Mary Belcher and Eddie Becker have been giving walking tours of their D.C. neighborhood for more than a decade.
Becker had named the tour “Slavery and freedom in Adams Morgan.” Belcher, an artist and historian who has lived in the neighborhood for 29 years, stumbled across a 19th-century newspaper article that vividly illustrated both aspects of that history.
The one-paragraph story in the June 17, 1861 issue of The Washington Evening Star told of an enslaved woman who had run away from a D.C. farm belonging to John Little during that first summer of the Civil War. (Some necessary context: although Little was a slaveholder, he was known to be a supporter of the Union, not of the Confederacy. “Ohio camps” refers to encampments of soldiers from Ohio then in Washington.)
The Evening Star article reads: “A FUGITIVE. – A slave woman belonging to Mr. John Little having eloped, Mr. Little made diligent search and ascertained that she was in one of the Ohio camps. He made a visit to the camp and told the colonel commanding what he wanted, and the reply was, ‘You shall have her, if she is here.’ Search was made, and the fugitive was found, completely rigged out in male attire. She was immediately turned over to the custody of Mr. Little, and was taken to jail. Every opportunity is afforded loyal citizens of loyal States to recover their fugitive slaves.”
Thanks to Belcher, more information about Hortense Prout, the “fugitive” at the center of the drama described in the short paragraph, has come to light. And Prout’s story will soon be commemorated in a historic marker at Kalorama Park, the site of the farmhouse and slave quarters on Little’s 56-acre cattle farm two centuries ago.
Belcher spoke at a March 7 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C (Adams Morgan). ANC member Amanda Fox Perry introduced a resolution of support for the effort by Belcher and the Kalorama Citizens Association to commemorate Prout’s flight with a wayside marker at the east end of the park.
The resolution, which was voted on and passed unanimously by the commission, honors Prout’s “historic 1861 escape from slavery,” and informs park visitors about “the facts of Washington’s Underground Railroad and our city’s roots in slavery.”
In her subsequent research, Belcher found that the encampment of Ohio soldiers where Prout hid was near a farm called Bloomingdale, at the present-day intersection of North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue. Belcher speculates she was working at the camp as a cook.
By a search of 1861 jail records, Belcher found that Little committed Prout to the City Jail on June 15, 1861 to punish her for fleeing.
“She was released back to him 10 days later,” Belcher said. “It was a habit of slaveholders to put slaves in jail for ‘safe-keeping.’ I’m sure it was a very dramatic form of discipline and punishment. Conditions were terrible. They were not fed enough or clothed well, or given proper sleeping quarters.”
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which paid slave owners in the District of Columbia the market value of their slaves, thus freeing all enslaved persons in D.C. Little lodged his claim for 12 slaves with the commission appointed to decide how much compensation slaveholders should receive.
According to Belcher, “Little took all his enslaved workers down to City Hall, where they were evaluated by slave traders as to their worth.”
One of the 12 was Prout, aged 21. Little described her as “a healthy and industrious house servant.” He valued the loss of her services at $1,500, but Belcher said slaveholders tended to overestimate such figures. The average compensation allowed was $300. Little received $525.60 for Prout.
Belcher’s efforts to trace Prout after she finally gained her freedom in 1862 have been fruitless.
“Unfortunately she disappears from the record after emancipation,” Belcher said. “I’ve done incredibly detailed searches. We know her mother and brother had moved to Philadelphia by the 1870s. I don’t know if Hortense went there but at least two of her family members did.”
So far the historical record has not revealed that Prout hid out in a basement or barn or attic known to have been stops on the Underground Railroad during her flight to freedom. But Belcher said the railroad was more than a collection of physical structures. It was a network of courageous people. And in the latter sense, she is certain that Prout was a passenger on that railroad.
“D.C. was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity. [Among the conductors were members of] the black community in Washington, including black churches, carriage drivers, civic leaders, and also white abolitionists in political and civil service posts,” Belcher said. “The Underground Railroad was not a formal institution – it had to be covert. Escape was a dangerous business for an enslaved person or anyone who aided or abetted them.
“There is no way Hortense Prout would have known to hide with a group of Ohio soldiers had she not been given some advice and guidance, in my opinion. That information came through the grapevine – ‘some of the Ohio soldiers are sympathetic to us.’ Jonathan Seaver was a Quaker who lived near Little. He may have given her advice. Maybe her brother or her church helped her. She might have been waiting for others to gather.
“And she had to have an abettor to get that male disguise.”
Belcher said she is personally inspired by Prout’s story.
“People like her were just as important in the fight to end slavery as people like Abraham Lincoln, because if it weren’t for these acts of resistance, the moral question of slavery couldn’t have been so clearly answered,” she said.
In 2008, Belcher nominated Kalorama Park for inclusion on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a congressionally chartered program that seeks to document as much as possible the flights to freedom. The National Park Service (NPS) approved the nomination.
Thanks to a $13,000 grant from the NPS and the association for the Study of African-American Life and History, the park’s role in history – and the story of Hortense Prout – will be remembered with the wayside marker. Belcher expects the sign will be in place by summer if not earlier.
And the grant will also pay for a brochure telling Prout’s story at greater length than is possible on a historic marker. The brochure will be available at the park. Both the marker and the brochure will be bilingual, given the neighborhood’s large population of Spanish speakers.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, one audience member deprecated the plan to print the brochure, lamenting an excessive use of paper and encouraging instead a digital version.
Belcher felt his pain, but said she believes a physical memento of the site has value.
“It makes it special when people can have a brochure [to keep],” she said.
Perry, the author of the commission’s resolution, said that while ANCs usually deal with problems in the here and now, she appreciated the chance to help recognize the neighborhood’s past. And she said she was moved by the story of the long-ago resident.
“I can’t imagine Hortense Prout’s bravery [in thinking] ‘I’m going to make a run for it.’ As someone who feels deeply sorrowful for America’s history with slavery, this is a great opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifice and bravery of people who lived through it, like Hortense.
“It’s an honor to be a small part of this and make it happen.”
William Still was a 19th century African-American abolitionist, historian and conductor on the Underground Railroad. In his 1872 book “The Underground Railroad Records,” Still paid tribute to women like Prout who made the dangerous attempt to gain their freedom.
“Females in attempting to escape from a life of bondage undertook three times the risk of failure that males were liable to, not to mention the additional trials and struggles they had to contend with. In justice, therefore, to the heroic female who was willing to endure the most extreme suffering and hardship for freedom, doubled honors are due.”
The full text of the Kalorama Park Underground Railroad nomination is available on the KCA website, under “Historic Adams Morgan”: kaloramacitizensassociation.org
A list of sites on the NPS Underground Railroad survey is here: nps.gov/nr/travel/underground.