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175 Anniversary Commemoration of The Pearl

On April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved people 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 the United States on record. Although all 77 were recaptured, the incident and its aftermath contributed to the abolition of slavery in Washington DC.

To mark the 175 anniversary, The Pearl Initiative will present a commemorative program, “Remember the Pearl,” on Saturday, April 15, at 2:00 p.m., at Westminster Church (400 I Street SW).

Remember The Pearl

The escape was planned by a District 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 down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay and from there, north to freedom.

Mary and Emily Edmonson, two sisters who attempted escape upon the Pearl in 1848, later became abolitionists and teachers. Emily Edmonson later moved to Anacostia. Public Domain

The escapees set sail in darkness getting to 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 school. 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 Pearl Program

The program will begin with Dr. Clarence Lusane, Professor of Political Science at Howard University and academic advisor to The Pearl Initiative, who will, in a video interview, comment on the significance of the Pearl. The keynote speaker, Dr. Richard Bell, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, will speak on “The Second Middle Passage,” the second forced migration of enslaved people. Descendants of Pearl passengers will also be in attendance.

To memorialize the experience of the escapees, a celebratory procession to the Southwest DC waterfront with music, drumming, and dance will follow the program. Starting at approximately 4:00 p.m. at the corner of 4th and I Streets, Southwest, the walk will end at the Recreation Pier at Seventh Street SW, where the names of the Pearl passengers will be read, libations poured, and flowers tossed into the river in their honor.

The public is also invited to a screening of “The Bell Affair,” the searing story of the enslaved Bell Family’s fight for freedom that ended in an escape attempt on the Pearl. This will be presented on Sunday, April 16, at 12:30 p.m., at Westminster Church.
Both events are free.

“So few people know about this important part of DC’s history,” said Rev. Ruth Hamilton, the first convener of The Pearl Initiative. The group is composed of Southwest residents.

On this 175th anniversary of the event and the third annual remembrance, members of The Pearl Initiative hope this commemoration will stimulate or renew interest in the story of the Pearl. They also honor the long-standing work of The Pearl Coalition, founded by the late Lloyd D. Smith, and carried on by his grandson, David Smith.

For more information about the Remember the Pearl commemoration and The Pearl Initiative, visit www.rememberthepearl.com.

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