Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820), the famed naval war hero, has been described as “one of the most awe-inspiring officers of the entire Age of Fighting Sail.” After retiring from service on the Seven Seas, he settled in Washington and built a three-story, neo-classical home (designed by Benjamin Latrobe) just north of the White House.
The brick beauty, one of the oldest homes in the District and protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now houses the National Center for White House History. As part of their occasional public programs, and to honor Black History Month, the organization swung open their doors yesterday for a “History and Heritage” event. The day long affair featured genealogy presentations and self-guided tours of the house. The Slave Quarters are a rare example of such a place in an urban area.
These are the moments future historians will study. They will want to know -- What kind of events took place during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War? How did we try and reconcile what now seems like a great big chasm between early American greatness and the immoral and prolonged institution of enslaving humans? Did we realize that African-Americans constantly fought back against “the peculiar institution,” including court cases? Did we know just how financially rich some slave owners and traders were? Did we learn about free blacks and their great success stories?
The Open House at the Decatur House asked and helped answer some of those questions.
After Decatur was mortally wounded in a duel in Bladensburg in 1824, his widow moved to Georgetown. The home would see a host of future residents, including Secretaries of State, a Vice President, a Senator, and diplomats.
While he resided there, Secretary of State Henry Clay owned Charlotte Dupuy and employed her at the home on the edge of Lafayette Park. Basing her claim on a promise of freedom by her previous owner, Dupuy sued Clay. The court ruled against her and she was then imprisoned in Alexandria. Clay sent her to New Orleans and eventually freed her.
Another Alexandria connection took place when famed tavern keeper John Gadsby owned the corner property. Expanding his empire, he remodeled the Franklin House and established a tavern there at 19th and I Streets. He also opened up the National Hotel at Pennsylvania and 6th street. Weary travelers came from far and wide to experience his first-class service and storied reputation.
Gadsby built a servants wing at Decatur House. As the White House Historical Association notes:
This fairly large servants' wing, in addition to a prime location with social and political accoutrements, must have made Decatur House very appealing to John Gadsby. However, it may not have been as appealing to the 15 to 21 enslaved people who lived there at least part of the time.
To me, the slave quarters, recently preserved, was the most moving part of the Open House. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe places like this can haunt the spirit. In this small space, two-dozen slaves lived and laid down their head at night.
Recently, I heard someone say the plight of house servants in the antebellum period was better than those toiling under a hot summer sun in the cotton fields of the Deep South. Fair point. We must also realize, however, that all enslaved humans, especially those in the upper South when the monetary value of a slave was on the rise, lived in fear of being torn away from their families and sent to auction houses in New Orleans and elsewhere. Shrieks and cries were said to be heard coming from the Decatur House, an indication of what must have been a wretched scene. (Note: Decatur did not own slaves).
Another enjoyable facet of the Open House was meeting descendants of African American families who worked and lived at the Decatur House or nearby. Susan Cook, the Creative Director at Mixed Roots is a descendent of the famed architect Julian Francis Abele, as well as Alethia Browning Tanner. Cook hopes to film a documentary about Tanner. She was the aunt of John Francis Cook, a prominent educator and founder of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in the District.
What a great story it would be. Tanner, born in southern Maryland, sold vegetables near the White House to pay for her manumission in 1810. She then helped over a dozen family members. Tanner witnessed first hand the fear blacks in the District felt during the Snow Riots of 1835.
I also had the pleasure to speak briefly with Stephen E. Hammond, a genealogist and 7th generation Syphax family member. From an extensive family tree he put together and displayed at the event, Hammond pointed out Nancy and Margaret (her daughter) Syphax. Nancy, who worked at the Decatur House, is his third great grandmother. There is evidence to indicate Margaret may have been sold and shipped to New Orleans. Dedicated people like Hammond are working like detectives to try and piece together lost and compelling stories such as this one.
My good fortune continued when I spoke with Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. An independent scholar and lecturer, she authored the New York Times bestseller, “A Slave in the White House, Paul Jennings and the Madisons.” In her book she points out that it’s highly likely Jennings met and became acquainted with some of Gadsby’s staff at the Decatur House. Nancy Syphax worked there during that time.
This day of learning at the Decatur House reminded us our history is filled with stories of heroism we’ve come to know, and those we need to know more about. It starts by confronting our not-always-pleasant past and asking those tough questions.