Imagine, the year is 1861. You are a Union Army engineer charged with defending the city of Washington from Confederate attack. You stand on a sweeping hill that overlooks the northern approach to the city. The site is perfect and plans to build Fort Massachusetts are set into motion. Another piece of the great interlocking fortification of the capitol is in place.
History records that the site was also the home of one Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free black woman and one of the largest property holders in the District.
Lincoln – Thomas Day
On Saturday, September 16th, the National Park Service Civil Ward Defenses of Washington and Military Road School Preservation Trust celebrated Lincoln – Thomas Day to honor the connection between Mrs. Thomas and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Matthew Palus, an archaeologist with The Ottery Group was the keynote speaker and related several fascinating accounts of Mrs. Thomas’ life and legacy in the Brightwood neighborhood.
For instance, Elizabeth Thomas’ farm included not only the land that was confiscated to construct Fort Massachusetts and later renamed Fort Stevens, it extended from present day Georgia Avenue all the way west to Rock Creek for a total of 88 acres! She and President Lincoln are said to have developed a friendship that sprang from her service at Fort Stevens as a cook and laundress and his promise to fully compensate her for the house that was destroyed.
After the war, the land was returned to Thomas and she watched as the city of Washington grew northward and eventually split her holdings into pieces. 13th, Peabody and Quackenbos Streets NW sped development of the area and the subdivision of her property.
Echoes from History
In addition to Mr. Palus’ riveting historical account, this year’s celebration featured the beautiful singing of the Montgomery Blair High School Chamber Choir.
It was very satisfying to see this group of diverse young students embrace the majesty of these historic hymns and negro spirituals.
Archeology Up Close
After the keynote, guests were able to visit with Mr. Palus at his display table and view some of the artifacts that his group found in preparation for the expansion of Emory United Methodist Church. He showed photos of a cross-section of excavated soil which clearly showed the location of the original fortifications. Many everyday household items from the time period were found including glass bottles, jewelry and food refuse. They even found Civil War era musket balls.
Mrs. Thomas’s story is amazing and deserves a complete investigation. The featured photo at the top of this article, where she is seated long with Union and Confederate veterans, shows how respected and honored she was even many years after the war. I look forward to learning more about her incredible impact on the history of the Brightwood neighborhood.