This cross-gabled Queen Anne frame house at 1256 Kearny Street NE was built for prosperous Irish immigrants 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 High 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 achievements. 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 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 15 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.”
When Slowe passed away in 1937, condolences were sent to Burrill. The Chair of the Howard University Board of Trustees wrote a letter, to which Burrill replied, “Howard University had in its midst in the person of Lucy D. Slowe a great woman but its President and Board of Trustees could not see it.” Burrill donated Slowe’s papers to Morgan State University, instead of Howard University. In 1966, Morgan State then donated them to Howard.
Just prior to her death, Slowe’s will listed Burrill as a joint tenant of the Kearny Street house (along with Slowe), and as the owner of most of the house’s furniture. About one month later, the will was amended, with Burrill now listed as a tenant in common, making her a shareholder (along with Slowe). When Slowe died in October 1937, Slowe’s share passed to Nellie Slowe Hawkes, her sister. In 1938, Hawkes transferred her half-ownership of the house to Burrill. In 1941, Burrill sold the house and in 1944 moved to New York City, where she passed away in 1946.
DC Inventory: April 30, 2020
National Register: October 5, 2020