On April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved people together climbed aboard the Pearl, a schooner docked in Southwest DC, hoping to sail to freedom.
Theirs was the largest nonviolent escape attempt by people in slavery in United States history on record. Although all 77 were recaptured, the incident and its aftermath contributed to the abolition of slavery in Washington DC.
On Thursday, April 15th, at 7:00 p.m., The Pearl Group will present “Remember the Pearl,” an online event that will be broadcast from Westminster Presbyterian Church. A commemoration program will follow at 8:00 p.m., at the Southwest Duck Pond, located at Sixth and I Streets SW.
The escape was planned by the District’s coalition of free and enslaved Black people and white allies. It had a political goal: to pressure Congress to end slavery in the Capitol.
The plan was to sail from the Southwest waterfront, down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and from there, north to freedom.
The 77 people arrived after dark Saturday, April 15. They set sail, getting the the bay where, after bad weather, they tried to hide the boat in a cove at Point Lookout.
They were sighted Sunday, April 16, by an armed posse who had taken a steamboat to search for them.
The whole group was brought back to DC and paraded through the streets. Whites rioted. Some of the escapees, including Mary and Emily Edmonson, were later sold to a slave trader and put on a ship to New Orleans.
When a wave of yellow fever hit New Orleans, the slave trader brought the Edmonson sisters back to the District, where their parents had saved enough to purchase their freedom. The Edmonson sisters joined the effort to raise funds to buy the freedom of their siblings and friends, telling the story to chuches throughut the north. Both later studied at Oberlin College.
It was there that Mary died. Emily returned to the District, where she taught. She married and moved to Anacostia, where she became close friends with Frederick Douglass.
On April 16, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, freeing slaves in the District by compensating their owners.
Emancipation Day is still celebrated in DC on April 16, the day the Pearl escape was discovered.
The online event will feature DC historian C.R. Gibbs and Dawne Young, descendant of an enslaved passenger on the Pearl. The program at the Southwest Duck Pond will begin with a processional led by a soloist and two period re-enactors. There will be a reading of the names of the Pearl passengers, lighting of memorial luminarias, the presentation of flowers, and comments by Dr. Sheila S. Walker, cultural anthropologist, among others. The public will be encouraged to visit the temporary memorial at the Southwest Duck Pond between Friday, April 15th (DC Emancipation Day) and Sunday, April 18th.
Reverend Ruth Hamilton, who together with Southwest resident Vyllorya Evans convened the The Pearl Group said, “So few people know about this important part of DC’s history. Members of The Pearl Group hope this commemoration will renew interest in the story of the Pearl and that it will be the first of yearly remembrances.”
The event honors the long-standing work of The Pearl Coalition founded by the late Lloyd D. Smith and carried on by his grandson, David Smith.