D.C. Group Commemorate 1848 Rebellion By Enslaved Africans

Enslaved Africans in the United States. Photo by Denisbin

Ahmari Anthony, Howard University News Service

On the night of Thursday, April 15th, more than 100 people gathered virtually and in-person for “Remember the Pearl,” an event to commemorate the anniversary of the Pearl Incident.

The Pearl Group was convened by Reverend Ruth Hamilton and Southwest resident Vyllorya Evans.

According to a press release, “So few people know about this important part of D.C.’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. We 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.” 

The Pearl Incident (or The Pearl Affair) was the single largest known escape attempt made by enslaved Black Americans. On April 15th, 1848, 77 Black people enslaved in Georgetown and Alexandria, VA, snuck aboard The Pearl, a schooner docked in the wharf. 

Historians recognize three Black men as the organizers of the event: Samuel Edmonson, who planned to board the ship with five of his 13 siblings (including his sisters Emily and Mary, who would later become prominent in the abolitionist movement), Paul Jennings, the ex-slave of President James Madison and butler to Senator Daniel Webster, and Daniel Bell, the free husband of an enslaved family that he was engaged in litigation to free.

The group also included 14 children and a slave that formerly worked in President James K. Polk’s White House. With the help of the free Black community in DC, the opportunity for freedom was shared in secret throughout the community.

The plan was to ride The Pearl, which was owned by white abolitionist Daniel Drayton and crewed by white co-conspirators Captain Edward Sayres and Chester English. The journey would carry them the 225 miles from D.C. to New Jersey, a free state. 

Unfortunately, due to bad weather, the boat was forced to dock overnight, giving the slave-holders time to become privy to the plan, chase down the ship, and recapture the people onboard. 

Once caught, all three white men were taken from the ship and jailed. Eventually, Drayton and Sayres were charged with 77 counts of theft and 77 counts of illegal transportation of slaves. Their bond was set at $77,000, which neither could afford. They spent 4 years and 4 months in jail until a Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist petitioned for their release, resulting in them being pardoned by the President.

Many of the enslaved people were sold to New Orleans as a punishment. In a short time, however, those that were unsold were transferred back to Alexandria after the outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans.

The rebellion left a lasting legacy on D.C. and on the nation at-large. 

Most immediately, The Pearl Affair sparked the first Washington Riot, which lasted three days. 

With the public attention that the incident received, abolitionist were able to push for the outlawing of the slave trade in DC (but not the abolishment of slavery), which was put into law with the Compromise of 1850. The event also is said to have partially inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The online remembrance event was broadcast from the Westminster Presbyterian Church, with an in-person event held at the Southwest Duck Pond. A temporary memorial was constructed at the duck pond for the weekend, and residents were encouraged to visit. Organizers and attendees hope to make the event an annual occurrence.