism and Media Arts under the leadership of Dance Theater teacher Summer Johnson. 

In her closing remarks, Pearl Initiative member and event coordinator Audrey Hinton said that she hoped guests would leave the program inspired, informed, and challenged to learn more about the Pearl Escape and its ongoing impact on today’s world. Reverend Hamilton concluded with hopes for keeping the story of the Pearl alive in our Southwest community’s narrative, amongst neighbors, in our school’s core curriculum, and with evermore robust conversations that help us be aware of the sacred ground we call home.

On April 14 at 6:00 p.m., a traditional “second line” processional to the Southwest waterfront from 4th Street and I Street was led by DC jazz masters Marshall Keys, Thad Wilson, Reginald Cyntje, Elijah Balbed, and Mark Prince. This was both sorrowful and celebratory, in tribute to the range of emotions the Pearl passengers may have felt. At the Wharf, Dr. Jackie Williams read the names of the Pearl passengers while libations and flowers were thrown in the water by Planning Committee member Vania Georgieva in tribute to these brave souls.  This experience was so moving it will surely be a feature of annual commemorations in years to come.

The escape on the Pearl happened 176 years ago on April 15, 1848, when the Pearl, a two-masted schooner, onboarded 77 enslaved persons including 63 adults and 14 children.  

From its dock at the 7th Street Landing, it made its risky attempt at escape, intending to get to the Chesapeake Bay by traveling first down the Potomac River and then sailing north to freedom.  At the mouth of the Potomac, the ship encountered inclement weather, forcing it to drop anchor.  On the morning of April 16,  an informant alerted slave catchers to their whereabouts and a steamer was quickly commandeered and set out in pursuit.  The Pearl was captured at anchor and hauled back to the dock where the two abolitionist pilots were jailed and the passengers were shackled and paraded through the streets to slave pens from which they were mostly “sold down the river” to much harsher conditions in the Deep South.  That was what historians refer to as the “Second Middle Passage.”  The event was the largest attempted escape by enslaved people in U.S. history.  

In 2020, a group of Southwest residents created The Pearl Initiative, adopting the slogan, “Remember the Pearl” and committing to give those 77 enslaved people their rightful place in history, as well as keeping their story alive.  

More information can be found by calling Westminster Church at 202-484-7700 or Pearl Initiative convener Audrey Hinton at 301-538-0989.

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