Capital City Slavery

Data recorded in 2020 determined that only 2% of 95,000 designated sites on the National Register of Historic Places focused on the African American experience. This percentage reflects a critical gap in historic preservation: sustained neglect of African American properties, particularly those associated with slavery. Very few sites on the National Register describe or identify histories of enslavement. Even famous examples of national register nomination sites, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon Plantation, omit historical information on practices of enslavement.

The solution to this persistent problem of neglect is located in the effort of individual organizations to promote research, education, and awareness of these unrecognized African American sites. Physical preserved space is necessary for continued communal healing through the commemoration of enslaved experience on preserved property. One attendee at a commemoration ceremony described the following:

“I was thankful for the act of remembrance and the ability to do so in a cultural way; in ways that my ancestors would have been punished for on many plantations… My chant to them on the altar was… “You are not forgotten. We remember you with praise and honor.”

This type of healing and cultural engagement requires the preservation and awareness of enslaved spaces—the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL) is committed to participating in this work. In 2022, DCPL’s Capital City Slavery Project documented over 50 sites of active enslavement in the District. Of these sites, research has currently been conducted on twenty-five locations.

The Capital City Slavery Project defines a site of “active enslavement” based on one or multiple of the following criteria:
a) The building or property functioned as a site of enslavement that employed, housed, or leased enslaved individuals.
b) The building was constructed through the use of enslaved laborers or the building materials were acquired through the efforts of enslaved laborers.
c) The building’s owner financed the construction or maintenance of the home through money from the practice, trade, or use of slavery.

This project from the D.C. Preservation League is intended to begin the work necessary to amend and update this documentation for sites of enslavement in Washington D.C. Developing a full, inclusive history is long-overdue at many historically landmarked sites. It is the hope of the D.C. Preservation League that this project will not only add to and equalize existing histories of established historic sites, but will also educate the D.C. community on the history of slavery that is physically built into the city. The domestic architecture of early D.C. reflected a social hierarchy of race and privilege that manifested in architectural paths still visible today. D.C.’s rural origins and slaveholding status resulted in a reliance on “architectural strategies closely associated with a plantation landscape.” Many of the first homes in D.C were designed with outbuildings (dairy, laundry, smokehouse, etc.), outdoor workspace, and living quarters for the enslaved.

While few of these outbuildings remain standing today, the legacy of enslavement remains evident in the structure, orientation, and inventories of historic landmarks in the District. In addition to the role of slavery in the design of homes, enslaved laborers contributed to the physical construction of numerous buildings in the city. Their labors and lived experiences need to be recognized and included in preservation documentation. This project begins a process of recognition within the D.C. preservation community of the significance and centrality of enslaved labor in the histories of the city’s preserved spaces.

Historians and preservationists alike are beginning to advocate for “amending” nominations that misrepresent the history of a place by erasing certain communities (such as enslaved persons). This can be achieved through updating nomination forms and including different forms of scholarship (such as oral histories) in the research process. Representing the full history of American spaces is essential in equalizing our history—the Capital City Slavery project takes the first step in this process.

The United States Capitol

The Capitol is both the seat of government and the symbol of the United States. It has been occupied continuously by Congress since 1800 (excepting one brief interruption), and until 1935 it housed the Supreme Court as well.The east and west fronts…

The White House

The White House is recognized around the world as the symbol of the presidency. It is associated with countless occasions of state, has housed the president’s staff and visiting dignitaries, and has served from its earliest years as a place for the…

Washington Monument

Though the eminent 19th-century American architect Robert Mills conceived the initial design for the Washington Monument, the structure also reflects the technical knowledge and aesthetic judgment of Thomas Lincoln Casey, the Army Corps engineer…

Tudor Place

Tudor Place is among the foremost Federal-era mansions in the nation, designed by William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. Construction of the house began circa 1794, was completed circa 1815, and was financed by an inheritance from the…

John Walker House (Isaac Owens House; Gannt-Williams House)

The John Walker House contributes significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia. The house has long been known as the Gannt-Williams House and its date of construction initially thought to be circa 1805, but…

Octagon House (John Tayloe House)

Funded by one of the newly created Federal City’s leading families, Octagon House was physically constructed with enslaved labor. Originally built between 1799 and 1800 as a town residence for Colonel John Tayloe of Mount Airy, Richmond County,…

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island is located at the fall line in the Potomac River, where the rocky Piedmont Plateau meets the sandy soils of the Coastal Plain. The river flows to either side of the island in two channels. The narrower channel on the west or…

Quality Hill

Originally constructed around 1797, the Quality Hill home was built with Flemish bond brick, then painted grey. The freestanding, rectangular home has a gabled slate roof, two chimneys, paneled doors, and a fanlight over the entryway that evokes late…

Rhodes' Tavern (1799-1984)

Built in 1799 by Bennett Fenwick (ca.1765-1801)—and, most likely, his enslaved work force—Rhodes' Tavern opened as a tavern and inn in 1801 under the management of William Rhodes. In 1805, Rhodes sold the tavern to his future brother-in-law, Joseph…

Forrest-Marbury House

The Forrest-Marbury House is the District's only building whose documented history is intertwined with the founding of the national capital. It was in this house that George Washington dined with the District Commissioners and others on the day in…

Georgetown Market

The history of the Georgetown Market site dates back to the Revolutionary War period, when a butcher's market occupied part of the present property. This market was later replaced by the Georgetown debtor's jail, which was removed in 1795 to complete…

National Mall Historic District

The development of the National Mall Historic District reflects two seminal historic plans for the federal city: the plan designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791 and the 1901-1902 McMillan (Senate Park) Commission Plan. As such, the Mall…

Berleith Property: Capital City Slavery Tour

John Threlkeld held multiple political roles in the District’s early history, serving as Georgetown’s alderman and mayor in the 1790s. He also held multiple individuals in bondage throughout his lifetime. Estimates suggest that he owned approximately…

Aquia Creek Quarry: Capital City Slavery Tour

Originally owned by the first mayor of Washington D.C., Robert Brent, and located around 45 miles southwest of Capitol Hill in Northern Virginia, Aquia Creek Quarry played a significant role in the early development of Washington, D.C. Brent, an…

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…

Stephen Decatur House

Built in 1819, the Decatur House was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was at the height of his naval career when the house was constructed, and who, along with his wife, Susan Wheeler Decatur, wished to establish…

Georgetown Visitation Academy Historic District

Originally established as the Georgetown Academy for Young Ladies, the Georgetown Visitation Convent was the first Catholic girls’ school in America. It was established by religious women in 1799 and received the first American charter of the Order…

Arlington House: Capital City Slavery Tour

Constructed between 1808 and 1818 through the use of enslaved labor, Arlington House was built for George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of George and Martha Washington. Originally named Mount Washington, Custis renamed the property Arlington…

Healy Building (Georgetown University)

Named for Patrick Francis Healy, then the President of Georgetown University, Healy Hall began construction in November 1877 and was largely finished by 1879. Reverend Healy consulted with a number of prominent architects, but decided to select the…

Philip Fenwick Plantation Site: Capital City Slavery Tour

In 1855, Philip Fenwick is listed in assessment records as the owner of 145 acres in Northwest Washington and seven unidentified enslaved persons.[1] Maps indicate a variety of buildings on the former plantation site that may include the springhouse…

Peirce Mill

Built in 1829 by slaveholder Isaac Peirce, the Peirce Mill on Rock Creek ground corn, wheat, and rye until 1897, when its turbine's shaft finally broke. The mill was situated on a 960-acre plantation, where the Peirce family relied on enslaved people…

The Maples (William Mayne Duncanson House; Friendship House)

The Maples stands as the oldest building on Capitol Hill. Also referred to as the Friendship House, this traditional Late Georgian-style dwelling was built between 1795 and 1796 by William Mayne Duncanson, a prosperous merchant. Duncanson’s estate…

Benjamin Ogle Tayloe House

Built in 1828, this home served as Benjamin Ogle Tayloe's residence and a social, intellectual, and cultural center for the political elite. Described as a "salon" for scholarly discourse and a space for high-society gatherings, the Federal-style…

Kalorama Park and Archaeological Site

The three-acre Kalorama Park contains the Kalorama Playground Archaeological Site, also known as the John Little House. The site represents the remains of John Little’s home and farm and is the place from which Hortense Prout, an enslaved woman,…
A Brief Note on Language:

Words matter, and the linguistic choices of historians have immense impact. After reviewing various studies and theories on the capitalization of racial designations, the author of this study has chosen to capitalize both Black and White to highlight race as a historically constructed racial, social, and political identity. For further discussion of the current debates surrounding capitalization, please review Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Case for Capitalizing the B in Black,” available here. The use of “enslaved persons” in lieu of “slaves” re-centers the personhood of individuals who were enslaved without centering their entire identity into a “slave” category. The use of “slave” in this study is only applied when quoting sources verbatim.

The author has avoided use of the terminology “master” and “mistress” as to not reinforce the historical power of the terms. Using the terms slaveholder and enslaver refocuses the almost mystical power of the term “masters” into their legitimate source of power: slaveholding.

Special thanks to Zachary Burt for his detailed edits and review of this project.