This cross-gabled Queen Anne frame house at 1256 Kearny Street was built for prosperous Irish immigrant James T. and Hannah Ward. The house was probably completed in 1893, and the couple remained there until selling the property in 1918 to bookkeeper William E. and Mary Berres Gordon. The next occupants, from 1922 to 1937, were an African American couple, Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885-1937) and Mary Powell Burrill (1881-1946).
The women met a decade earlier, when both were teaching high school English. In 1918, they moved in together, establishing a domestic partnership that would continue until Slowe’s death. Mary Burrill had been one of the first African American graduates of Emerson University and then taught at Armstrong Manual High School in DC. For four years, she directed the Washington Conservatory of Music’s School of Expression, where she taught elocution, public speaking, and drama. She did most of her teaching career at her alma mater, the M Street School (which became Dunbar High School), until her retirement in 1944. There, she taught English, history, speech and drama, and directed plays and musical productions, influencing generations of young minds, several of whom became educators and writers. On her own time, she was a playwright, publishing two one-act plays, and she regularly attended Georgia Douglass Johnson’s “S Street Salon,” a weekly gathering of black writers.
Likewise, Lucy Slowe’s career is one of remarkable achievement. She was second in her class at the Baltimore Colored High School, and its first female graduate to enroll at Howard University, where she graduated as valedictorian. While at Howard, she was one of the nine founding members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first sorority for African American women. Slowe began teaching English at her alma mater, the Baltimore Colored High School, and during summers earned her Master of Arts at Columbia University. After obtaining the degree, she moved to Washington to teach at Armstrong. Impressed with her abilities, the school board tasked her with planning the DC’s first junior high school for African Americans in Shaw. She served as its principal. In 1922, Slowe accepted the position of Dean of Women at Howard University, the first African American woman to hold such an office and teaching simultaneously. Broadening her view beyond Howard, she founded and served as president of the National Association of University Women, then established the Association of Advisors to Women in Colored Schools and the Association of Deans of Women and Advisors to Girls in Negro Schools, and finally, assisted civic leader Mary McLeod Bethune in the creation of the National Council of Negro Women, where she served as the secretary. She was also active in the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Over the fifteen years of their occupancy on Kearny Street, Lucy Slowe and Mary Burrill hosted parties and intellectual gatherings attended by female Howard students and prominent writers and artists, including Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson. According to Robert Malesky, “That Kearny Street home became a refuge for Howard’s female students, and Slowe regularly hosted get-togethers there to talk, counsel and encourage her young charges, often meeting beneath the trees in her back yard or gathered around an open fire in the living room. The women also received many other guests there, mostly educators such as Mary McLeod Bethune, but also politicians and activists from around the country.” Yet Slowe’s and Burrill’s relationship was a private matter, not a prominent one. Although their prominence was not for being out-spoken members of the LGBTQ community, their relationship adds to our understanding and appreciation of these twentieth century educators.
DC Inventory: April 30, 2020
National Register: October 5, 2020