by Peter J. Albert
This what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
A 1923 listing of Black parishioners at Holy Trinity, compiled on the eve of their exodus from the parish, tallied over 350 adults, many of them belonging to families who had been with us for years. This article is part of our ongoing effort to retrieve, acknowledge, and preserve the memory of these African American parishioners.
(Pictured above: 1414 36th Street, NW, Washington, DC, the home of Martha Belt and her family in 1920.)
The Belt family, who lived at 1414 36th Street, a block from the church, were part of the parish for over 100 years. The names of some family members appear in civil records (and data from those sources is integrated into this article), but Holy Trinity’s sacramental records are our main source of information about the Belts.
The earliest members of the family mentioned in our records are John and Henrietta (Henny) Belt. The first U.S. Census to give their ages, in 1850, says he was born around 1790 and was working as a laborer, she was born about 1791. John lived into the 1850s and was a witness in 1851 at the wedding of his daughter Eliza Ann; Henny lived into the 1870s.
In 1816, when they first appear as parents in our baptismal records, John was enslaved to Tench Ringgold (Ringgold was U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia from 1818 to 1831; the 1820 U.S. Census shows 18 enslaved people in his household). Because Henny’s children were listed as free, she was probably free herself, since the children’s status followed their mother’s. In 1832 John was still noted in our baptismal records as enslaved, but to a different man, Dr. Peregrine Warfield of Georgetown (Warfield does not appear in the 1830 Census; the 1820 U.S. Census shows three enslaved people in his household). The 1832 baptismal record notes Henny as free, as does the 1830 U.S. Census. The 1850 U.S. Census notes both John and Henny Belt as free.
Over the course of two decades, 11 Belt children were baptized at Holy Trinity – Thomas and Mary in 1816, Ellen in 1818, Henrietta in 1820, Eliza Ann in 1822, Agatha in 1826, Elizabeth in 1827, Rosan in 1830, Ignatius in 1832, Teresa in 1834, and Martha in 1836. (1)
Of their son Thomas Belt, we know only that he stayed in Georgetown; the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses record him as free and as a laborer.
Their daughter Mary Belt was noted as free in our baptismal records; three of her children were baptized here – William Henry in 1835, Mary in 1836, and Mary Magdalen in 1838. Henny Belt was sponsor for all three. (2)
Their daughter Ellen Belt, also noted as free, married Richard Ford at Holy Trinity in 1835, with Henny Belt as witness. (3) Ford was enslaved to Enoch Moreland in 1835 and then, two years later, to a Mr. Moulding. (The 1830 U.S. Census shows one enslaved person in
Moreland’s household; Moulding does not appear in the census.) Six Ford children were baptized at Holy Trinity – William Henry in 1837, Richard in 1838, Henrietta in 1844, Agnes in 1849, Louis in 1851, and William in 1853. (4) Henny Belt sponsored all but the last. Ellen Belt Ford, but not her husband, appears in the 1860 U.S. Census along with her son Richard, working as a laborer, and a daughter, Martha.
Their daughter Henrietta Belt, noted as free, had at least two children baptized at Holy Trinity before she married – Anna Maria in 1837 and Martha in 1845. (Henny sponsored Anna Maria.) (5) In 1850 she married Benjamin Ross, who was free, at Holy Trinity, (6) and their family appears in the 1860 U.S. Census – Benjamin and Henrietta Ross, their children (Louisa, E. J., and Martha), Henrietta’s mother Henny, and Martha Belt, born to Henrietta before she married Ross.
Their daughter Eliza Ann Belt married Edward Dyer at Holy Trinity in 1851; Eliza’s father John Belt appeared as a witness at the ceremony. (7) They do not appear subsequently in our records.
Their daughters Agatha and Elizabeth Belt do not appear in Holy Trinity’s records after their baptisms; Rosan Belt is listed there as “dead.” Teresa Belt died at the age of six months and Martha Belt at 18 months; both are buried at Holy Rood Cemetery. (8)
Their son Ignatius Belt, who worked as a laborer, married Martha Ridgely at Holy Trinity in 1856; five of their six children appear in our baptismal records – Charles Alexander in 1862, Margaret Genevieve in 1867, Joseph Lorenzo in 1868, Ignatius Armstead in 1870, and William Henry in 1871. (9) Only Armstead and William survived into adulthood. Ignatius Belt
died in 1907, Armstead Belt in 1911, Martha Belt in 1920; all are buried at Holy Rood Cemetery. Armstead Belt’s sons Henry Sylvester (born 1895) and James Orville Leroy (born 1898) were both baptized at Holy Trinity. (10) Sylvester Belt served as a private in the Army in World War I and, when he died, in 1967, he was buried at Baltimore National Cemetery in Catonsville.
Sacramental records, then, enable us to piece together the outline of the Belt family’s history – their matriarch Henny Belt who was godmother to at least nine grandchildren, their struggle with the specter of enslavement as they walked from slavery into freedom, their grounding at Holy Trinity for baptisms, marriages, and burials, and above all their ongoing commitment to family. Let us remember them.
(Editor’s note: The Holy Trinity Church Records cited here are held in the Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.)
1 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1805-1834, pp. 62, 72, 15, 42, 117, 145, 177, 210, 246; Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1835-1858, p. 22.
2 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1835-1858, pp. 2, 37, 66.
3 Holy Trinity Church, Marriages, 1806-71, p. 40.
4 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1835-1858, pp. 40, 66, 168, 236, 261,
5 Ibid., pp. 51, 177. For documentation of Benjamin Ross’s certificate of freedom, registered in 1834, see District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861, ed. Dorothy S. Provine (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1996), p. 252.
6 Holy Trinity Church, Marriages, 1806-1871, p. 80 .
7 Ibid., p. 82 .
8 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1805-1834, p. 177; Holy Trinity Church, Deaths, 1818-67, p. 296.
9 Holy Trinity Church, Marriages, 1806-1871, p. 104; Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1858-71, pp. 112, 259, 293, 320; Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1871-80, p. 12.
10 Holy Trinity Church, Baptisms, 1889-1900, pp. 310, 411.