By Peter J. Albert
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Houses at 3606, 3608, and 3610 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Mabel Beason and her family lived at 3606, Walter and Sylvesta Bowman and their family lived at 3608.
All changed, changed utterly. . .
(W. B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916”)
Three African American Holy Trinity parishioners met with Bishop Michael Curley on March 4, 1923, to propose creating an African American parish in Georgetown. Given the racism and segregation at Trinity that the three described in detail to Bishop Curley, he was “much in sympathy with our cause,” they reported, but he asked for an enumeration of the African American parishioners at Holy Trinity to get a sense of the likely membership of the new parish – Epiphany, established the next year. (1)
The tabulation, made in 1923, named 352 adult African American parishioners at Holy Trinity. With the children included, the new Epiphany congregation in 1924 numbered 600 souls. (2) Although the historical record is silent, the abrupt exodus of so many parishioners from Holy Trinity, from one year to the next, must have been a stunning development for the parish, where African Americans had once represented a third of the community. (3) It was a turning point in the life of Holy Trinity. The change wrought was fundamental and permanent - “changed utterly” indeed.
If we look at just one block in the 1923 tabulation of the African American members of Trinity’s congregation – the block of N Street located directly west of the church, between 36th and 37th Streets – the enumeration lists 19 African American parishioners living in nine houses. Information on many of these households can be found in the 1920 census or in city directories. (4)
Available records indicate that these houses were built around 1900; some have since been demolished. Of the seven still surviving, one (3608) is about 840 square feet in size, five (3606, 3607, 3613, 3624, and 3626) run to around 1,100 square feet, and one (3628) is about 1,400 square feet. Most of the houses on this block were rentals in 1920.
Mabel Curtis Beason lived at 3606 N Street and worked as a waitress at Georgetown. A widow, she lived with three children – Percy, a laborer, Vincent, a milk wagon driver, and Gladys – as well as her widowed mother, Martha Virginia Jackson Curtis, and a nephew, Joseph. Mrs. Beason had married William H. Beason at Holy Trinity on September 18, 1901. Her mother, Martha Curtis, died in 1922 and was buried at Holy Rood.
Camille (or Carmelia) Hall lived at 3607 N Street. She was a nurse.
Walter Bowman, a laborer, rented a home at 3608 N Street together with his wife, Sylvesta Warton Bowman, his sister-in-law Elsie Washington, and Mrs. Washington’s two children Wilbur and Effie.
Joseph M. Coffey, a laborer, and his wife Charlotte (Lottie) Boyd Coffey lived at 3613 N Street. They were married at Holy Trinity on September 22, 1897; when she died in 1930, Charlotte Coffey was buried at Holy Rood.
William Edward Morris and his wife Cora Coffey Morris rented a home at 3622 N Street together with their five children: Bernice, Hattie, Elizabeth, Cora, and Edward. Mr. Morris worked as a building porter; Hattie was a dress maker’s apprentice. Cora Coffey Morris was the sister of Joseph M. Coffey, who lived at 3613 N Street.
James William Torney and his wife Isabelle lived at 3626 N Street with their four children: James, Sadie, Joseph, and Evelyn. Mr. Torney worked as a framer, Isabelle Torney was a clerk, James was a chauffeur, and Joseph was a government clerk. Boarding in the house was Lavinia Davis, who worked as a maid.
Josephine Beall Taylor rented a home at 3628 N Street with her two children, Edward and Virginia. Mrs. Taylor, a widow, worked as a laundress; her son Edward worked as a laborer. Mrs. Taylor had married Charles Henry Taylor at Holy Trinity on December 23, 1878; when she died, in 1937, she was buried at Holy Rood.
The listing of the African American members of Holy Trinity mentions Charles and Mary Onley Smackum as living at 3618 N Street, although this cannot be corroborated in the census or city directories. The two were married at Holy Trinity on September 30, 1896. Charles, who worked as a laborer, was the brother of Mary Julia Smackum Colbert (Mrs. Peter Colbert, Sr.) who lived at 3524 P Street before her death in 1913; over the course of that decade Charles Smackum had lost four other siblings as well, Agnes in 1910, Arthur in 1914, and William and Henry – the latter in the flu epidemic – in 1918. He was the son of Mary Agnes Marshall Smackum who lived at 3526 P Street. James A. Smackum, probably his cousin, was one of the three African American members of Holy Trinity who met with Bishop Curley in March 1923 to ask him to bless the creation of a new African American parish in Georgetown.
These were just some of our fellow parishioners and just a few of our neighbors who were not made welcome here.
1. “To The Officers of The Holy Trinity Branch of The Gibbons Institute,” Mar. 9, 1923.
2. “History of Epiphany Catholic Church,” Appendix I, pp. 49-52; Epiphany parish, annual reports.
3. Bernard A. Cook, “Holy Trinity Parish and Race: An Overview (Pt. I).”
4. Information in the following paragraphs is drawn largely from U.S. census returns, city directories, Holy Trinity marriage records archived at Georgetown University, and Holy Rood burial records.