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In 1810 an enslaved woman named Alethia “Lethe” Tanner purchased her freedom with $275 dollars she had earned selling vegetables in the area we know today as Lafayette Square. Enslaved people used the open air markets to their advantage, by growing fruits and vegetables on small plots of land and selling them to raise money. Before being landscaped and named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the land on the north side of the White House was part of public grounds known as President's Park. It was a large open space where many of the daily activities of life in the city – such as buying and selling vegetables and other food – took place. There were no tall buildings surrounding the area, so in the distance you could see the low-lying hills dotted by the occasional farmhouse or outbuilding.

An engraving of Washington in 1800. West end of capitol grounds and Pennsylvania Avenue are shown.

Architect of the Capitol Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Through her business in President's Park, Alethia Tanner also saved enough money to purchase the freedom of other members of her family. Self-emancipation either by an enslaved person purchasing their freedom, petitioning the court for freedom, or running away was fairly common in the Washington, D.C and greatly bolstered the vibrant free African-American community in D.C. Her nephew John F. Cook, Sr. went on to found the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, becoming the first black Presbyterian minister in the city. In 1870, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth was organized in the basement of this Church, and in 1892, the school moved into a new building at 128 M Street, NW and was renamed the M Street School. Among the many influential graduates of the M Street School was Charles Hamilton Houston, who fought important legal battles against segregation and discrimination in the early 20th century and established the Howard University School of Law as the leader in legal challenges to segregation that ultimately resulted in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Alethia Tanner's to obtaining her and her family's freedom helped lay the foundations educational, civic, and religious institutions that would contribute to the success of the civil rights movement.

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Modern aerial view of Lafayette Square.