Where slaves once toiled, Vice President Kamala Harris will soon call home

The ultimate symbolic significance of Black History Month

The vice president’s official residence at Number One Observatory Circle stands on land once owned by the second-largest slave owner in the District of Columbia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
The vice president’s official residence at Number One Observatory Circle stands on land once owned by the second-largest slave owner in the District of Columbia. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 23, 2021 at 8:00am

Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia by an act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862. In a cruelly bitter twist, the act appropriated $1 million for the compensation of “loyal owners” (no Confederates) for their slaves, at a rate not to exceed $300 for each.

An even greater irony has now emerged on the onetime estate of Margaret C. Barber, whose $9,351.30 compensation reflected her status as the District’s No. 2 slave owner. But first, a bit of unpleasant history.

Barber, a widow, owned 34 slaves. Almost 160 years later, her matter-of-fact compensation filing to a federal commission is painful to read. It speaks in an unflinching, and inhuman, way of slave Mortimer Briscoe who “had one of his toes frost bitten but is otherwise sound” and of two other enslaved men who “are remarkably strong, healthy and capable Negroes.”

Of another person — again, a living, breathing human being — her claim contends, “Some of these defects are slight, and do not materially impair the value or usefulness of the Negro.” 

Even a century later, in a piece published by the Washington Historical Society in 1964, it is distressing to see virtually no recognition of the injustice and outright cruelty of her ownership of other human beings. The fawning account simply notes that Barber “expended great effort and anguish” to validate her compensation claims and that she “not only had to make the routine visits” with her slaves but had to “be examined herself about each one.”

“Every time one of the five who had deserted her before Christmas was found, he had to be brought into City Hall and she had to accompany him. She had two attorneys and eight witnesses, and all had to make at least one trip … and some two or three,” according to the 1964 narrative.   

Barber’s experience, the author noted, “took a severe emotional toll” on her.

No mention in the piece, written in the midst of Dr. King’s civil rights movement, of the toll of captivity on the men and women she owned.

Almost another 60 years later, an overlooked fact about Barber’s property emerges.

A side observation in the 1964 account concerns the location of the 1860s Barber estate, said to be “where the United States Naval Observatory is now, on the hill between Wisconsin Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue.” In fact, it was actually Barber who sold her estate of 70 acres to the federal government, but not before receiving full compensation from the Treasury Department for her emancipated slaves.

A few years after the Washington Historical Society recounted Barber’s fight to gain compensation for her 34 freed slaves, Congress agreed to refurbish the grounds of the Naval Observatory and make the Queen Anne-style home, constructed in 1893 after Barber’s sale, the permanent residence of the vice president. In January 1977, Walter Mondale became the first vice president to live there. Later, as the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, he chose Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, the first major-party candidate to select a woman for the position.

Now, almost 40 years since Mondale and Ferraro’s loss, history is being made at the vice president’s residence. Fittingly, as the celebration of Black History Month comes to a close, the grounds of the onetime estate of Margaret Barber, one of the largest slave owners in the District of Columbia, will soon welcome a new occupant. Once the renovations at Number One Observatory Circle are complete, it will become the official residence of Kamala D. Harris, vice president of the United States.

It is with this solemn perspective that we acknowledge the true historical significance of this moment. Congratulations, Madame Vice President.

Peter Mirijanian, a Democrat, is president of Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs.

Mark Planning, a Republican, is a public affairs consultant and previously served as deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental and external affairs at the Department of Energy.