Keyes Port of Washington: Capital City Slavery Tour

The Keyes Port of Washington, also known as the Georgetown Port, lies at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and K Street NW where the river once met the road—and constituted one of the final stops for imprisoned Africans entering the American slavery system. Taken forcefully from Africa and transported in horrendously cramped, unsanitary, and unsafe conditions, kidnapped Africans suffered for weeks on the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean in what is termed “the Middle Passage.” Diagrams of slave ships document the intensely restricted movement of individual persons who were often layered nearly on top of one another, or shoved into tight spaces with little to no air circulation. High levels of nausea coupled with a lack of adequate food and water often resulted in a veritable swamp of human waste that in certain cases could be ankle deep when mixed with sea water. High risks of disease and dysentery occasionally led to ship-wide epidemics. Reports indicate that some individuals suffocated to death, went “mad” from the tight space, or jumped overboard to escape the conditions of the ship.[1]

One of the most infamous histories of disease and human suffering involves a mass killing onboard the Zong, a British slave ship whose captain threw 132 sick individuals overboard after an epidemic ravaged the crew—this decision was spurred by his desire to claim insurance money on the journey after losing over 50 Africans and 17 crew members to the disease.[2] Additional research indicates that kidnapped Africans were also force fed if they refused to eat, and many were subjected to sexual and physical abuse.[3] However, it should be noted that one out of ten slave ships experienced some form of uprising, resistance, or rebellion. Kidnapped Africans often looked for opportunities to escape from bondage, take control of the ship, or resist abuse—in certain cases, they were successful.[4]

The Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project states the following regarding Georgetown’s Port (Keyes Port of Washington): “In 1732 the ships Liverpool Merchant​ (carrying 187 Africans) and ​William & Betty ​(carrying 164 Africans) came from Gambia, but disembarked only 65 and 89 Africans, respectively at the Port of Georgetown. In 1736 the ​George​ and ​Prince William​ docked. The ​George​ carried 271 which embarked from an unknown country in Africa. All disembarked at Port of Georgetown. The ​Prince William​ sailed from Gambia with 194 and only 52 disembarked. The ​George​ returned in 1740 from Calabar and all 217 carried disembarked. The ​Sarah​ sailed from St. Louis in 1760 with 98 human beings destined for enslavement.  Many went to Virginia and 7 came to the Port of Georgetown. 

And in 1761 the ​Upton​ transported 168 Africans from Gambia with 107 bound for the Port of Washington. There were 31 confirmed deaths and 107 disembarked. The discrepancies in numbers might be accounted for by the ship sailing to other ports prior to sailing to Port of Georgetown where they left their human cargo, the numbers cannot be verified, or unsubstantiated deaths.”

Once enslaved persons reached the port, they were often held in slave pens and slave depots before sale. Georgetown and Alexandria had multiple holding pens for enslaved Africans available once the ship docked.[5] It should be noted that the above ships referenced fall into the category of the international slave trade (outlawed in 1808 by Great Britain and the United States)—other ships that may have carried enslaved persons and docked in Georgetown would have been American citizens selling enslaved individuals to their countrymen in what is called the domestic slave trade.

Historic Preservation Status: While the long-gone Keyes Port is not a preserved historical site in the same sense as a physical building, the geographical site has been part of the Georgetown Waterfront National Park since 2011. It is unclear if any official NPS interpretation of the site’s history of enslavement has been developed; however, multiple organizations have worked to increase the visibility of this history on the waterfront, including the Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project & Tour, in addition to the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project.


[1] For further information on the horrifying conditions of the Middle Passage, see Stephanie E. Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008) and Sowande’ M. Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016).
[2]The Zong Massacre (1781)” contributed by Ian Bernard on October 11, 2011; accessed March 2022.
[3]The Middle Passage,” published by National Museums Liverpool.
[4]History and Memory: The Middle Passage,” published by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, accessed March 2022.
[5] In this study, see the entry for Georgetown Market on page 27.



Historically located at what is now the Georgetown Waterfront Park.