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.
Locations for Tour
Tour PostscriptA 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.