The history of my family’s first home

Graphic by Bruna Costa

This is a true story about my family. One day, my grandfather and I were fishing on the banks of the Potomac River, not far from our house in Southwest Washington, D.C. I had asked my grandfather why he left his home in Farmville, Va., to go north of Richmond. He said, “Grandson, I will tell you how our family came to America and into slavery, then to freedom.”

He said my great-grandfather and his brother were fishing not too far from our village in Africa when the slavers came and took us. “Grandson, you know the rest,” he said. “Our family came to America, not by choice, but by force. We were sold into slavery in the 1800s to a plantation in Farmville.” My grandfather said my sisters and brothers were bound into slavery on the plantation.

“Grandson, I have told you how we got here,” he said. “I was about your age, and your great-grandfather was just coming out of slavery.” He was a sharecropper on the same plantation he was a slave on. He took me aside and said “‘Son, you’ve got to leave — go north!’ And I never forgot that, grandson! I made a plan with your great uncle Charles to leave. We could not tell anyone we were going, my grandfather said. In those days, Blacks could not travel north and if they caught you, you would be put in jail and then sent to a farm to work off the time.”

My grandfather and my great-uncle Charles left Farmville at midnight to walk a mile north. They searched the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and walked down the banks of the Potomac River on the Virginia side to get into D.C. Slaves and Blacks couldn’t cross the Potomac River to get into D.C., they all had to take the Virginia side because Virginia was a slave state. They finally reached D.C., at 2 a.m., two days later, in a town now called Georgetown where all Blacks came to D.C. The slaver would bring the slave there to sell, that was the marketplace to buy slaves. The auction market was at Wisconsin and M Street NW. We know it now as Georgetown.

They stayed down in Georgetown, then they headed for D.C. They just couldn’t walk in D.C. at all, they had to walk along the bank of the Potomac River on the D.C. side. As they walked along the river, they could see the Washington Monument, half-built. And the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the U.S. Capitol. They were headed for Southwest D.C., where all Blacks would find joy!

As time passed, they found work and a place to stay. Six months later, they put a down payment on a house across the street from the Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. This would be the family house for all.

The brothers did not forget the promises that they made to each other when they left Farmville. Two months went by, and in the middle of the night, the brothers left their home in D.C. and headed south. After walking for six nights, they finally arrived at Farmville. The family was glad to see them. The following Sunday they went to church. After church, they had a family meeting. My grandfather also paid all those who would like to leave Farmville to come to the family home. They brought only what they could carry.

My grandfather and his brother took a count of all the family members that were going with them. They formed a circle, held hands and said the family prayer. They headed north in the middle of the night and eight nights later they arrived in Georgetown.

When they arrived some of the family members walked around Georgetown and they couldn’t believe how the Blacks were living and enjoying themselves. You must remember Blacks came into D.C., they couldn’t go no further than Georgetown on Southwest. Blacks were not allowed to come into the city unless to work and go back home.

The family left Georgetown and walked along the banks of the Potomac River. This was the first time they ever saw the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial and they were in awe. They reached the family house at 1:30 p.m. All the family smiled at each other and formed a circle, held hands and they all prayed together. As they entered the house, they couldn’t believe it. Wooden floors, a kitchen with running water, a bathroom with a tub, a backyard and a front porch.

There were so many family members at dinner time. Some ate in the backyard, kitchen, living room, dining room and out on the front porch, steps, too. The house was full from top to bottom. There was a lot of love in this house. After dinner, most of the family would walk around Southwest, and some went fishing at the Potomac River about two blocks from the house.

The family was amazed at how city life was. Remember, they were coming from a life on a plantation, all this was new to them.

One month passed and some of the family departed to all parts of the United States, some went north to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Ohio, Chicago, California. You name it, I got some family there.

Before family members departed, they all formed a circle and said the family prayer. My great uncle Charles said to all the family members a vow — at the first family reunion, we all will come to the family house.

I asked my grandfather what shocked him when he came to D.C. He sat back and said “Grandson, I thought I had left these people behind me, but we didn’t,” he said. I asked, “What people?”

He witnessed the KKK march down Pennsylvania Ave in 1919, to fill up the mall, to the Lincoln Memorial and to the U.S. Capitol. In Farmville, you only see them at night, this was the first time I had ever seen them in the daytime, in all white. He said, “Grandson, it really shocked me and some of our family. We will never forget it.”

Grandfather said, “I was talking to my brother Charles about the vow that we made to each other when we first left Farmville, to go north.

“It was in 1939 that we were planning to act on the vow that we made to have our first family reunion. My brother, your great uncle Charles and I decided on Easter Sunday because Marian Anderson was going to sing at the Lincoln Memorial.”

I asked my grandfather, “How did you know where the family members went to?” My grandfather said, “Son, you must remember, this is the family house, where they all left from. The family member would drop a letter to tell us where they were and pass the address to the rest of the family members. My brother and I started mailing out letters to all family members all over the country.”

Our first family reunion was in 1939, a week before Easter Sunday. The family members came from all parts of the United States. The family members were again at the family house. My grandfather said there were a lot of new family members at the house. My grandmother had all the new family members in the backyard to write their names in the family Bible. It was many family members at the first family dinner together, my grandfather said that they took up half of the block eating dinner, and it was a joy to see all the family together again.

That Easter Sunday in 1939, the family had a church service at the family house. My great-uncle was a deacon in the church. In fact, our family helped start the church at 14th Park Road NW. The family got together for church service.

The brother told the family that they had a surprise for all of them. As a family, we are going to walk to Lincoln Memorial to see Marian Anderson sing. This was a memorable first family reunion. At that moment there were over 75,000 people in the mall to hear her. This was the first time that Blacks were permitted to come to the mall.

At the concert the family walked to all the monuments on the mall, they could not go into D.C. at all at the time, as it was still segregated.

My family all walked back to the family house. Some went fishing. The family members stayed for two weeks. We had a family reunion every Easter Sunday, where they will be at the family house or wherever in the United States, we all will come as one big family reunion.

Now you know how my family came to America. How did your family get here?

It’s good to know your family history.

information about New Signature, a Washington DC tech solutions and consulting firm


email updates

We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.