Kelvin Holland

The Hidden History of Decatur House

Project Info

  • Written by Kelvin Holland
  • Client Civil War Times Magazine
  • Category Writing, Exhibit Review

The Hidden History of Decatur House

“I felt like the Queen of Sheba when she saw the riches of King Solomon, ‘the half had not been told me,’” wrote Frederick Douglass, describing his first impressions of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust. The exhibit at Washington, D.C.’s Decatur House, “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square (1795-1965),” takes its name from Douglass’ quote. The African-American legacy of this prestigious neighborhood, where the bank once stood, is indeed a rich treasure. In fact, the exhibit—on display until March 2009—is installed in what were once slave quarters just a block from the White House.

Visitors reach the second-floor display by way of a small elevator, and the doors open onto a dramatic entrance area enlivened with quotes from Douglass, highlighted by an ornate cane that belonged to him. The cane is carved with illustrations that wind from bottom to top, depicting Douglass’ transformation from slave to orator to U.S. marshal.

Next a stunning 9-foot-square quilt made by Elizabeth Hobbes Keckly, a former slave turned entrepreneur and the modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, draws visitors to the center of the space. The central square is embroidered with a bird, the U.S. flag and the word “liberty.” The quilt looms large and sad—like a would-be comforter of “liberty” for two women who lost sons within seven months of each other. According to Keckly’s memoirs, her son “found his grave on the battlefield where the gallant General Lyon fell.”

There is plenty of interesting information here, but to get the most from the exhibit visitors must immerse themselves in text-heavy signage.

An example: The U.S. Congress chartered Freedmen’s Savings and Trust for African-American Civil War veterans and ex-slaves in 1865. One of its employees was Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, who earned the Medal of Honor at the 1864 Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Another local sensation: In 1819 Daphne—not a nymph but a slave—temporarily escaped from her pursuer, not Apollo but a slave owner, Dr. Thomas Ewell, an area resident. But the signage does not explain that Thomas was the father of Confederate General Richard S. Ewell.

The exhibit covers 170 years of local history, and while it is certainly worth more than the price of admission—$5—I was vaguely disappointed in it. My chagrin doesn’t come close to Douglass’ disenchantment with the Savings and Trust. After he was appointed its president in March 1874, he learned the extent to which the bank was being mismanaged. Douglass soon convinced Congress to close the institution. Scads of depositors lost all or most of their life savings, totaling millions. Douglass didn’t know the half of it.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times

Elizabeth Hobbes Keckly' quilt
Frederick Douglass' hand-carved cane
The Decatur House