- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

As the nation marks Black History Month, historians and museum curators are reminding the world that blacks have been a part of the District since its earliest days.

Their history in the area predates the 1791 creation of the Federal District by Congress.

“There was always a sizable free black population in the District of Columbia,” said James Horton, the Benjamin Banneker professor of American studies and history at George Washington University.

Today, about 60 percent of the District’s 572,000 residents are black .

For decades after becoming the nation’s capital, slave markets flourished in the area known today as the Mall, particularly along what is now Independence Avenue. And by 1860, slaves represented much of the nation’s wealth.

“Greater than the dollar value of all of America’s banks, railroads and manufacturing put together,” said Mr. Horton.

Many of the 316 slaves living on the estate of President George Washington at the time of his death were trained as coopers, millers, blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers and distillers.

Washington personally took part in placing the south cornerstone of the “seat of government, at Jones Point,” eight miles north of Mount Vernon estate. But it was black surveyor, astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker who performed the calculations needed to position 39 other stones along a route measuring 10 miles on each side.

“Washington was dedicated to having high-quality craftsmen and workmanship,” said Stephanie Brown, a Mount Vernon spokeswoman.

Washington housed many slaves in “The House of Families,” a communal quarters that burned early in the 20th century but which has since been reconstructed.

Slaves and free black laborers and craftsmen helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol. Some of the neighborhoods they lived in were intricately involved in surreptitious escape plots. The Georgetown section had several “safe houses” used by conductors on the Underground Railroad.

The Victorian mansion where abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass lived during the last 18 years of his life is a national historical site. It sits on an 8-acre site overlooking the city from one of the highest points in the District east of the Anacostia River.

The National Park Service administers the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, where the National Council of Negro Women was founded. Bethune, who founded Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College, was a confidante of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Bethune believed in education being the key to freedom,” just like Douglass, said Bill Clark, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

The District is also home to the National Black Civil War Memorial. The 15-foot bronze statue features the images of black troops and sailors as well as so-called contraband slaves liberated by Union forces during the war. Stainless-steel plaques are inscribed with the names of 209,145 soldiers and 19,000 sailors who served with Union forces.

“Virtually every black family in the United States has a name on this wall,” said Frank Smith, executive director of the museum.

The home of Carter G. Woodson, the educator considered the “father” of Black History Month, is undergoing preservation nearby.

Cultural Tourism D.C. has worked with the D.C. government, the National Park Service and others to promote the African American Heritage Trail.

“There are more than 60 museums off the National Mall that people seldom find,” said Kathryn S. Smith, consulting historian on the project.

During the civil rights era and the Vietnam War, the Lincoln Memorial and surrounding Mall were the rallying points for Americans fighting for social justice.

The Lincoln Memorial was the site of opera singer Marian Anderson’s Easter concert, after she was barred from performing at DAR Constitution Hall.

“The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were just etched last year with the words from Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” said Victoria Isley, spokeswoman for the D.C. Convention and Tourism Council.

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