Of Slaves and Ships: Students Trace the Route of Pearl Escapees
By Buzz McClain
“If you look over there, you can see the Capitol building,” Mason historian Spencer R. Crew said, pointing to the right windows of the van. “And over here, to the left, there were slave pens. It’s pretty amazing to think there were slave pens this close to the Capitol.”
Crew, tall, lanky, and with an easy smile, guided the April afternoon tour that took 19 students, many of them history majors, to landmarks related to the ill-fated and decidedly short voyage of the Pearl, a three-masted schooner hired to secretly take 77 escaped slaves—men, women, and children—from Washington, D.C., to freedom in Pennsylvania in April 1848.
The story of the Pearl is vividly told in the riveting 2007 book Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad by Mary Kay Ricks, and as the subtitle reveals, the slaves never made it to Pennsylvania. In fact, they barely made it out of Washington before they were stopped by uncooperative winds and an armed posse in a steamer brought them back to the wharf. The ensuing violent mobs, death threats, and heated politics brought the slavery issue to a boil in Washington.
Few are more qualified to lead such a tour than Crew, a sought-after expert and author on the history of the Underground Railroad and abolition, whose remarks at each of the 11 stops put the adventure of the Pearl into sharp context for the students.
“When you think about being a historian, it’s good to get an idea of how we connect then with now,” said Crew, Mason’s Robinson Professor of American, African American, and Public History, from the front of the van as it made its first stop: the wharf on Washington’s Southwest Waterfront. At the dock, Crew pointed past the small private boats bobbing on the water and had the students imagine what it must have been like 164 years earlier as the slaves trekked across town to reach the ship.
“Imagine walking from Georgetown to here in the dark so you couldn’t be seen,” he said, trying to imagine it himself. The distance is nearly four miles, and after the tour several of the students commented on how their own voyage that afternoon put the scope of the slaves’ ordeal into perspective.
The van continued up Seventh Street, past the site where the returned slaves were held in pens and the ship’s captain was attacked with a knife by a bystander. The van then crossed the National Mall where the Edmonson sisters, Mary and Emily, and four brothers walked on their way to the Pearl from their home—and back, as it happened, not much later. The tour also stopped near the Verizon Center where the editor of the abolitionist newspaper New Era was confronted and threatened by raging mobs and the Asbury United Methodist Church where the Edmonsons worshipped and money was raised to buy their freedom.
The van parked in Georgetown, and the students followed Crew along the vintage brick sidewalk to Mt. Zion Methodist Church where they read the plaque describing it as “the first Methodist church for blacks.” On the corner, they gazed at a blue house at 29th and O streets once owned by Alfred Pope, a Pearl fugitive. It was blue then, and it remains blue, no doubt a contingency by the Georgetown history keepers.
The passengers grew animated with conversation as the van continued past the still-standing Dodge warehouse, now a Wisconsin Avenue retail complex (Francis Dodge Jr. had three escapees on the Pearl; it was his steamer that brought them back) and across the river toward Alexandria for the final stop on the tour.
The gaggle stood on Duke Street reading the historic marker that identified the building at 1315 as the offices of Franklin and Armfield, “one of the largest slave dealers in the country.” In the 1830s, thousands of slaves were transported from here each year to New Orleans, a dreadful destination in the Deep South. Surrounded today by ice cream shops and tee-shirt vendors, it was difficult to imagine the sight of shackled slaves shuffling to their auctions, but Crew did his best to remind the students of period conditions.
“See if you can figure out the irony of this building,” Crew said, giving the students a moment to study the marker and the façade. When no one spoke up, Crew was a little surprised. The giveaway was the bronze plaque identifying the current occupant, the Northern Virginia Urban League.
“It’s like a local version of the NAACP,” Crew explained. “Think about what the building stood for and how things have changed over time.”
Crew led the students around the block where they were stopped in their tracks by a sculpture, and a fitting finale to the tour: larger-than-life bronze images of Mary and Emily Edmonson, standing near a former slave pen (now a real estate office) where they were kept for sale. The sisters, who seem to emerge out of a jagged boulder, gaze defiantly down the street that ends at the African American Heritage Park. Only a small plaque at the base notes who the subjects are.
“Wow, look at this,” one of the students said from behind the rock.
“You can hardly see it,” said another as she rubbed the bronze. It was a small etching of a three-masted schooner, and two feet below it, the word Pearl.
If this was an artistic exercise in memorial restraint, Crew wasn’t impressed. “It definitely should be bigger,” he said. “Maybe next year that will be our project, to design a better memorial for the Pearl.”
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