Walk Through D.C. History

Tour Leader Writes Story of Attempted Slavery Escape

Posted February 12, 2007 at 3:25pm

To meet Mary Kay Ricks is to meet a woman who speaks about history much like she writes about it. Using sweeping movements with her hands, she describes the ebb and flow of Washington, D.C.’s history, and more specifically the way in which, in 1848, the passengers on the Pearl attempted the largest slavery escape of the Underground Railroad in U.S. history, with a mix of flowing gestures and the punctuation of pertinent points with her fingertips.

In the same way, Ricks’ novel, “Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” reads with smooth passages of narrative tucked in between bits of substantial historic information that collectively paints a complete, eclectic picture of the tumultuous racial tension at the time of the escape on the Pearl.

Ricks debuted “Escape on the Pearl” on Jan. 30, marking her first book release.

Before founding Tour D.C., which offers walking tours of the District, eight years ago, the author spent 10 years with the Department of Labor. So how did this one-time attorney make the transition to historian and writer? According to Ricks, it was easier than you might think.

“It’s almost eerie how similar it is,” Ricks said of her two professions. You “get the evidence, get the documents. Don’t believe what you hear, because so much of history is written from the point of view of the time the accounts are written.”

While Ricks is keeping her touring company in active business, focusing on areas of D.C. such as Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Embassy Row, she explained that a new passion has taken over her life.

“I have a range of things, but now I’m focusing a little bit more on the writing,” Ricks said. “Once you get the writing bug, it kind of gets to you.”

There also is a significant chance that Ricks may have caught this bug from being in close proximity to her husband, Thomas Ricks, Washington Post Pentagon reporter and recent author of “Fiasco.” The couple took breaks from their other careers to write their subsequent books at the same time. Stressful? Not for the Rickses.

Thomas “took book leave from the Post, and I took leave from Tour D.C. for a whole year,” Ricks said. “And so we wrote our books at the same time; I was in the basement and he was on the top floor of the house. He’s been an enormous support.”

The result of eight years of research by the author, “Escape on the Pearl” not only outlines the 1848 attempted escape out of Washington by nearly 80 slaves on a ship named the Pearl but also specifically covers the plight of two sisters aboard the ship, Mary and Emily Edmonson.

“I discovered [the attempted escape on the Pearl] when I was just researching Washington for my walking tour company,” Ricks said. “I started with an article in the Post in 1998, but I couldn’t leave the story alone. I did more and more research and wanted to profile the two sisters who are on the cover. And that became a story in The Washington Post Magazine. And that became a book proposal.”

So why the Edmonsons? Ricks is quick to point out that, had the girls not been captured, the story of the Pearl may not have any relevance today whatsoever.

“Ironically, because the escape failed, and they were caught, the two sisters became a ‘cause celebre’ among abolitionists and antislavery activists,” Ricks said. “ Had it succeeded, they would have disappeared.”

And naturally, Ricks, always the history investigator, made contact with a number of the living descendants of the Edmonsons, many of whom are still in and around D.C. today. With the same enthusiasm she uses to retrace the steps of her book’s creation, Ricks recounted just how privileged she felt to make these contacts.

“It’s part of the thrill,” Ricks said. “It’s almost part of the detective work that you’re doing, and to find more information and be able to put it together, it’s very gratifying for me. And I enjoyed being able to pass it to them. And they passed it to me. So it’s been a two-way street. This story is a collaborative effort in many ways. The family provided invaluable information.”

Dyanna Tardd, a descendant of Martha Edmonson, a sister to Mary and Emily, found the information she received about her descendants from Ricks to be especially enriching, not only for herself, but also for others in the D.C. community.

“I think she has done the family a service to a certain extent because of the historical information, and Washington being the nation’s capital … those events led to other events, which affects not just those in the District of Columbia, but has a rippling effect,” Tardd said.

Equally grateful to Ricks is Stephan Gilbert, a great-great-grandson of Emily Edmonson who has given presentations with Ricks about the attempted escape on the Pearl. Gilbert said that it is endearing to have someone such as Ricks to bring his family’s story together in written form.

“We have the knowledge of what our family was like [through] stories being passed down,” Gilbert said. “We feel incredibly blessed. We may have the story, but we don’t have the skills or the time to pull it all together for a book.”

When Ricks began research for her novel, she knew she was not alone in her interest of the Pearl or the Edmonsons. Ricks mentioned the early accomplishments of writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote about the Edmonson sisters in her book, “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and John Painter, an Edmonson descendant whose writings on his family’s involvement with the Pearl date back to an article in the Journal of Negro History in 1918. More recently, Josephine Pacheco, a history professor at George Mason University, wrote a more academic take on the journey of the Pearl. Still, Ricks pointed out that she is grateful to these other writers.

“I’m not a trained historian, and I needed to look at their work,” Ricks said. “And you’ve got to go back and you’ve got to look at the historians — and many of them are right there in the Washington area — to understand slavery [and] the Underground Railroad.”

Other historians aside, Ricks knows she has her own special take on history, and this allows her work to differ from the historians who wrote before her.

“I see history as this grain of sand, and everything comes out in that grain of sand,” Ricks said. “When I tell the story of the Edmonsons, I’m telling the story of the Civil War, of the Underground Railroad, the rise of Lincoln, the emancipation of the slaves in Washington, D.C., but it’s all coming through them and the other fugitives of the Pearl. So they’re very different.”

In her work, Ricks also has had to learn how to separate history’s falsities from reality.

“There are a lot of myths,” Ricks said. “Some people think there isn’t any real information to be found. Well, I’ve found hard information. I have court records. I have eyewitness accounts published at the time. So I think the book is rare in that it reconstructs this Underground Railroad activity in Washington, D.C., based on real documents. I don’t have to make this stuff up.”

With her book on the market and her desire for digging deeper into the roots of D.C. history growing greater all the time, Ricks’ plans for her immediate writing future include a few articles on topics including streets in Washington’s Dupont Circle reflecting Strivers’ Row, which Ricks said is “part of the rich texture of Dupont area.”

For the time being, though, Ricks is happy to be able to reflect on the culmination of “Escape on the Pearl.”

“It’s almost magical,” Ricks said. “All this work, all this time. I’ve been researching it since 1997, and you sometimes wonder if you’re really ever going to see a product at the end of the road, and here it is. It’s published. It’s very exciting.”