By Bernard A. Cook
In 1745, George Gordon established a tobacco inspection house on the Potomac near what is now the foot of Wisconsin Avenue. The site was chosen as the farthest point that ocean-going ships could navigate upriver before reaching the fall line of the Potomac. A community developed from this nucleus.
In 1751, the Legislature of Maryland authorized the organization of this community as the “Town of George.” The town was incorporated in 1789. The town grew fueled by the export trade in tobacco from the plantations and farms of Maryland. With the influx of new residents from Maryland came enslaved persons, and Georgetown became an important center for buying and selling enslaved persons. Around 1760, George Beattie set up a pen for enslaved persons on the 3200 block of O Street, on the corner of what is now Wisconsin Avenue.
African Americans, enslaved and free, constituted a large segment of the new town’s population. The 1800 census reported that of the 5,120 Georgetown residents 1,449 were enslaved and 227 were free Black residents. The free Black population of Georgetown grew significantly in the early nineteenth century. In 1820, there were 1,521 enslaved persons and 894 free Black persons in Georgetown. The free Black persons at that time constituted 12 percent of Georgetown’s population. (2) The census of 1830 listed 1,115 enslaved and 1,204 free Black persons in Georgetown. This growth in the free Black community can be attributed to slaveholders freeing enslaved persons and to enslaved persons, who were able to earn money on their own, purchasing their own freedom. (3)
When Trinity parish was established in 1787, Black persons, free and enslaved, formed a significant portion of the initial parish community. In the early nineteenth century when Irish and German Catholic immigrants were adding to the Catholic population of Washington and Georgetown, African Americans, dubbed by William W. Warner, “involuntary immigrants” had been brought to Georgetown by Catholic families, who moved to Georgetown from Maryland. Fr. Francis Neale, S.J., the founding pastor of Trinity parish, recorded 111 marriages and baptisms of African Americans at Trinity during the first ten years of the parish. During that same period, there were 254 marriages and baptisms of white parishioners.
As a result of these statistics, it is probable that one-third of Trinity’s early congregation consisted of enslaved or free African Americans. (4) The first marriage listed in the parish registry was celebrated on January 1, 1795. It was between David Thomas, an enslaved man, and an enslaved woman who was only listed as Phillis. Enslaved persons were listed as “property” and had to receive permission of their enslavers to marry. The Thomases were listed as the property of Elizabeth Doyle. (5) The second marriage registered in the parish, April 6, 1795, was also of an enslaved couple, Nancy and Benjamin. Nancy and Benjamin were owned by different slaveholders, and the register listed the assent of the two slaveholders. (6)
The first baptisms listed in the parish registry were celebrated in February 1795. The fourth child to be baptized that month, was an enslaved child, John, the son of Charles, also enslaved, the property of Martin Waring of Georgetown. Two other enslaved children were among the seven children to be christened that month: Anthony, the son of Catherine, an enslaved person, property of Dolly Barber, who lived near Georgetown, and Mary, whose parents, Nathanial and Maria were enslaved, property of Ignatius Smith, who also lived near Georgetown. (7)
A typed transcript of the original handwritten Baptisms and Marriages record beginning in 1795.
Many of the enslaved in Georgetown were allowed to hire themselves out. They often did skilled work and were paid for it. The hired-out enslaved person would live in quarters around Georgetown provided by the “owner.” Two small cottages at 3410 Volta Place were cottages for hired-out enslaved persons. The hired-out enslaved person would turn his earnings over to his “owner.” The “owner” would then return a portion to the enslaved. Those enslaved who were able to accumulate enough cash to purchase their freedom became part of Georgetown’s free Black community. Others gained freedom and free Black status in gratitude for faithful service or through wills. (8) In addition, Georgetown’s free Black population included descendants of Black indentured servants, the children of free Black persons, and individuals who had successfully escaped bondage. (9) Some of the first Africans to reach America were regarded as indentured servants with a fixed but limited term of service after which they, like surviving European indentured servants, would become free persons. (10)
The first free Black parishioner whose marriage was recorded in Trinity’s marriage register was Edward Butler. He married Bett, an enslaved woman, on May 2, 1797. Their marriage was witnessed by Susanna and Mary Sewall, and John Carbery. “Many others” attended the wedding. (11) The free status of Edward Butler, the first free African American to be married at Holy Trinity, and the rest of the Butler family was the result of a long legal struggle. Eleanor, known as Irish Nell, was a young indentured servant under an obligation of service to Charles Calvert, the Proprietary Governor of Maryland. Calvert apparently rented the services of Nell to Major William Boarman. At the Boarman estate Eleanor fell in love with Charles Butler, an enslaved man. Calvert tried to dissuade Eleanor. He reputedly told her, “What a pity that so likely young girl as you are should fling herself away so as to marry a Negro . . . you’ll make slaves of your children and their posterity.” (12)
In the short term his warning was correct. However, Eleanor was not the only white indentured servant who chose to marry an enslaved person. Aaron Wilkinson asserted, “Masters had begun encouraging their indentured servant women of European descent to marry their African slaves as a way to keep the whole family in bondage for life.” (13) A Maryland law of 1664 had explicitly repudiated the principle that the free status of a mother would bestow freedom upon her children. Eleanor and Charles were married in August 1681, in a public and well attended ceremony at the Boarman estate. A Catholic priest officiated.
The marriage took place one month before the Maryland Assembly passed a law that would have affirmed Eleanor’s freedom and that of any children whom she had with Charles. The law stated: “any such free-born English or white woman servant [who] would intermarry, or contract in matrimony with any slave…shall be, and is by this present act, absolutely discharged, manumitted, and made free.” Not only would the woman not lose her freedom as a result of marrying an enslaved person, but also “all children born of such free born women . . . shall be free as the women so married.” (14)
According to that law, Eleanor should not have lost her freedom, nor should any of her children have been enslaved. It was on the basis of that law that the descendants of Eleanor and Charles sought their freedom. At first the argument against their liberation was that their grandmother had married before the 1681 law was enacted and thus she and her descendants fell under the earlier 1664 law. Charles and Eleanor had six children, John (Jack), Sarah, Catherine (Kate), Elizabeth (Abigale, Abby), Moll, and Nan. The family was not reconciled to accept enslavement. John escaped across the Potomac to Virginia. There he avoided capture and earned enough money to purchase his freedom. Kate, who had four children, was also able through her industry to purchase her freedom. (15)
Eleanor’s great and great-great grandchildren waged a long, but eventually successful struggle to achieve their freedom on the basis of the 1681 law. William, a grandchild of Eleanor, and Pegg, a great grandchild, who were first cousins, married. Their children, Mary and William Lazarus, appealed for their freedom on the basis of the 1681 law. The case was filed on September 27, 1763, in Charles County. On September 11, 1770, the court declared them, “discharged and freed…from any further servitude.” However, in 1771 the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the judgment on the basis of the 1664 law. (16)
Nevertheless, the Butler family persisted and their tenacity was eventually successful. In 1771 The Butlers’ attorney, Jeremiah Townley Chase, renewed the Butlers’ appeal and persuaded the Maryland Court of Appeals to reverse its decision. The Court finally ended the long struggle of the Butlers. It affirmed their freedom. (17)
Black Catholics, free and enslaved, were a significant part of Trinity parish. They constituted approximately 30 percent of the parish from its founding until after the Civil War. Although white parishioners accepted Black Catholics, they were not integrated into parish life. From the time of Fr. Neale there was a gallery in the church for the African Americans, (18) and Black parishioners had to reach this segregated balcony by an outside staircase. (19) Even after the present church was completed in 1851, Black parishioners had to continue to use the old church. Although eventually allowed to worship in the new church, they were relegated at first to side galleries. When these were removed and an enlarged choir loft was extended across the back of the church, they had to sit in the balcony.
Only after the white parishioners had received Holy Communion could Black parishioners approach the Communion rail. (20) There seems to have been an exception in the March 1818 solemn First Communion celebration. Fr. John McElroy wrote that around 57 parishioners received Holy Communion for the first time that day. Among them were 35 white girls and one white woman, 13 white boys, 8 Black girls, and one Black man. McElroy wrote that the girls sat on one side of the church and the boys on the other. However, he wrote nothing about the consignment of the Black communicants to the balcony. Perhaps that happened but he did not mention it. (21)
When Fr. Joseph DeTheux, pastor of Trinity from 1818 to 1825, organized the first parish confraternity, the Confraternity of the Living Rosary, 130 Black parishioners joined constituting 34 percent of the confraternity’s members. However, the confraternity was segregated. There were separate membership lists and separate officers for the Black and white branches. (22)
There were numerous efforts to control Georgetown’s growing number of Black residents. A 1795 law forbade more than seven Black persons to congregate. The exception to this law was congregation for the purpose of religious services. In the 1830s, free Black persons were required to register and present on demand certificates verifying their free status. In 1848, a series of oppressive restrictions, the "Black Code Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown," were imposed. (23)
Two free African American women, members of the Butler family, Lucy and Liddy Butler — who had won their freedom after the protracted legal battle in 1771 — had a tremendous impact upon Trinity parish during its early years. (24) William Warner writes that they “did more to bring together a strongly committed Black Catholic community than the combined efforts of the church itself or the white laity.” (25) During the parish’s first quarter of century the two sisters served as godmothers to 65 of the Black children baptized in the parish.
The faith and zeal of Black Holy Trinity parishioners, despite the humiliating disdain to which they were subjected is admirable. (26) The apostolic zeal of Lucy and Liddy Butler was emulated by George and Patience Sibourne, both free African Americans, who served as godparents to thirty children, enslaved and free, from across the District and Montgomery County. According to Warner, the Sibournes were just as willing to sponsor enslaved children as free children, and did not hesitate to sponsor illegitimate children in their desire to bring them within the care of the church. (27)
Lucy Butler died on November 25, 1821, and was buried the next day (28) in the College Ground Cemetery. That burial ground, also known as the Trinity Burial Ground or the Old Burial Ground was established in 1818. It was located on Georgetown’s campus about 100 feet north of where Copley Hall stands today. Before burials there ended in 1833, approximately 1,000 parishioners of Holy Trinity and enslaved persons owned by the university were buried there. During the construction of Copley Hall the disused burial ground was uncovered. Human remains discovered at that time and in 1953, during further construction at the university, were reinterred at Holy Rood Cemetery or at Olivet Cemetery. Carlton Fletcher believes that 850 bodies were never removed and remain under Red Square and adjacent buildings. (29)
Liddy (Lidia) Butler, who died on January 28, 1834, at the age of 80, (30) was buried in Holy Rood Cemetery which had been established by Holy Trinity parish two years earlier in 1832. The records of Holy Trinity parish list 500 African Americans, free and enslaved, buried in Holy Rood. (31) However, Carlton Fletcher estimates that the actual number of African Americans buried in Holy Rood must be closer to 1000. (32) African American parishioners were buried in segregated sections of the cemetery. Among the African Americans buried in Holy Rood, there are at least two other Butlers. Nancy Butler was buried in 1834. Augustus Butler, the seven year-old son of Charles and Anna Butler, was buried there in 1834.
Bits and pieces of the lives of other African Americans, free and enslaved, who are buried in Holy Rood, are known. Among them are Siah Smith, 40, the cemetery’s grave digger, and his wife Lucinda, both of whom died in 1834. In November 1836, Lucinda Thompson, the 6-year-old daughter of John Thompson, an enslaved man, and his free Black wife, Catherine Chandler Thompson, died of burns suffered in her home. Another African American Holy Trinity parishioner suffered the same fate in 1871. Nelly Ridgely, who was in her 80s and lived near Holy Rood, suffered fatal burns in October 1871. Kerosene, which she had spilled on her dress, was ignited by the kitchen fire. She implored her neighbors to send for a priest. However, she died before Father Stonestreet, S.J., could arrive. She joined her husband Henry, who had been buried there in 1865. (33)
White and Black parishioners attended funerals of fellow parishioners of the other race. The extent to which white parishioners and Black parishioners mingled at the funerals is another issue. The Georgetown Courier reported that the funeral at Holy Trinity of Eliza E. Ridgeley, who died in May 1869, “was numerously attended by white and colored friends, who warmly esteemed her through life.” (34) Were the rules governing segregated seating in Holy Trinity’s church altered for the funerals of Black parishioners? John B. Smackum, who lived with his brother at 3624 P Street, died in 1899 at the age of 59. In addition to being a parishioner, he was a long-term employee of Georgetown University. In all probability white as well as Black parishioners attended his funeral and burial at Holy Rood. (35)
1. Article © 2020
2. Mary Beth Corrigan, “Enslaved and Free African-Americans in Early Nineteenth Century Georgetown,” Humanities Council, Sept.14, 2013.
3. William W. Warner, At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital 1787-1860 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994), p. 8.
4. Warner, p. 119.
5. Record of Marriages and Baptisms 1795 to 1805, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., 175. Georgetown University Archives. http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557003, accessed Aug. 25, 2018.
See Rev. Lawrence J. Kelly, S.J., History of Holy Trinity Parish Washington, D.C., 1795-1945, (Baltimore: John D. Lucas Printing Co, 1945), p. 19.
6. Record of Marriages and Baptisms 1795 to 1805, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., 175.
7. Record of Marriages and Baptisms 1795 to 1805, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., 175
The marriage register records marriages of free Black and enslaved persons as well as free Black couples. Edward Butler, a free Black married Bett, a slave, on May 2, 1797. http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557003.
8. Lesko, Kathleen, Valerie Babb, and Carroll R. Gibbs, Black Georgetown Remembered: A History of the Black Community from the Founding of “The Town of George” in 1751 to the Present Day, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991), p. 3.
10. Kat Eschner, “The Horrible Fate of John Casor, The First Black Man to be Declared Slave for Life in America: Black People in Early America Weren’t Slaves. After This Lawsuit, They Could Be,” Kat Eschner, The Smithsonian Magazine, March 8, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/horrible-fate-john-casor-180962352/#TewjfFASFy7jWzhh.99 accessed November 29, 2020, and “History of Slavery in Virginia,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_Virginia
11. Record of Marriages and Baptisms 1795 to 1805, Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C., p. 175. Joseph Carbery, a Jesuit, managed the Jesuit estate St. Inigoes in Maryland. Thomas Carbery, a friend of the Jesuits, was mayor of Washington D.C., from 1822 to 1824, president of National Metropolitan Bank, and had an estate in what is now the Takoma neighborhood.
12. Wilkinson, Aaron, B., “Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes in English Colonial North America and the Early United States Republic,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2013, p. 135, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1hv4k2bc, accessed Aug. 15, 2020.
13. Ibid., p. 13.
14. Ibid., p. 13.
15. Ibid., p. 72. Kate’s children were Jack, Jenny, Ned, and Peg.
18. Warner, p. 92.
19. St. John's Episcopal Church at 33rd Street and O Street NW, which was founded in 1816, also had an exterior stairs built for Black parishioners. It is still there. Andrew Stephen, “Georgetown's Hidden History: First, it was a slave port. Later, it was a thriving center of black life. Today, it's a virtually all-white enclave. Why?,” Washington Post, Sunday, July 16, 2006; B01; and Mary Beth Corrigan, “Enslaved and Free African-Americans in Early Nineteenth Century Georgetown.”
20. Lesko, Babb, and Gibbs, Black Georgetown Remembered, p. 6. Holy Trinity Church, Washington D.C., Established 1790. Pamphlet published by the parish after 1963, pp. 2-5.
21. Father McElroy's diary : Jan. 1, 1813-Aug. 31, 1815 ; May 31, 1817-Jun. 21, 1818 ; Dec. 26, 1818-Dec. 18, 1821. Selected Papers of Rev. John McElroy, S.J., Georgetown University Library. Georgetown University Library, “Mass at Trinity Church,” Georgetown Slavery Archive, accessed Sept. 18, 2020, http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/30.
22. Warner, p. 116.
23. Stephen, “Georgetown's Hidden History.”
24. The Butler sisters, Liddy (Lydia) and Lucy, were great granddaughters of Eleanor, “Irish Nell,” the free White woman who had married Charles Butler, a slave owned by Major Boarman. Lydia petitioned for her freedom from James Carrico in 1790. Lucy petitioned for her freedom from Benedict Wheeler in May 1792. Both petitions were successful because the Butler sisters were able to prove that they were descendants of a White woman. “The Butler family from Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's, and St. Mary's Counties, Maryland, sued for their freedom between 1763-1828, claiming descent from a free woman named Eleanor Butler. Another Butler family, possibly related to this one, petitioned for freedom in Washington, D.C., and claimed that they were brought into the District from Maryland in violation of the Maryland importation law.” “O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C. Law & Family,” http://earlywashingtondc.org/families/butler, accessed Oct. 4, 2020.
25. Warner, p. 91.
26. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:21 condemned the divisiveness practiced by prosperous Christians in Corinth, who ate well at communal services, while their poor brothers and sisters went without.
27. Warner, pp. 91-92.
28. Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p. 10. DigitalGeorgetown,
Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557000, accessed Oct. 18, 2020.
29. Carlton Fletcher, "Burial Grounds of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C." Newsletter of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington, (July–September 2002). https://gloverparkhistory.com/cemeteries/holy-rood-cemetery/holy-rood-cemetery/; Carlton Fletcher “Glover Park History: Historical Sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights,”
https://gloverparkhistory.com/cemeteries/holy-rood-cemetery/holy-rood-cemetery,; Carlton Fletcher, “Slave Burials in Holy Rood Cemetery,” https://gloverparkhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/HRnorth-e1429382924461.png, , and “Holy Trinity Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Trinity_Catholic_Church_(Washington,_D.C.), accessed Oct. 18, 2020.
30. Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p. 57. Georgetown University Archives. http://hdl.handle.net/10822/557000 and https://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/98.
31. Holy Trinity Church Deaths, 1818-1867, p. 175.
32. Fletcher, “Glover Park History.”
33. Wesley E. Pippenger, The Georgetown Courier: Marriage and Death Notices, Georgetown, District of Columbia, November 18, 1865 to May 6, 1876, (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 1998), p. 64.
34. Ibid., p. 30.
35. Fletcher, “Glover Park History.”