Diverse geographical sites, which we thought we knew, can link us, in unexpected ways, to nearly forgotten histories of slavery and liberation. For several years, I have been exploring the stories of enslaved African Americans who resided, not under conditions of their own choosing, in the region now known as “Cathedral Heights,” in northwest Washington, D.C. This project, which may culminate in a museum exhibition in the D.C. area, has returned me, in unexpected ways, to the neighborhoods in which I came of age. It has been deeply fascinating, and at times startling, to re-encounter a landscape suffused with my own childhood memories and to realize the profound histories of injustice and struggle that are embedded.
I stumbled into this project when I became aware of a debate over a bay of stained glass windows in the Washington National Cathedral that commemorated Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, incorporating Confederate battle flag imagery. Following the murderous rampage by a white supremacist at AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, the appropriateness of these memorial windows became subject to public debate.
As I began to research the history of these windows, I learned that they had been dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950s, in the context of postwar massive white resistance to integration. The early and mid-20th century Cathedral leadership, seeking to promote “national reconciliation,” had actively invited partnership with white neo-confederate organizations as a way of binding up the wounds of the Civil War. Little appreciation was given to the pain these images would cause African Americans who visited and worshipped in what is sometimes termed the “nation’s house of prayer.” After the Charleston killings, the Cathedral critically re-examined the windows, and after a period of reflection, decided to remove them from public view.
They Knew This Land
I often visited the Cathedral growing up, but never gave the windows serious thought until the Charleston massacre. One day, staring at the stained glass, I found myself wondering precisely whose histories were, in a sense, being effaced by this imagery. Had enslaved people of African descent ever lived and worked on these grounds? Through archival inquiry, I quickly learned that a group of linked enslaved persons had in fact been held on the grounds that later became the Cathedral, and also the land that became Sidwell Friends School, where I had attended high school, located a half mile from the Cathedral.
It seemed to me urgently important to learn the names of these enslaved people and to uncover their stories. This struck me as important not only for the Cathedral, but also for Sidwell Friends, a historically Quaker institution dedicated to principles of social justice. Sidwell did not acquire The Highlands grounds until the 1950s, nearly a century after Emancipation, yet the institution is heir, in complex senses, to the labor undertaken on these grounds by enslaved persons, whose memories need to be actively honored. The Cathedral too, has had a proud Civil Rights history since the 1960s, and its leadership is committed to commemorating persons of color associated with its beautiful landscape, which overlooks the capital city from one of its highest promontories, Mount St. Albans.
Encountering the Brooks Family
I am particularly fascinated by the family of William and Sarah Brooks, each born around 1825. William was, I believe, purchased with his mother, Ann, and his siblings, in 1827, by Joseph Nourse, the first Registrar of the US Treasury. Nourse by that point had acquired the land that would in the early 20th century became the Cathedral, as well as the estate known as The Highlands, that would become the Sidwell Friends upper and middle school campus. He seems to have purchased Ann and her children as slaves for his son, Charles Josephus Nourse and Charles’ bride Rebecca Morris Nourse, for whom he had also purchased The Highlands.
By 1850, William Brooks was a free man of color, employed as a coachman by the Nourses. He appears to have devoted himself to purchasing the freedom of his wife, Sarah, and their five children.
In 1862, early during the Civil War, the US Congress approved “compensated emancipation” for the enslaved people held within the District of Columbia, giving monetary payments to all slave owners in the District. (No funds were allotted to the newly freed people themselves, unless they elected to leave the United States and settle in Africa.) William, who had previously purchased his family’s freedom, petitioned Congress for compensation for manumitting his wife and children. We can tell from the petition that there was some confusion in the family about who was free and who was enslaved; Sarah initially signed as a co-owner of their children, but then her name was crossed out, and she was written in as one of the “property” for whom William was being compensated!
In October 2019, I was asked, by the National Cathedral, to present on what I had learned about the lives of enslaved people associated with the slave owning Nourses and the Cathedral-Sidwell grounds. I spoke on a deeply moving panel, “They Knew This Land: Honoring Lost Voices on Mt. Albans,” with the Native American curator, Gabi Tayac, descended from the indigenous communities that lived for millennia on the lands that later became the District of Columbia; my longtime colleague, the African American curator of history, Fath Davis Ruffins, herself a graduate of National Cathedral School, the all-female academy on the grounds of the National Cathedral; and the Rev. Cannon Kelly Brown Douglas, the Canon Theologian of the Cathedral.
At the end of the discussion, I was asked if I might be able to trace the descendants of the enslaved families, who labored on these lands. I then got to work. Thus far, here’s what I have learned.
After the Civil War, the Brooks family settled a little bit north of The Highlands, in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Some family members worshipped, parish records reveal, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, D.C. built in the 1850s, which continues to stand adjacent to the National Cathedral. Others in the family were parishioners at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown (also known as the Chapel of St. Ignatius), the oldest continually operating Catholic Church in the District of Columbia, adjacent to Georgetown College (later Georgetown University). In 1873, William and Sarah Brooks’ son William Henry Brooks (b, 1851) was married at Holy Trinity to Laura Dover, the young woman who lived next door to the Brooks family at what is now 39th and Warren Streets. (Laura’s family had been enslaved by a local butcher, Lewis Kengla, who resided near Nourse’s estate at The Highlands; the Kenglas, too, were closely associated with Holy Trinity.) Two years later, William Brook’s wife Sarah died. A record at Mt. Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown indicates Sarah A. Brooks age 45, b. 1829, who was Cook at “Mrs. Nourse (Highlands) btw Gtown & Tentleytown “ died on 8 May 1875. Her undertaker was Jos. F Birch and she was buried at Mt. Zion. .
After Sarah’s death, other family members continued in freedom to work for the former slave owners, the Nourses. An 1885 photograph, now in the Sidwell Friends archives, depicts a “Rachel Brooks, cook,” seated with family members behind The Highlands big house, now known as Zartman House, Sidwell’s Administration building. (The location where the photograph was shot, behind the big house, is precisely the spot where I graduated from high school in June 1979, nearly a century after the picture was taken.)
The 1908 will, in turn, of Mary Nourse, an unmarried daughter of Charles Josephus Nourse, who lived for many decades at The Highlands, leaves bequests for many of the family’s African American servants (some of them previously enslaved). Among these are Ada Robinson Brooks, the second wife of William and Sarah Brooks’ son William Henry Brooks, and Ada’s young children, Jeanette and Joseph.
Over the course of my historical research, I’ve come to learn that the Brooks family resided at a number of locations that I knew well growing up, and which I have come to re-encounter through other research projects. Ada Brooks and her daughter Jeanette Brooks (Wilson) lived for many years down the hill from the Cathedral grounds, at 32nd Street and Q Street, in Georgetown, adjacent to the elegant mansion at Tudor Place, just around the corner from my late mother’s home, where I lived my senior year at Sidwell Friends.
As it happens, I undertook historical research a decade ago at Tudor Place, the family seat of the slave owning Peters’ family, who were close kin of Martha Custis Washington and Robert E. Lee. (General Lee famously spent his last night in Washington, D.C. at Tudor Place, before returning to Virginia.) I traced the enslaved people who had been forcefully relocated from Mount Vernon, where they had been held by Martha Custis Washington, to the Peter’s family property in Georgetown: in some cases, these families were torn apart in slave sales. Some family members were transferred to Seneca quarry in upper Montgomery County, Maryland, where they quarried the red sandstone out of which the Smithsonian Castle building was constructed. As of this writing, it does not appear that the Brooks family worked for the Peter family, but I am still fascinated by their close interconnections in this historically-rich neighborhood.
I’ve also traced the children of John Thomas Brooks, another son of William and Sarah Brooks. One of John Thomas’ daughters, Mary Brooks, married Lewis Waters and lived at 1641 “V” Street, N.W., just a few blocks north of my father’s brownstone in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Frank Brooks and his Descendants
William Henry Brooks and Laura Dover Brooks’ first-born child was Francis (“Frank”) Denecker Brooks, whom I presume was named for the respected Jesuit priest and educator, Rev. Francis Xavier Denecker (c. 1810-1879). Rev. Denecker appears to have been connected with nearby Georgetown College and Holy Trinity, where William Henry and Laura were married; perhaps ministered to the Brooks family.
In 1895 Frank married Mary Briggs, partially of Irish descent, who lived on Milk House Ford Road (later named Rock Creek Ford Road), which was the major thoroughfare through the land that is now Rock Creek Park. The couple settled next door to Mary’s parents. (As it happens, my family and I lived just by this section of the park in the mid-1960s).
After Mary’s death, Frank, in 1913, married Sarah Ann Gravett, who had been working as a domestic in the neighborhood. The family moved up the street to a house that no longer exists, built on the current location of the playground of Lafayette Elementary School, which, as it happens, my sister Bonnie and I attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
As I was tracing Frank Brooks’ life, I luckily encountered genealogical research posted on ancestry.com by his great grand-daughter, Mrs. Bettye Howe Saunders. Mrs. Saunders and my research has, in effect, met in the ‘middle,” linking the earlier story of slavery and emancipation with the more recent history of her family, through the figure of Frank Brooks.
Mrs. Saunders, an avid genealogist and former teacher of history, actually knew her great-grandfather, Frank Brooks, who lived into his mid-nineties. She recalls that he was well read and often quoted poetry, like many of his generation, he did not speak to his younger relations about parents and grandparents who had lived in the era of slavery.
Frank and Mary Brooks’ youngest child, Bessie Brooks, (1904-1940) moved from Washington D.C. to Rhode Island, as a young mother in the late 1920s. Bessie’s son Romeo served in the Merchant Marine and later worked as a court reporter in Philadelphia. Bessie’s daughter Bettye Gaskins grew up in Newport, RI, where she met and married the sailor, Norbert Howe, who spent his career in the US Navy. Mrs. Bettye Gaskins Howe worked as one of the nation’s first medical ward secretaries and later as a field representative for two California state assemblymen.
Bettye and Norbert’s son, the late Romeo Howe, served in the Vietnam War, and later worked as an air traffic controller and engineer. He lived in Southern California with his wife Ellen (Kotzin) and their daughter Aimee. Romeo’s sister Bettye Howe Saunders is married to the distinguished pediatrician Dr. James Saunders in the Los Angeles area.
I’m grateful that through this research I am getting to “know” Bettye Saunders’ extended family, including her husband Dr. James Saunders and their children, Jaime Saunders Archer, her husband and their eight year old son, as well as Jaime’s sister Janine Saunders Vella and her husband Chris; Romeo and Ellen Kotzin Howe’s daughter Aimee Hendle and Aimee’s husband Ed Hendle, and their children, Serena Hendle and Roman Hendle. The family members generously consented to be identified in this letter and shared the family photographs seen here.
To bring the story to the most recent generation, the 5th great grandchildren of William and Sarah Brooks include the eight year old son of Jaime Saunders Archer and her husband, and Serena and Roman, the children of Aimee and Ed Hendle. These young people are heirs to a lineage that runs through much of the complex, fraught history of our nation.
When the Covid-19 crisis eases, we are eager to visit with members of the extended family when they next travel to Washington DC. They are likely to re-connect with cousins in the DC area, who may be able to shed more light on this long historical saga. We’ll be able to tour the locations that are so important in their family’s history, including:
• The early 19th century Nourse property on Georgetown’s Cedar Hill, now known as Dumbarton House, the headquarters of the Colonial Dames of America, which contains a fascinating museum displaying life during the period the Nourses occupied the property;
• The campus of the National Cathedral, on Mount St. Albans, where the Nourse family and persons they enslaved resided for many decades;
• The former Highlands (the modern Sidwell Friends campus), where William and Sarah Brooks lived in slavery and freedom;
• St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, D.C. (adjacent to the National Cathedral) and Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, the two institutions where many Brooks family members worshipped during the 1800s;
• The playground of Lafayette Elementary School, the site of the home of Frank Brooks, born 1873, among the first in his family line born in freedom.
It still seems a little miraculous that through the archives, and thanks to online genealogical platforms like ancestry.com, it has been possible to connect with and converse with Brooks descendants, sharing stories of places that we are all connected to, through histories that cut across poles of race, oppression, and struggle in our shared national history. As we enter Black History Month, we cherish the conversations that emerge when we take seriously the imperative to listen and learn from meaningful places and the persons who knew these sites intimately.
I am still trying to think through what it means, that in a distant way, the places of my own coming of age are so closely bound up with the Brooks family story, from slavery times through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and beyond. The principal point, I think, is that all of us are connected through the lands on which we have lived, worked, studied, and played to untold thousands of other lives, past and present.
In this country, that means that we are all tied, in ways that we cannot fully comprehend, to narratives that emerge out of our nation’s original sins—anchored in the genocidal displacement of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of persons of African descent. To revisit these landscapes, in the company of families like the descendants of William and Sarah Brooks, is to be reminded of this long history of injustice and collective violence. At the same time, to travel together through this land is to re-encounter, time and again, inspiring stories of resilience and courage. We go traveling together, in effect, tracing the arc of human history that famously “bends towards justice.”
In the final analysis, none of us are strangers to one another. In seeking out the stories our shared land has to tell us, we are reminded of that eternal truth. In re-visiting common ground, we re-encounter the Self in the Other, the “I” in the “Thou,” as we work, gradually but surely, towards building the beloved community for ourselves and our posterity.
Many thanks to Carleton Fletcher of Glover Park History; Fath Davis Ruffins; the History Committee of St. Alban’s Church, D.C.; Dumbarton House archives, Tudor Place archives; Sidwell Friends School archives; the Washington National Cathedral archives; Special Collections at Georgetown University Library, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress; the Washingtonia Division, Peabody Room, and Anacostia Branch of the District of Columbia Public Libraries; the District of Columbia Archives; and the National Archives and Records Administration. Special thanks to Bettye Howe Saunders and her extended family.
To read more about the history of the Brooks family and other persons who were enslaved on what are now the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and Sidwell Friends, see my essay essay here. My October 27, 2019 presentation at the Washington National Cathedral may be viewed here.
My research and partnership with the Brooks family descendants and Sidwell Friends School is profiled in Washingtonian Magazine.
An earlier version of this essay was posted in February 2020.
An earlier version of this essay was posted in February 2020.