Who Is My Neighbor? (Pt. I)

By Peter J. Albert


Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice? That is Heaven's part, our part To murmur name upon name . . . -W. B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916”


On March 4, 1923, James A. Smackum, Richard N. Carter and Aloysius Marshall met with Bishop Michael Curley, the prelate with jurisdiction over Washington, D.C., to propose creating a new parish in Georgetown for the African American members of the Holy Trinity community.


“We stated the object of our call briefly,” they wrote in their report of the meeting, “telling of the crowded condition at Holy Trinity, of our poor accomodations, of the small space asigned to us, 30 pews with a seating capacity of 120 out of 400 members, of the number of our people staying away from church on account of segregation and poor accomodations.” Bishop Curley, they said, “was very much in sympathy with our cause, he not only promised us a church but he wants us to have a school also, saying we can not expect our children to put up with what we have put up with.” (1)


At Bishop Curley’s request, the three men and Holy Trinity pastor Fr. Benedict Smith, S.J., compiled a list of the African American parishioners at Holy Trinity. It enumerated 352 adults; no children were listed. By the time Epiphany was founded a year or two later, some of those listed had died, but with the children added in, and adults who’d been overlooked or who had joined the new church, the congregation at Epiphany numbered some 600 in 1924, and 630 in 1925. (2)


Who were the African Americans who left Holy Trinity? Of the 352 adults on the church list, some 52% were female and 48% were male. Most — 325 (92%) — lived in Georgetown, with the rest living elsewhere in the city, or in Maryland or Virginia. Of those living in Georgetown, 187 (57%) lived east of Wisconsin Avenue and 138 (43%) lived to the west. (3)


Many of the them lived near Holy Trinity Church — for example, 12 families lived in the two blocks between the church and Visitation Convent, that is, up 36th Street and along P Street across from Visitation, and fifteen lived on two blocks just west of the church, that is, along N Street and down 37th Street.

House at 1420 36th Street, NW, Washington, DC. (Historic American Buildings Survey photograph, Library of Congress). Martha Belt and her family lived on one side of this house at 1414, George Williams and his family lived on the other side at 1426.


Eight of the 12 households on the two blocks between the church and Visitation can be located in the 1920 U.S. Census. (4) Available records indicate that their houses were built around 1900. Of the eight dwellings, the five located on the west side of 36th Street (1414, 1426, 1430, 1436, and 1440) ran between 800 and 900 square feet in size, the one on the east side of 36th Street (1415) about 1,100 square feet and the two on P Street (3524 and 3526) about 1,400 and 1,650 square feet, respectively.


Martha (Ridgely) Belt rented a home at 1414 36th Street where she lived with her son William, a road laborer, and her grandson Sylvester, a horse team driver. Mrs. Belt was a widow; she had married Ignatius Belt, a laborer, at Holy Trinity on August 15, 1856, and he had died in 1907; his funeral was held at Holy Trinity and he was buried at Holy Rood. Mrs. Belt died the spring of 1920 and was also buried at Holy Rood.


James Bruce and his wife Lizzie Bruce lived at 1415 36th Street with Lizzie’s mother, Maria (Green) Sprigg; Mr. Bruce was employed as a laborer at the Navy Yard. Mrs. Sprigg, a widow, had married Lee Sprigg at Holy Trinity on June 2, 1889; before his death, he had worked as a stableman. Mrs. Sprigg died in February 1920 and was buried at Holy Rood.


George Williams and his wife Genevieve (Jackson) Williams rented a home at 1426 36th Street where they lived with their daughters Helen, Eloise, and Alice, their son Charles, and Mrs. Williams’s father, George Jackson; Mr. Williams worked as a laborer for a contractor, Helen as an elevator operator and Mr. Jackson as a carpenter.


Joseph Dodson and his wife Fannie (Matthews) Dodson lived at 1430 36th Street with their sons Joseph Jr. and George; Mr. Dodson worked as a street railway laborer. He and Fannie were married at Holy Trinity on July 14, 1902.


Nathaniel Wise and his wife Rosa (McKay) Wise rented a home at 1436 36th Street where they lived with their son William; Mr. Wise worked as a road laborer and William as an elevator operator. Mr. Wise had previously worked as a waiter at Georgetown College. He and Rosa were married at Holy Trinity on February 20, 1893.


Cecilia (Dodson) Creek rented a home at 1440 36th Street where she lived with her daughters Louise and Sadie and her niece Ada Dorsey; Mrs. Creek, Louise, and Ada Dorsey worked as domestics and Sadie was a clerk in an insurance office. The 1910 U.S. Census indicated that Mrs. Creek was working as a “servant” at Visitation Convent. She was a widow; she and her husband John Creek were married at Holy Trinity October 15, 1893.


Two of the households of African American parishioners living on P Street across from Visitation in 1923 can be located in 1920 census:


Houses at 3526 and 3524 P Street, NW, Washington, DC. Letty and Mary Agnes Smackum lived at 3526, Peter Colbert and his family lived at 3524.


Peter Colbert Sr. and his large family rented a home at 3524 P Street. They included Mr. Colbert’s daughters Eleanor, Louise (and her husband William North and their son Leo), and Beatrice, and his sons Peter Jr. (and his wife Cora and their daughters Beatrice and Ursuline), Marshall, Lawrence, Dorie, and Walter. Mr. Colbert and William North worked as waiters at the college; Eleanor, Peter Jr., and Louise worked in the home – Eleanor and Louise as laundresses and Peter Jr. as a presser. The elder Beatrice Colbert worked as a domestic. Mr. Colbert had married Mary Julia Smackum at Holy Trinity on November 28, 1889; she died in August 1913 and was buried at Holy Rood.


Letty (Leticia) Smackum and her mother-in-law Mary Agnes (Marshall) Smackum rented a home next door at 3526 P Street. Both women were widows. Letty Smackum worked at home as a laundress. She had married her husband William Smackum, who worked as a plasterer, around 1892. He died in January 1918 and was buried at Holy Rood.


Mary Agnes Marshall, the mother of both William Smackum (Letty Smackum’s husband) and Mary Julia Smackum Colbert (Peter Colbert Sr.’s wife), had married Charles Adam Smackum at Holy Trinity on June 11, 1868. A day laborer, he had died in November 1909 and was buried at Holy Rood. She died in July 1924; her funeral was held at Holy Trinity and she was also buried at Holy Rood, leaving behind her five children, 15 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.


The homes of these eight families still stand, virtually in the shadow of the church, up 36th Street and along P Street, a testimony to the members of our congregation who left Holy Trinity. (5)


References:


1. “To The Officers of The Holy Trinity Branch of The Gibbons Institute,” Mar. 9, 1923. The spelling in the quoted matter here is rendered as found in the original document.


2. “History of Epiphany Catholic Church,” p. 13; Epiphany parish, annual reports.


3. “History of Epiphany Catholic Church,” Appendix I, pp. 49-52.


4. Information in the following paragraphs is drawn largely from U.S. census returns, Holy Trinity marriage records archived at Georgetown University, and Holy Rood burial records.


5. For more information on the departure of the African American community from Holy Trinity see previous articles in this series.