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A slave coffle passing the Capitol grounds, 1815 published in A Popular History of the United States, 1876.

Library of Congress

When John Adams moved into the White House in November 1800, one-third of the capital city’s population was black. Few of these African Americans were free. However, with the end of the African slave trade in 1808 and the depletion of lands and decline of Tidewater tobacco plantations, free African Americans became more common and soon outnumbered the city’s slave population. On the eve of the Civil War, the census recorded that the city of Washington had 9,029 free blacks and 1,774 slaves. Although free blacks outnumbered slave residents, slave sales were still common, and Washington became a flourishing center for trade in slaves bound for the lands opened by the Louisiana Purchase. The slave pens of traders were located near the Mall and at Lafayette Square within sight of the White House. The trade finally was outlawed by the Compromise of 1850 and abolition of slavery in the District came in 1862.

For free blacks in Washington, D.C. life was better than many places below the Mason-Dixon Line. Formal education was easier to acquire (black-established schools dated to 1807), property ownership was possible, and some government jobs (usually messengers and doorkeepers) were open to blacks. Most found work as laborers, servants, barbers, cooks, maids, and gardeners. However, municipal codes placed late night curfews on blacks and required them to register and to carry a certificate of freedom. Without this proof a black could be jailed as a runaway slave. The registration certificate was a precious document as it checked the over-zealous slave traders and kidnappers in the city. Although it was a hard life, free blacks persevered and by the time of the Civil War had established a flourishing African American community.

Footnotes & Resources

Read More: Henry Chase, "Black Life in the Capital," American Visions, February-March, 1995, 14-15; Constance Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital, Princeton, 1967.

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