Sunday, July 1, 2012

Delphy Costin: Free Blacks and Slaves in Washington City


A reproduction of Washington china
 with Martha's monogram and a chain of states
created in 1795 by the Dutch East India Company.
What the Costin family tea set looks like is unknown.

After Martha Washington's death in 1802 Mount Vernon was stripped of family possessions. George Washington’s will required that slaves, furnishings, equipment and quilts be sold. William Custis Costin and his wife Philadelphia Judge Costin took a china tea set from Mount Vernon to their home in the new Federal City, an heirloom that was then passed down in their family for several generations.
The Costins also removed themselves from Mount Vernon to Washington in a transfer that remains mysterious. Like the tea set, they were property. Nineteenth-century family history says that slave Philadelphia (Delphy) Judge (1780-1831) descended from Martha Dandridge Washington to her eldest granddaughter Eliza Custis and husband Thomas Law. 

Delphy was younger sister to Ona Judge who successfully escaped from the Washington household in 1796. Both were daughters of a slave named Betty and Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant, a Mt. Vernon tailor. "Soon after William Costin and his wife came to Washington, the wife's freedom was secured on kind and easy terms, and the children were all born free." Henry Wiencek in his book on the Washingtons and their slaves Imperfect God traces Delphy Costin's freedom to about 1807 when records indicate Eliza's estranged husband Thomas Law freed Delphy and her children.

Delphy's husband William worked after the War
 at the Bank of Washington as a porter.
After his death the Bank
commissioned a portrait.

Five years later when the second war with Britain began, Delphy and William were in their early thirties, raising many children (five daughters, two sons and four adopted children) in a house they built on A Street South.
The Capitol, drawing by Latrobe, in 1806.
The Costins built a house on Capitol Hill in 1812.

They gave each child the middle name of Parke, a link to John Parke Custis, Martha Washington's son, who is thought by some to have been William's natural father. John Parke Custis, heir to a large Virginia estate, was given that middle name because his grandfather left a will dictating that only descendants with the middle name Parke could inherit the Parke/Custis money, land and slaves. Numerous white children benefitted from the naming rule until the Parke and Custis money ran out. William Costin’s reasons for naming his children in similar fashion are, like his origins, mysterious.

Washington in 1803.
 The brand new capitol city was described as muddy fields
interupted by an occasional oversized building.

 During the teens bigotry against free blacks like William and former slaves like Delphy increased. Their children had been welcome in Capitol Hill's public schools but as the numbers of free blacks grew segregation became the standard. In 1807 Washington had about 4000 whites, about 1,000 slaves and 500 free blacks. Laws passed in 1808 enacted curfews and requirements that free people carry papers. Black families including the Costins reacted to the new laws by sponsoring schools for the community's children.

Paul Jennings
1799 – 1874

In the summer of 1814 everyone in Washington was worried about the British Navy, which had settled into the area's waterways.  Paul Jennings, a teenaged slave in the White House, remembered the mood. People became "alarmed for the safety of the city, as the British held Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet and army. Everything seemed to be left to General Armstrong, then Secretary of War, who ridiculed the idea that there was any danger. But, in August, 1814, the enemy had got so near, there could be no doubt of their intentions. Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defence were made."

On Tuesday August 23rd the Navy Secretary's wife wrote to First Lady Dolley Madison: "Lucy and I are packing---we know not where to go, nor have we any means yet prepared for the conveyance of our effects. I sincerely hope and trust the necessity may be avoided..."

By Wednesday morning many of the citizens had abandoned the town in a cloud of dust. Dr. James Ewell watched the flight from his house on A Street. "Presently I beheld the unfortunate Secretary of War and suite in full flight, followed by crowds of gentlemen on horse-back, some of whom loudly bawled out as they came on 'Fly, fly! the ruffians are at hand! If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand!' Unable to find any transportation Ewell took off on foot for a neighbor's with his wife and daughters, "leaving my house and property in the hands of servants."

The White House by William Birch, ca. 1800

First Lady Dolley Madison remained at the President's House while Madison went in search of the enemy. She spent Wednesday morning at the windows turning her "spyglass in every direction," seeing only "groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight."

Paul Jennings remembered that while Sukey, another Madison slave, was watching from the window, free Black James Smith came galloping up waving his hat with news of General Armstrong's order to retreat. Paul ran off to find a wagon for the First Lady. "People were running in every direction.... a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on."

Quilt inscribed "1810/MG"
 by Margaret Grundacker,
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
This month while things look bad for Washington City we'll consider block-style pieced quilts like the early-19th-century example above from the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum.
The pictures of Washington City are from the Library of Congress. See a page of early images of the city by clicking here:


WoolenSails said...

Love hearing about the people who shaped our history and the quilts made by the ladies of the time.


ZSun-nee Matema said...

So happy to connect with the history of my cousins, the Costins.

The tour guide said...

I loved the information you provided. I knew about Oney but not her sister.