Escaping Slavery, Building Diverse Communities

In antebellum Washington, D.C., an active slave trade flourished until 1850 and slavery itself persisted until 1862. Yet during the U.S. Civil War, tens of thousands of African American men, women, and children fled slavery and made their way to Washington in search of freedom for themselves, their families, and their communities.

In the fall of 2019 under the guidance of Professor Chandra Manning, students taking History 396 at Georgetown University set out to discover where formerly enslaved people went when they got to the capital region, what they encountered upon their arrival, and how they changed not just their own lives, but also the city, the region, and the nation. The students scoured old newspapers, official correspondence of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union Army, court testimony, church records, city maps and directories, and genealogical records. They sifted through archival boxes, examined digitized documents, scrolled through (to them) ancient microfilm readers, explored neighborhoods on foot, and attended community advocacy meetings.

They found a multiplicity of stories and a variety of experiences united by a common—and ongoing—theme: the struggle to define what freedom means and to make it real in the face of daunting structural obstacles. The students also discovered that many more stories exist beyond the ones they were able to tell within one class in one semester. They hope viewers will be inspired to go out and uncover more stories of their own.