- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Press your ear closely to the phone, and the voice on the other ends sounds nearly as strong and true as if it were a real diva singing to you, and not just some old recording.Who knew you could dial up the past so easily?

You can, thanks to Decatur House’s new tour, “Half Had Not Been Told to Me: The African American History of Lafayette Square,” which makes use of new “guide by cell” technology to tell the story of the enslaved and free black people whose lives intersected at the square, just north of the White House.

The voice on the phone is part of that story: It is that of the celebrated opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti, who gave a triumphant recital at the Belasco Theater on Lafayette Square’s east side in 1932 — just after New York’s Metropolitan Opera House barred her from performing.

But the connections work on a number of different levels.

“When you read histories of Lafayette Square, you hear about Daniel Webster, Dolley Madison, and Stephen Decatur,” says Carla Jones, assistant director at Decatur House, which started the project with the help of grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“But it turns out there was a large number of African Americans living here, working here and enslaved here. It is a chronology with a connection to a larger American history and allows us to tell a story that hasn’t been told before.”

Wealth and slavery

Long associated with power and wealth, Lafayette Square — named for the Marquis de Lafayette after his triumphant return to the United States in 1824 — has been home to some of the best-known names in American history, like Webster, statesman Henry Clay, and Decatur, the American naval hero who built the imposing mansion that still stands on the Square’s northwest corner.

The square also has seen its share of tragic events, like the 1859 killing of Philip Barton Key by Congressman Daniel Sickles, the bloody assassination attempt in 1865 on Secretary of State William Seward and the 1885 suicide of Clover Adams, noted photographer and wife of writer Henry Adams, in her home at what is now the Hay-Adams Hotel.

Less well known is the role of black Americans in the life of the space. But their presence is here, from the preserved slave quarters behind Decatur House to the ghosts of the sheds that housed the slaves who built the White House, to the names of both enslaved and free people found in the marriage registers at St. John’s Church.

Now, in the tour narration by Togo West, former secretary of the Army and of Veterans Affairs, with an introduction by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, their stories are told in a way that connects them to not just their owners but to the life of the square and the fight for respect beyond it.

“It shows how intertwined the lives of people were who were living on Lafayette Square,” says Katherine Malone-France, director of Collections and Programs for Decatur House and the tour’s project leader.

In fact, there’s so much history here that even a cell phone tour can’t deliver it all.

“There’s no shortage of material,” says Ms. Malone-France. “One of the advantages to using the cell phone technology is that you can go back and expand what you have.”

Technology and history

To produce the tour, Decatur House uploaded its audio files to a system run by Guide by Cell, Inc., of San Francisco, which bills itself as the country’s leading provider of cell-phone-based audio tours.

It’s a service used by several cultural institutions around the country, and in Washington at various times by the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the U.S. National Arboretum — mostly as guides to specific exhibitions but in some cases as general tour guides.

Visitors dial the narration by simply calling a number and following the prompts — and, in the case of the Lafayette Square tour, punching up the numbers keyed to a map of the area they’ve picked up at Decatur House.

Web-based statistics allow tour organizers to track how many dial-ups occur for each site as well as the length of the connection.

Thus, Ms. Malone-France need only log in to find that in the first 12 days since the tour began on April 14, they had 200 calls, and that the callers listened to an average of 3.2 prompts.

That is, not everyone calls for the entire tour, which runs between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on whether a listener punches up subsidiary material — such as Madame Evanti’s rendition of “Estrellita,” a widely loved serenade written by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce in 1912.

Tour takers average six to eight minutes of listening, not bad considering that the tour does use a caller’s minutes.

So, if you’re not interested in the story of the Freedmen’s Bank at Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place Northwest, the late-19th-century institution that boasted 72,000 depositors before it failed in 1874, you don’t have to listen. Don’t really care about the Andrew Jackson statue at the center of the square? Skip it.

But it’s hard to pass up anything, given that what’s on the tour is both poignant and provocative.

A crimped career

Take Madame Evanti’s story, for instance. Part of it is told on the Belasco Theater prompt, No. 107 on the tour; her voice, recorded in 1942, can be heard at prompt No. 108.

Born Annie Lillian Evans in 1890, Madame Evanti was a native Washingtonian whose family home still stands at 1910 Vermont Ave. NW. She was well-connected, too, and first made a name for herself at the age of 4 by singing on a table at Friendship, the then-suburban estate of Edward and Evalyn Walsh McLean, writes Eric Ledell Smith in “Lillian Evanti: Washington’s African American Diva,” in the spring-summer 1999 issue of Washington History.

By the 1920s Lillian Evanti, as she by then was billed, was acclaimed in opera houses throughout Europe, but she was never able to realize her dream of singing at the Metropolitan Opera — where the color bar stayed put until 1955, when the Met welcomed Marian Anderson.

“I was a few years too soon,” said Madame Evanti, who also achieved a measure of fame as a composer.

At least there was the Belasco, which Mr. Fenty in his tour introduction points out was “one of the few venues in segregated Washington where black entertainers were allowed to perform before desegregated audiences.”

The theater — built on the former site of the 1831 home of Navy Commodore John Rodgers, one of whose slaves is listed in the marriage register of St. John’s Church — occupied part of the east side of Madison Place until it was razed for the Court of Claims building in 1964.

It boasted six stories and 1,800 seats and was the site of the first dramatic performance by a black American in an American tragedy, when actor Charles Gilpin took on the role of Emperor Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name in 1921.

Two years after Madame Evanti’s triumphant recital at the Belasco, she was invited by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House, marking the first time a black American opera singer had done so since 1882, Mr. Smith writes.

But by the time the broader culture caught up with her, it was too late. Madame Evanti died in 1967.

A great escape

Other dreams were shattered in April 1848, when 77 enslaved men, women and children, in the largest attempted mass escape in U.S. history, tried to flee Washington aboard the sloop Pearl, moored south of the Seventh Street wharf.

The story is one of intrigue, betrayal, redemption and loss — and through their slaves two old homes on Lafayette Square share a connection: Dolley Madison’s on the corner of H Street and Madison Place (prompt No.110) and Daniel Webster’s at the corner of H Street and Connecticut Avenue (prompt No. 114).

Begin with Paul Jennings, a slave to President James Madison who worked for him in the White House from 1809 to 1817 and in 1865 wrote “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.”

When the fourth president died at Montpelier in 1836, his newly impoverished widow sold most of their property and most of their 108 slaves. She moved back to Washington, bringing with her Jennings, whom she later sold and who was bought in 1847 by Daniel Webster for $120 and an arrangement whereby Jennings could buy his freedom for $8 a month.

Jennings, according to John H. Paynter’s 1930 narrative “Fugitives of the Pearl,” helped plan the great escape and spread the word about it to the city’s black community — yet at the last minute decided not to go.

Dreams betrayed

One who did make it to the Pearl was young Mary Ellen Stewart, another slave Mrs. Madison had brought with her to Washington and wanted to sell because of her desperate need for money.

“She was selling off her slaves one by one,” says Mary Kay Ricks, author of a new book about the incident, “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad.”

“And she made an arrangement for two slave traders to be at the water pump at Lafayette Square to seize Mary Ellen when she went for water.”

Instead, Stewart evaded the would-be kidnappers and made her way to the Pearl.

Once onboard, she and the other escapees settled down to what they hoped would be a short run to Philadelphia and freedom. But their plans were betrayed. A posse of angry slaveholders set out almost immediately, and the Pearl ran aground near Point Lookout. And then the wind dropped.

Stewart was brought back to Washington along with the others and was forced to walk a gantlet up Seventh Street from the wharf, which was lined with jeering crowds.

Just about all of them were sold and sent South. Later, a few were “redeemed” with funds raised by sympathetic whites, like the abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used some of the proceeds of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the purpose.

“It was a terrible decision to have to make, who to help and who to leave,” Ms. Ricks says. “They didn’t have the funds to save everyone.”

A lucky turn

Another “escape,” this one lucky, was that of William Clements, whose 20th-century story is told at prompt No. 119.

In 1918, Clements worked as a janitor for the Committee on Public Information on the northwest side of the square at what is now 712 Jackson Place, the home of the Truman Scholarship Foundation. The CPI was the World War I propaganda arm of the U.S. government, charged with stoking patriotic fervor.

On the morning of April 4, Clements arrived for work early and was confronted by James King, the night watchman. The two argued. King drew his weapon and fired repeatedly at Clements, but the gun jammed. Clements drew his own weapon and fired, killing King. He then fled the scene, throwing his pistol away in the square.

King was white; Clements was black. And in a time when the newspapers were filled with reports of lynchings and roving mobs in nearby Maryland and Virginia, it would seem that Clements had good reason to worry. But by the end of the evening, he turned himself in.

Luckily for Clements, there had been an eyewitness. She was Louvenia Mullen, described as a charwoman in local papers, and she lived 819 21st St. NW, in what was then a thriving black community in the West End and Foggy Bottom.

Other witnesses spoke of King’s aggressiveness toward other black employees. King had even written a note threatening to kill another black employee if he continued to come into work early.

Clements was acquitted at his trial, thanks in part to eyewitness testimony and the evidence of King’s weapon, which showed it had been fired four times.

But there may have been another factor in the acquittal — Clements’ connections.

“Clements’ wife cooked for Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician,” says Ms. Malone-France. “And before that, she had worked as a cook in the White House.”

Less than a year later, the city would explode in one of the worst race riots since the Snow Riot of 1835, with more than 150 casualties.

And Clements?

“We don’t yet know what happened to him,” says Ms. Malone-France. “It’s a story that’s still unfolding.”

Even now, the half has not been told.

What you’ll see along the tour

Interested in taking your own tour of Decatur House at 1610 H St. NW, or its cell-phone tour of Lafayette Square?First see Decatur House itself. The museum shop and exhibit gallery are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The exhibit galleries are self-guided. Admission is by donation. Call the main phone at 202/842-0920, the shop at 202/842-1856, or see decaturhouse.org. Guided tours of the house are conducted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. They depart every hour on the quarter hour and last 30 to 45 minutes.

For the cell-phone tour, pick up instructions and a map at the Decatur House shop.

The audio tour lasts about 45 minutes if you listen to every stop. It includes stories of black Americans at the White House, compensated emancipation in the District, the enslaved household of John Gadsby, proprietor of the National Hotel who operated a slave pen in the courtyard of Decatur House during his occupancy there, and many others.

For further reading, check out Eric Ledell Smith’s article on Madame Evanti in the spring/summer 1999 issue of Washington History. Meanwhile, Mary Kay Ricks’ just-published account of the Pearl affair, “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” is available from area booksellers and online stores. And James Goode’s venerable “Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings,” features many of the lost buildings of Lafayette Square, including the Belasco Theater. It is also available from area bookstores as well as online.

Here’s a guide to the tour stops:

101: Instructions

102: Introduction by D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty

103: Lafayette Square: An enslaved woman buys her freedom and changes the nation’s history.

104: Andrew Jackson Statue: A slave helps craft this statue and the Capitol’s statue of freedom.

105: The White House: From slavery to sit-ins.

106: Freedmen’s Savings Bank (today site of the Treasury Annex); $3 million vanishes without a trace.

107: Rodgers House/Belasco Theater (today Court of Claims entrance): A command performance by the first African American opera star.

108: Lillian Evanti recording

109: Tayloe House: Compensated emancipation, only in the District of Columbia.

110: Madison-Cutts House: A former slave shows charity toward an impoverished first lady.

111: St. John’s Church: Free and enslaved black Americans are married at the President’s Parish.

112: Weddings at St. John’s

113: The civil rights era

114: Daniel Webster’s House (today site of U.S. Chamber of Commerce): A slave plans a daring escape and has a change of heart.

115: Jennings’ letter

116: Gadsby slave quarters: Imagine 21 men, women, and children living in about 900 square feet.

117: Members of Gadsby’s enslaved household

118: Decatur House, Jackson Place Facade: Where Charlotte Dupuy takes a brave stand against slavery.

119: 712 Jackson Place (today site of the Truman Foundation): Murder or self-defense? Will justice be served on Jackson Place?

120: Ewell House (today site of 734-736 Jackson Place): Buying, selling and resisting.

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