I can say for certain now that I know the identity of three of my ancestors who endured enslavement and were freed under the District of Columbia’s Compensated Emancipation Act. Now I know for sure. I’ve recently learned a few precious facts about Alfred Clarke, my ancestor, his mother Elizabeth “Lizzie” Clarke and his grandmother Mary Ann Lingon.
I’m a fiction writer, a novelist. I write historically based novels about African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region. I’ve written two novels set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington—River, Cross My Heart, an Oprah Book Club selection, and Stand the Storm, set in Washington during the Civil War era, a volatile, unprecedented time for African Americans, enslaved and free. Guided by the first-person accounts of enslaved people, filling in the gaps of dissembling and obfuscation, and ferreting out obscure historical facts, I’ve created my fictional characters.
Sometimes I feel like I have a score to settle with the historical record, an injury to repair. When I discovered facts about Alfred Clarke, I got very excited and came to a pause to consider that there was more to know about one of my direct ancestors. What does a fiction writer do when a historically true family story comes to light? How must she feel, I ask? I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, to rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented narratives of the people of the Americas, the so-called New World. Much of the national narrative of the United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies, and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally.
I’ve written about the unique path to freedom that the Compensated Emancipation Act of April 1862 opened for people enslaved in Washington, D.C. in Stand the Storm. I recently discovered specific information about my Clarke great-grandfather in a webinar produced by a writer and genealogist, Yvette LaGonterie, whose contributions to the historical record and to the Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project are invaluable. She’s done research on Alfred Clarke because of her relationship to a branch of my father’s family. Both of my parents grew up in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., an area that had a vibrant African American settlement that included a number of historic Black churches. My father’s family was traced to Alfred and his childhood enslavement at the Georgetown Hotel, which also served as a tavern.
Thinking about the 19th century, the period in which the enslavement of African people is legal in this country is a hard moment to inhabit. I am fascinated to learn that my relative was an actual participant in the Compensated Emancipation Act, enacted by Abraham Lincoln to soften the financial loss of emancipation for slave owners who freed slaves in the nation’s capital. The plan was that the federal government would pay slave owners who made application.
The act created a free zone sandwiched between Maryland and Virginia, two large slave states. The administrative documents of the transactions created a unique cache of records, stored at the National Archives, that opened a window into the lives of the enslaved. In these records, the ages, occupations, familial relationships, and physical characteristics of the formerly enslaved are set down. This Act was a tiny, tenuous slice of freedom, specific to the District of Columbia, that emancipated my ancestors and roughly three thousand other people.
Alfred was ten years old when he gained freedom in 1862. He worked as a stevedore, as well as, at a variety of other jobs. He married Jenny Cole, who was born free, at the segregated Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The couple had ten children, including my grandfather, James Sheridan Clarke, Sr. Decades later, my father, James Sheridan Clarke, Jr. became the first and foremost altar boy for the Epiphany Catholic Church, built by the African American congregation in Georgetown who did not wish to continue worshiping at segregated Holy Trinity Catholic Church.
What do I understand now about Alfred Clarke and my other ancestors? Not too much yet. I know that they remained together in enslavement and freedom, their names appearing on census records. Mary Ann Lingon was enslaved with another woman named Mary; both girls were known to have been sold to Eleanor R. Lang at the age of fourteen in the 1830’s. Lang was a widow and the owner of the Georgetown Hotel. I might otherwise admire a woman who’d managed to operate an establishment of this size had she not accomplished this with enslaved labor. Mary Ann Lingon was a grandmother when she got her freedom; she had come from a very old settlement in Prince Georges County, Maryland called Piscataway and had been sold to Lang by William Marbury. Mary and Mary Ann remained as close as sisters throughout their adulthood.
As sad as the facts are, I was enormously satisfied to learn about Alfred Clarke and pleased that a significant historical event I’d written about in my novel, Stand the Storm, had worked to emancipate my ancestor. I’ve been scratching around in this yard for a while in my fiction. It is gratifying to feel that, through fiction, I told a truth about people in my family though I didn’t know it. The discovery of these three Clarkes is a validation of my process. The bits of Alfred’s life that have emerged are threads I can take up and spin into a narrative. I’ve looked at photos and tried to become haunted by the folks staring back. I look long at them and try to absorb their thoughts to embellish my fiction. Now when I look at Alfred, I think I recognize a Clarke soul.
I may never write a straight family history. Without letters or diaries, I’m not likely to learn much more than names, places, and occupations about my biological family. Yet, they inspire me. Knowing about some of the things they did, their answers on census records tells me about their family circle, what work they did and their aspirations, their perseverance, their thrift and their mindfulness of their children’s future. I like the way fiction can put the historical event into the middle of an ordinary person’s life and illuminate the two simultaneously.
The D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 changed the lives of a few thousand people and its effect rippled much further afield. I enjoy imagining what those effects may have been. Oh, but these people, newly discovered and tantalizingly within reach, are my muses now. Their scant facts are my nourishment.
Most recently, a photograph of Alfred Clarke has been installed permanently in The City Tavern, a private club that occupies this oldest historic building in Washington, D.C. Alfred Clarke and his relatives are the only persons known to have lived and worked in this building. The City Tavern is on the National Register of Historic Places.
An earlier version of this essay was published in “I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope, edited by Breena Clarke and Amy Newmark.