Notable African Americans in Washington, DC

Benjamin Banneker Wikipedia

A free black, born in Baltimore county during the 1700's. Father was African and mother offspring of African parents and maternal grandmother of English descent. He attended school, learning to read, write and do simple arithmetic. Inherited from his parents a few acres of land upon which he supported himself. Later in life a neighbor lent him several books of astronomy of which he developed a great interest in and employed his leisure in astronomical research. Produced several editions of an almanac.

John Francis Cook

In 1834 he set up the only secondary school (preparing young men for the ministry) for blacks in the city. In about 1826 his Aunt Alethia Tanner purchased his freedom. In 1841 he founded the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church and was its pastor until his death in 1856. One of his sons became first Superintendent of Colored Schools in DC and another was elected alderman in 1868.

William Costin

William Costin was employed for 24 years as messenger for the Bank of Washington. A resolution expressing the respect for the memory of Mr. Costin, as well, as many obituary notices were written at the suggestion of the bank officers. He was known for his benevolent heart. He raised a large family, as well as taking in 4 orphan children. Pres. John Q. Adams, a few days after Mr. Costin's death, stated "the late William Costin, though he was not white, was as much respected as any man in the District, and the large concourse of citizens that attended his remains to the grave, as well white as black, was an evidence of the manner in which he was estimated by the citizens of Washington."

Mr. Costin's mother was Ann Dandridge (granddaughter of a Cherokee chief) and his reputed father belonged to a prominent white family of Virginia. However, shortly after his birth his mother married one of the Mt.Vernon slaves by the name of Costin. Ann's reputed father was the father of Martha Dandridge (later Mrs.Custis), who in 1759 married General Washington. Ann and Martha grew up together on the ancestral plantation.

William Costin married Philadelphia Judge (a cousin), one of Martha Washington's slaves at Mt.Vernon, where both were born in 1780. Their seven children (5 daughters and 2 sons) were educated along with the white children of Capitol Hill. (information taken from: Spec. Rept. of Comm. of Educ. on Condition and Improvement of Public Schools in the Distr. of Col., 41st Congress, 1868, pgs. 203-204)

Frederick Douglas Wikipedia

Douglass was an abolitionist lecturer and newspaper editor. Known as the "Sage of Anacostia". He came to Washington in 1871 and was editor of the New National Era. Served as secretary of Santo Domingo Commission in 1871, marshal of the District of Columbia from 1877 to 1881, Recorder of Deeds of the Distr.of Columbia from 1881 to 1886, and minister to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. His home was located at 316-318 A Street NE. Later this became the Museum of African Art. He also owned a large suburban home called Cedar Hill in Anacostia. The home has now been restored and opened to the public by the Park Service.

Francis Grimke' Wikipedia

Francis Grimke' was born in South Carolina to a slave mother and a white planter father. He and his brother Archibald (who later became U.S.consult to Santo Domingo) were taken north for education at Harvard and Princeton by their father's kin. Grimke' (1850-1937) served for fifty years as a community leader and as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. He was one of the most dinstinguished clergymen of his time and an outspoken critic of racial discrimination.

Patrick J. Healy, S.J. Wikipedia

Patrick J. Healy, S.J., was president of Georgetown University from 1874 to 1882. Father Healy was the first black man to head a major white university and probably the first black to receive a Ph.D. He was a linguistics scholar and professor of philosophy. As president of Georgetown Univ. Healy strengthened the academic program, especially in areas of science, law and medicine.

Elizabeth Keckley Wikipedia

Elizabeth Keckley was a seamstress to Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Lincoln. Born a slave, but purchased her freedom and her son's for $1,200. Founder of the Contraband Relief Organization. Raised funds for blacks in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. Later taught at Wilberforce University and published a book on her reminiscences of life in the Lincoln White House called "Behind the Scenes".

Alethia Browning Tanner

In her early years sold vegetables in produce stall near the President's Square. Bought her own freedom in 1810 and later bought freedom of several relatives. Alethia Tanner was the first woman on the Roll of Members of the Union Bethel AME Church (now Metropolitan AME Church on M Street). She owned land and a store at 14th and H Streets, which she left to her nephews. One nephew later sold the property for $100,000.

Old Yarrow

Old Yarrow was a slave that earned his freedom through an arrangement with his master. He later became a Georgetown property owner and a bank shareholder at the Bank of Columbia which was organized early in 1794.