Descending from Black Landowners Where Lafayette Park Now Stands
Interviewees: James Fisher and Tanya Hardy
Date: March 5, 2016
Interviewer and transcriber (from audio recording): Carl Lankowski
Location: Lankowski residence in Chevy Chase DC
Q: In this interview, we are most intensely concerned about the parcels of land along Broad Branch Road that were taken for the purpose of building Lafayette School around 1928. James Fisher is a descendant of one of those African-American families whose property was taken. Therefore, it makes sense to start with James’s life and his forbears. Tell us about yourself and your ancestors, James. What connects you with the Broad Branch family?
JF: There were two black families on the Broad Branch property. One of my ancestors owned about two acres of land on Broad Branch, I guess beginning in 1850. The second family owned a very narrow plot adjacent to the property owned by my family. My relative’s name was Mary Ann Plummer Harris. She was married to Thomas Harris. I think they had eight children and eventually divided the property among the children. Two of her sons, Thomas and Joseph, enlisted in Washington, DC and fought in the Civil War. They enlisted in the First Regiment and are noted in the African-American Civil War Museum downtown.
TH: James, why don’t you go back to George Pointer to establish Mary Ann Plummer Harris’s lineage.
JF: Right you are. In researching my family tree, I discovered that I am a direct descendent of Captain George Pointer, as was Mary Ann Plummer Harris before me. Born in 1773, George Pointer was a slave. In that status, he was hired out to work for a company that was formed by George Washington. His master, slave-owner, cut a deal with him, that if he amassed a certain amount of money within a certain time, he would be able to buy his freedom. He accomplished this by the age of 17 or so—around 1790. He was also given a cabin by the company not long after he purchased his freedom. He remained there with family members most of his life.
He continued working for the company as a laborer, in close association with the project engineers. Over a period of about 50 years of service to the company he rose to the position of superintendant engineer leading the labor force, something like a company’s “CEO,” reporting directly to the company’s Board. Part of his work for the Potomac Company was transporting stone from a quarry to Great Falls and lead work on the canal locks. There was a break in service when Pointer left the Potomac Company and contracted himself out to transport quartz, sandstone and marble for the construction of the Capitol and other federal buildings. He was later asked to come back to the Company run the operations. Pointer was one of the last employees of the Potomac Company before it was bought by the C&O Company.
Q: Do we know what kind of family he had?
TH: Yes. He married a woman named Elizabeth Townsend. They had five children. He was only 13 when the cabin was given to him, because he was in charge of the gunpowder mill. As a slave child it was his job to do whatever was required to secure the mill—to prevent it from blowing up.
Q: Where was it located?
TH: It was on the Potomac River, right across from Snake Island. In a letter written by George Pointer, he talks about farming on Snake Island. Pointer was a seaman, a sailor, well-versed in plying the Potomac in his boat. He would go up to the Quarry at Seneca and bring quartz back down to the city. He also went on expeditions.
JF: Pointer took exploratory expeditions along the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers with prominent men. We know of him in large part through the 12-page petition he wrote in 1829 that also functions as an autobiography. His accounts were confirmed. He did know many prominent figures. He wrote of George Washington’s visit to check on the progress of the work. He also reported directly to the board of the Potomac Canal Company.
TH: It later became known as the C&O Company.
JF: Pointer also farmed and fished along the Potomac River. He sold produce and fish down-river in Georgetown. He was mentioned by the architect of the Capitol. I can read what he wrote about him. (History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol by William C. Allen, Architectural Historian, Office of the Architect of the Capitol, pg. 14)
Q: Please do!
TH: Here is one passage: “He helped build the canal and was a captain of a boat that regularly brought building materials to the Federal City for the Capitol—Seneca sandstone used for flooring and Potomac marble, used for column shafts in the House and Senate chambers. The marble quarry was located near Noland’s Ferry in Montgomery County, Maryland.” He was an owner and captain. He commanded a fleet of boats and he also owned his own boat.
The 1829 letter we referenced is amazing. We visited the National Archives where we were able to see the original. We brought the text and an image of the original to share with you. You can see the image on my laptop computer.
Q: Wow—look at that!
1829 letter written by George Pointer
JF: His purpose for writing the letter was first to save his cabin and secondly to ask for money because the C&O had destroyed his fishing traps.
TH: It illustrates that he was educated. In the text, he discusses his job. His aim was to prevent the C&O Company from coming to his property and taking his cabin. That was the C&O’s intention. So, Pointer writes about his history there.
Q: Hmm. Looking forward to the 20th century, dispossession will be a recurrent theme with this family.
TH: Just so. He talks about various people that he worked with. He really provides a chronology of his life and what he has accomplished. We are amazed at how beautifully written it is, literate and thought-provoking, by a man who was born a slave, bought his freedom, and then worked for these people. He was recommended to be the chief engineer by one of the other canal engineers who was moving on. That was remarkable in itself. He worked on the canal and the canal locks that everyone calls Great Falls, Virginia.
I recently visited the little museum at Great Falls and found a display with wax figures. It features a black man talking. It is George Pointer. But he is not named, just an anonymous figure working on the Great Falls Canal. We are in the process of correcting that. The verbiage used in the auditory message that plays at the display comes straight from George’s letter. So, he was a pretty remarkable man.
THE HARRIS FAMILY ON BROAD BRANCH ROAD
Mary Ann Plummer Harris, the first person we have identified on the Broad Branch property, was George Pointer’s great-granddaughter. Pointer had three children: Betty, Mary Ann, and William.
Q: Do we know anything about his wife?
TH: No, almost nothing, except that we think that she was Native American. Her name was Townsend, a popular Native American surname. Moreover, James’s great grandmother, who also lived on the Broad Branch property, is remembered by family members sitting on the porch smoking a corncob pipe and claiming that she was Indian. I am thinking that that would have come down from George’s wife, Elizabeth.
Q: Wilson High School students produced two volumes of local history as part of the bicentenary celebrations in 1975-1976 and in the article on Lafayette School, there is a picture of a woman smoking what appears to be a corncob pipe.
TH: What? We would love to see it! We have been searching for a picture of her or at least of the house. We do have a picture of Rosetta, so if it is her, we should be able to tell.
JF: Conversations with family members brought recollections of an Indian connection and of a great-great-grandmother smoking a pipe.
From my recent reading, I learned that when the survey for Lafayette Park was performed a huge tree was mentioned where Indian artifacts were found. They attributed that to the white man who owned most of the land. That’s further encouragement to consider a strong Native American element in the family.
TH: An archaeological survey was done on the Broad Branch property and a report was produced. Jane Freundel Levey of the Historical Society of Washington DC found it and made it available to us. (PHASE IB ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS CONDUCTED FOR IMPROVEMENTS AT THE LAFAYETTE RECREATION CENTER IN WASHINGTON, D.C.). There is evidence of extensive Native American presence in Chevy Chase.
Q: Let’s return to the Harris family.
TH: The Pointer descendent was Mary Ann. But there were Mary Anns in every generation. We have counted at least fifteen of that name. He had Elizabeth Pointer, sometimes called Betty; he had Mary Ann Pointer as a daughter; and he had William. Mary Ann, in turn, had Mary Ann Plummer, because Mary Ann Pointer married a Plummer. So, Mary Ann Plummer Harris is the first of George Pointer’s descendants to live on the Broad Branch property.
Q: Do we know about the Harris family?
TH: No. I have done some research, but I have not yet found enough to warrant confidence in any information. I have an idea that he came from Virginia. Harris was a popular name and there were many Thomas Harris’s. That complicates the search.
Q: Do we know when George’s ancestors were brought to America?
TH: No. We are still having difficulty finding out who his owner was. Some possible hints are given in the 1829 letter.
JF: Presently, we only have some assumptions to go on.
Q: Why don’t we jump back to the Broad Branch story. Mary Ann Plummer Harrris married Thomas.
JF: The earliest we can trace Many Ann is 1850, when according to the U.S. census of that year the family already owned the Broad Branch property.
TH: Two other researchers are working on this family and they say that the family had been there since the 1840s.
JF: We had read accounts that mention the family residing on the property in 1840, but owning it in 1850.
Looking back, the U.S. Census of 1800, the year DC became the U.S. capital, shows just six free African-American families, the Pointers included, in Washington County.
Thomas and Mary Ann had eleven children, two of which—John and Joseph—enlisted in the First Regiment USCT and are linked to battles in the Civil War.
Q: Let me ask you a meta-question: how did you get interested in this quest?
TH: I am a genealogist and a historian. I met James five years ago just by chance. I asked if he would like me to research his family and he was agreeable. James provided some dates and those were my starting points.
JF: I didn’t ask you…you just went for it! (general laughter)
TH: I did. I would stay up all night. I love it. That would be my ideal job—to go research in libraries every day. Fortunately, we had good dates. And the name is unique, too. On a lot of the records it is spelled POYNTER.
Q: James, did you already know you were a Pointer descendant when you met Tanya?
JF: No, I had no idea of the connection.
TH: Pointer yielded rich returns. The pattern is expansive geographically. Some of the descendants moved to the Annapolis area and worked at the U.S. Naval Academy. In that sense it was interesting that George Pointer’s life was lived on the water and some of his descendants followed that path to Annapolis. They were the descendants of his son, William, who ended up going to Maryland, living in the Annapolis area and working at the Naval Academy. I kept on making hit after hit. Then I ran into someone working on an article for the Maryland Historical Society who had also read Pointer’s letter. She saw the family tree I had posted to Ancestry.com contacted me and asked if we could meet. We shared information. It was then that we got the letter, for us a “million dollar” find. From there, the project just continued to grow. We know there are Pointer relatives in Maryland, including some still in Annapolis. We are just having a hard time finding them. There are many—it’s a 274-year legacy we have here. That’s unique in itself for an African-American family.
Let me share with you an 1894 map of the Broad Branch sector, which shows you where the Harris property is. One interesting facet is that Jones, who later sold some of the property for Lafayette School, was at that time living on the other side of Broad Branch Road. I think he also had some property behind the Harris property.
What we would like to do now is overlay this map on one from the present day, so that we can see exactly where the Harris property was with respect to the Lafayette playground and school building. It excited me that the team doing the archaeological dig concluded that the area was valuable enough to put a hold on excavation in some of the areas. They can’t do upgrades to the playground or other spots. One of those spots is where they think the African-American farmhouse was.
Q: It looks like the area in question runs south from Quesada Street along Broad Branch.
TH: I don’t know the area well enough to tell.
Q: The 1894 map antedates the street grid we have today, laid out in a plan just about that time—the mid-1890s—but only executed later, after the turn of the century.
TH: Here is another map from 1925, which shows the property after it had been subdivided. There were three parcels from the original property, one given to each of the Harris children. You can see the parcel that went to Mary Moten, a daughter. And at least two of the adjacent properties, beyond the Harris ones, were owned by black families. Both Jones and Johnson are black families.
Q: Do you know that the Harris properties were taken by eminent domain?
Q: How do you know that? Do you have a document? We know that the decision to build Lafayette School was made around 1925-1926 and that properties in this location between Quesada and Northampton Streets on the east side of Broad Branch Road were taken for that purpose.
TH: We know that the property was taken and why. We are now trying to work out where exactly the house stood in relation to the present park and buildings.
Q: Judging from the maps my guess is that the Harris family properties could have been just on the spot designated for the main school building.
TH: We are also searching for maps older than 1894 that might shed some light on the issue.
Q: Were you able to connect through family members to those days?
JF: I am in the eighth generation from George Pointer. We were blessed to be able to interview my great aunt, whose name was Martha Ann “Kitty” Combs. She was born in 1921 and died November 30th, 2015. She remembered living on the Broad Branch farm, as well as moving to a property on Davenport Street.
Q: Was that in the Reno City section?
TH: She ended up leaving Broad Branch and attending the [segregated] Fort Reno School. She walked to school from her new home. She loved school. But then her brother and his wife died, maybe in an influenza outbreak, perhaps in a fire—the death certificates do not mention a cause, though we know they died at the same time—and left children behind. Aunt Kitty’s mother took the children in and Aunt Kitty dropped out of school to help take care of her orphaned nieces and nephews.
Q: Tell us about Aunt Kitty.
JF: Aunt Kitty was my grandmother’s sister. Until recently, I did not have much interaction with her. For much of her life she was ill and spent many years in a nursing home. But she was feisty. She knew how to make people laugh. And I am sure she dominated that nursing home. She was mentally sharp in her old age. It was a blessing that the whole family came together to honor her just before she passed last November. We almost missed that opportunity.
TH: We did an interview with her. Here are some passages:
”I had a wonderful childhood… I had to help raise the children of my oldest brother, Rand. He died.”
“I went to school but I came out to help my mother to raise 6 children._I had four brothers and one sister, Rosetta._Can’t remember all of their names…I had Bunny, Pete and Rand for brothers.”
We showed her a picture of the Old Reno School and the renovations and the following was her reply, “Oh my, that’s my school! Everything’s changed so much.”
JF: There is another figure I also wanted to mention, because he had some dealings in Tenleytown and Fort Reno. He was Aunt Kitty’s uncle and an undertaker by trade. His name was William Theodore Moten.
Q: This is someone that Aunt Kitty knew?
JF: Yes. He was Wil Moten. A local history of Tenleytown says that Wil Moten was the undertaker serving residents of the Fort Reno neighborhood. He was in business for a very long time.
TH: We can point out where he is on the family tree. Wil Moten’s funeral home was somewhere over near Howard University.
I am looking on my laptop for a simplified version of the family tree that shows the connection between James and the Broad Branch ancestors.
Simplified family tree of the descendants of Captain George Pointer and Elizabeth Townsend
Meanwhile, I am also finding on my laptop files of documents relating to George Pointer’s cabin on the C&O Canal. I have pictures that show it and the powder mill right beside it. Pointer was a child when he was taken there. And that’s the image we used on the family reunion T-shirt. (pointing to image on the laptop.)
Drawing of George Pointer’s cabin on the C&O Canal
Q: Nice! Do you have pictures of the family reunion?
TH: Oh, yes.
Q: That would be fun to have a picture of someone with that T-shirt.
TH: We took a big group picture up on the hill near the Lafayette playground, where there were those big old beautiful trees. So, two of the kids climbed up in the tree and held the banner that said “Pointer Reunion.”
TH: Yes, the picture came out so well. The day itself was better than we ever anticipated.
Q: When was the family reunion?
TH: The 17th of August, as I recall. Mid-August—the family’s very first reunion. They are already actively planning for the next one. We decided that we will do it every year.
Q: Are you calling it a Pointer Reunion?
TH: It is called the George Pointer Reunion.
Q: Against the background of what we have already discussed, perhaps it makes sense to focus on two things in the time remaining to us. One would be the period when the Harris family lived on Broad Branch. And then it would make sense to consider the family today looking back. Maybe the best approach here would be to discuss the family reunion.
TH: It’s important to note that we are still trying to put the pieces together with respect to the question of how the family got to that particular property. Pointer was on the river. But when looking at the census records we were struck by the family occupations: seamstresses, gardeners.
I have a question for you: Do you know of any Civil War battles that took place around Lafayette Park?
Q: The only engagement was at Fort Stevens. The battle in July, 1864 lasted for a couple of days, so no one living around here would have been displaced for more than a short period. Fort Reno’s heavy guns were used sparingly in the engagement.
Let’s finish up with the 1920s, before visiting the most recent family events.
TH: We have not discovered what the family thought about its displacement from Broad Branch to Reno City.
JF: Well, I can tell you how they felt for them. (laughter) Not good. Not good at all.
TH: I can only agree, because the land had been in the family for so long.
JF: It had been in the family for at least 70 years in 1925.It was the family haven. The family was closely knit. Aunt Kitty mentioned during her interview that family members would stay until they had a solid plan for not being there. The husband and wife sub-divided the property for their children. No different from any African-American family in the general area, I’m sure that all of them were extremely upset about having their land taken from them. It went beyond any monetary consideration.
TH: I was looking for information about the death of Aunt Kitty’s brother but have not found anything definitive yet. Aunt Kitty must have been about 10, 11 or 12 when that happened. She quit school to deal with the consequences. She wasn’t forced to quit. We asked her that: “Did your mother say you had to come out of school?” She said, “No, she didn’t say that. I myself didn’t want my momma to be taking care of those kids by herself. So I stopped going to school to go back and help out.”
Q: She was already living on Davenport Street by then…
TH: That’s right. There was also a child who died of burns…a Mary Ann, as I recall. It was a daughter of Mary Ann Plummer Harris. And when that Mary Ann died they had another Mary Ann.
Q: Do you have an idea about the acreage of the Broad Branch property?
TH: The map says about two acres.
JF: Do you know the acreage of the park?
Q: No, but I guess it must be about five acres.
TH: The 1930 map no longer shows land owned by Harris. The government must have taken it by then. I have been wondering why it was given the designation as a “reservation,” What we need to do is to find a way to overlay the 1930 over the earlier map. That would give us a truer picture of precisely where the Harris homes were in relation to the school and park.
Q: Your map does show the park adjacent, south of the public alley behind Quesada Street. One house antedating the land-taking is presently owned by the Higgins family. HCCDC’s latest oral history is with one of the older Higginses who has a memory of African-American families living along Broad Branch.
TH: We did read that and wondered what was going on for her father to share that with Mrs. Higgins. Did he know some of the people? Were they workers?
JF: Mention is made of a corner store in the account. An African-American man worked there known by the name of Curly.
Q: Yes, indeed. Curly is well known to those of us working on neighborhood history here. It is Broad Branch Market, formerly owned by the Bondareff family, at the SW corner of Northampton and Broad Branch, kitty-corner from Lafayette School. There is a picture of him above the checkout counter there to this day. His name was Mr. Percy Edwards.
JF: This has been a meaningful quest for us. You can sense the feeling of connection and pride in the familial associations stretching back to George Pointer. It is what drives me onward. Parts of the extended family are tightly knit. Many members have stayed in the area. It has been exciting to discover further branches of the family.
TH: It is remarkable that most are hereabouts, though some have, of course, scattered. The same is true for the Pointers living around Annapolis. They have remained. One of our aims is to find the Annapolis descendants and invite them to the next reunion.
Q: When you had the reunion, where did you have it?
TH: It was right in Lafayette Park. Once we learned that the family property was there, that was our quest. What better place?! Anyway, it is a park, which also lends itself to something like that. There is a nice playground so that the kids would have something to do. So, we immediately contacted the Parks Department with a request to use it. They were quite sympathetic, especially in the knowledge of our connection to the property. They were very cooperative.
JF: We had been thinking about having a reunion there about once every three years or so.
TH: It would be nice to find out exactly where on those grounds the homes and Harris properties stood. I can imagine a reunion ritual of coming together for a moment of reflection to celebrate this heritage on that precise spot. That’s our dream.
The family was excited, maybe even a little overwhelmed, but also proud in the knowledge that they have an ancestor like George Pointer. The younger generation—25 and under—were super-excited.
JF: It has galvanized me to give history lessons based on what I have seen and encountered. The discoveries rocked my imagination. I was never interested in recent history; I rather had an interest in the ancients. The Egyptians and those coming before fascinated me. This changed everything.
TH: The Harris boys enlisting to fight in the Civil War is another exciting facet of the story.
JF: That certainly motivated me to learn more about the Civil War. Prior to this, the Civil War had been of marginal concern to me.
Q: Before moving on, let’s gather whatever else is remembered about the 1920s.
TH: The lady who is remembered to have smoked a pipe on the porch of one of the Harris homes was Rosetta Morton. She was a daughter of Mary Ann Harris, who, in turn, was the daughter of Mary Ann Plummer Harris. If James here is of the eighth generation from George Pointer, Rosetta was in the sixth generation. Evidently, the family was prosperous. They worked as gardeners, seamstresses; one of the sons was a funeral director. He provided funerals for most of the African-Americans in the community.
Q: This is Rosetta’s son?
TH: Rosetta’s brother, I think. Rosetta was Aunt Kitty’s mother. There is some variability in the surname spelling: sometimes Moten, others Morton. Rosetta’s brother’s name was William Morton. Many members practiced skilled trades.
JF: Then the family split up.
TH: I think what caused that was displacement from the property. Members drifted apart after that. Up to that point, everybody was on the property.
JF: One side of the family was more prosperous than the other side after the separation. The Motens did better. I had never met a Moten during my own childhood. The Moten side developed businesses. My side of the family struggled more and resettled in the inner city. My grandparents had a large family—about nine children. The situation of the prior generations was a revelation to me. Particular family members held the family together.
TH: Mary died—the mother and family matriarch. The father, Tom Harris, died early. Mary lived into her 90s. She kept the family together. When she passed, the property was sold and the family split up and members went their separate ways.
JF: I need to give an honorable mention to Mary Ann’s husband, Thomas. He seemed to be a jack of all trades and very resourceful.
TH: The reference is to Mary Ann Plummer’s husband.
JF: I think you asked where he was from. We think he came from Virginia or the Carolinas. He might have been a slave when he married.
TH: One can speculate that he might have been a slave on the Belt plantation. Or one of the plantations in this area. We’re not sure.
JF: We learned that he was often in Georgetown to sell produce. Perhaps he stayed in Georgetown during the week and returned to the farm regularly.
TH: One thing we do know about him, though, is that somehow he obtained his freedom before emancipation in DC or general emancipation, because he is living on the Broad Branch property in 1850.
Q: Thomas is…
TH: That’s right: the 1850 census is the first one that shows him living at the property on Broad Branch Road. So, I don’t know that he was always a freeman, but at that time, he was.
Q: Anything else to recall about the 1920s?
TH: We know they were farming their land on Broad Branch then. I think they were well known in the community.
Q: You think they were selling produce?
TH: Yes. There are accounts of them going to Georgetown to sell produce. I don’t know if they sold it closer to home.
JF: We surmise that it was more lucrative to sell in Georgetown than around Chevy Chase.
Q: How did he get to Georgetown?
TH: Thomas was called a huckster. That was someone who sold their goods for a living, so I am sure he had a horse and wagon.
Then there was Uncle Bunny Harris.
It’s interesting that Mary Moten was working as a maid on McKinley Street. The house number is 3220.
Q: I may have a record from the 1940 census, which I have been researching. On that block, these would have been newly built houses in the late 1920s.
TH: I am not sure she was still living then. We think she died in 1928 or a little later.
Her husband had died and she was working as a maid. She was working for the Jones family and was in her 60s. The head of household is listed as Colonel Jones, RA.
Q: I wonder if she would have been captured in the 1930 census.
TH: I looked, but did not find her there. But oftentimes, enumerators did not get everyone. She could have been away when the enumerator came around. And sometimes the maids would stay all week and go home on the weekends. There were only two house numbers on McKinley in that block then.
Q: Where we are today, on this block of McKinley, lived a maid in a house whose head of household in 1940 was a widow, along with the widow’s daughter and her husband, and several boarders.
Q: How are you spelling Moten?
TH: Funny you should ask. Sometimes we find it is MOTEN, other times as MOTON, and still others as MORTON. Similarly, although George Pointer signed his name in this way, subsequent records sometimes show it as POYNTER.
Q: If we have exhausted the 1920s, it occurs to me that we can create an elegant package by turning our attention to two matters. The first would be James’s commentary on his own life, including a statement about how he got interested in the genealogical work. James, can we do that?
JF: Sure. I was born and raised in Washington, DC and Maryland. My earliest recollection is of a house near Howard University, adjacent to historic Howard Theater. I can remember a Wonder Bread factory just behind the house. There was a bakery on the corner. There were a few narrow row houses. I attended St. Augustine’s School. That was the family church, too, where I attended Sunday school. We uprooted when I was in grade three and moved to Southeast DC.
JF: I almost wish it was Anacostia (laughter). No, it was in the deep southeast, bordering Maryland. Near Southern Avenue and Stanton Road, Martin Luther King Avenue now. I graduated from Ballou High School in 1972. I then tried to attend the University of the District of Columbia.
Q: Did you say you had military experience?
JF: I enlisted in 1975. I left the service four years later in 1979. I returned to DC, looked for work, and after about a year got my foot in the door in the government. My first job was with the Smithsonian Institution at the Museum of American History. I moved around in the Smithsonian for about five years. Then I worked for the National Endowment for the Arts. Later I took early retirement from the Federal Housing Finance Board. My career was in logistics management, working my way up from the ground, to support services supervisor and logistics manager.
Q: Was your military experience helpful in your career?
JF: Oh yes. With attitude. What I learned in the Army was about me, that I was a fighter. I was coming out of my mom’s house and I learned that I would fight anyone for fair and just treatment. That did me well when I got into federal government. I have no regrets at all.
Q: Where were you stationed?
JF: Once I finished Basic and AIT, I was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia.
JF: That’s right—in a mortar company as a gunner. I managed to get a stripe out of Basic. But after about three months at Fort Benning, I discovered that my hearing was going in and out. So, I had to fight the Army to get myself out of the noise. That kept me States-side. I won my battle after three years. Then my tour of duty was up and I returned to Washington, DC.
Q: Where did you go?
JF: This was in the Vietnam era. We trained in Korea, in Panama, some parts of Europe and various places in the U.S. We did so to experience engaging in various terrains.
Q: Where did you do Basic Training?
JF: Fort Jackson and then to Fort Polk for AIT.
Q: I did Basic at Fort Polk.
JF: Did you? That’s a sad story… (laughter)
Q: We used to call it Fort Puke.
JF: Yeah! Right! The drill sergeant was harassing me there because I got a stripe and they didn’t want me to have a stripe out of Basic, because I had a big mouth. The way they tried to teach me a lesson was to make me a squad leader and give me the worst guys. Two of them were from Germany. They were bad. They smoked pot and didn’t care. Somehow, I got them to do drill and ceremony, in fact we were the best squad in that department. Then we went out on bivouac with two drill sergeants. One was my noted enemy. So, I had my guys set up lean-tos, inflate their mattresses and the rest of the company could elect to sleep under the stars. We were on an embankment and it started raining. SO, the others were on their mattresses sliding down the hill. (laughter) Meanwhile, we were dry in our lean-tos. Here comes the drill sergeant. I heard some noise, looked out to behold him trying to roust out one of my guys so that he could get in. And I’m, like, noooo, no. He told me I would be demoted right there. “OK,” I said, “I’m demoted. But you are going to have to fight me to get into this tent.” So, when we returned to base, they took my stripes. But it was close to the time when we were graduating. The drill sergeant came over and told me that I was going to hear my name called, but that I should disregard it. “You’re not getting a stripe. They’re going to hand it to me.” Well, the ceremony went on, they did call my name, and then the drill sergeant approached and said, “Well, you have had the position for too long. I can’t get the stripe from you.” So it went for a while, until I said, “Let me understand…that’s my stripe?” (laughter) So, my military career was much like that, because I had to fight with the administrators—my sergeants, lieutenants, captains. I wound up having a counseling service for guys who got into trouble to help them get out of trouble. So, they always gunned for me, but they never got me. Thank God. It was exciting, but being under that pressure, it taught me who I was. They were wrong in not helping me protect what hearing remained. They wanted to keep me in infantry, keep me in the noise. Then artillery. I fought that. It was cool.
Q: Once you returned to civilian life, you had to find a place to live in DC. Where was that?
JF: At first, I stayed with my sisters as long as they could tolerate me. About a week. (laughter) Then, my older sister, was living in northern Virginia. I also stayed for a while with my middle sister, who lived in Capital Heights, Maryland. Eventually, I got a job and moved to Southeast DC. I had an apartment over there for a while. When I got to the Smithsonian I was making just about $5,000 a year. But I would tell our secretary “I’m going to buy a house.” Once I determined to do that, I decided to call a real estate agent. After telling him of my desire to buy a house, his first question was how much I earned. When I told him four thousand seven hundred and something a year, he said “whoa, wait a minute, hold up.” At that point, he collected everybody in his office and put me on speakerphone. “Mr. Fisher, how much do you make a year?” “Four thousand, seven hundred and something.” Everybody was laughing. “And you want a house.” “Yeah,” I said. Just after that episode, I saw a little house on a hill in Capital Heights while visiting my sister. I noticed a Veterans Administration sticker on it. I called the realtor back and told him. He said, “Well, you don’t make enough.” “Cool,” I retorted, “But anytime you are in the area and have the time, I’d like to see the inside of it.” We finally did gain access and noticed that it had been vandalized. My response was “Well, since it has been vandalized, you have some negotiating room.” He looked at me and said, “You really want this house?” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Cool. I’m going to get you in.” And he got me in. I still had my army canteen and the like, so I had to choose the lights or that! (laughter) I struggled for the first year or so, but my plan was to get a promotion here, a promotion there, a step increase here. All that was figured out and planned. It was fact to me. On occasions when my supervisor presented me with a blue ribbon in recognition of some service, I came back with, “That’s not what I want—give me money!” (laughter)
Q: Right! Show me the money!
JF: I always put pressure on them—pressure, pressure, pressure. It was like, “Oh, you’re an angry black man.” “No,” I said, “I’m a living black man.” (laughter)
TH: You had a plan.
JF: Yeah. I pay the bank; you pay me. It has been a fascinating life.
Q: The other question I have is how you came to your family history?
JF: The thought would occur to me around once a year over the past ten years. I wanted to map the family tree. Tanya had a lot to do with it, too. When we first met, she was always on Ancestry.com. I was impressed with how many people she had helped. When I mentioned that, she got busy. There is nothing like it. It was like George Pointer was holding his hand out, waiting to be discovered. Researchers quickly verified the direct line of descent from George Pointer to me. I was amazed.
Q: Before you met Tanya, did you have any clue that you were related to George Pointer?
JF: None whatsoever. First of all, I had no idea that my family had been in this area for so long. In my lifetime, the family has been divided and disconnected. One could not imagine that there was a time when they forged a very strong bond. This is a great way to go out! (laughter) My only regret is that it didn’t come to light sooner. The knowledge that such people were in your family inspires generations. Being separated from your culture is a real tragedy. As a little child I was fixated on ancient history, because I was looking for something to be proud of. When you say slavery to a young person and see the images, you see nothing to be proud of. Other cultures can find all sorts of heroes. The African-American community needs them. It has to hit strong and early in a child’s life. So, I pretty much skipped over, I didn’t pay much attention to American history. I went instead to Egyptian history. When this came to light, I learned to appreciate American history and our contributions.
Q: It has been about ten years, since you have been interested…
TH: It has been five since I came into the picture.
JF: Has it been five already?!
TH: Five years this August.
Q: Was your birth year 1953?
JF: It was 1952. I have a sister who has lived in Ghana for twenty years or so.
JF: Yep. And she almost grew a village over there. From nothing. From jungle. She was an entrepreneur. She has her own story—it’s one about carrying her whole village on her back. She married a chieftain. They made the news, because he defrauded her. It turned out that the marriage documents were phony. She funded a house for him. When she discovered the fraud, she took him to court. He was the chieftain of more than one village. He had three in his ancestral line. So, he got kicked out of one of them, but still had two remaining. The case made it to the supreme court and she had pretty much won it. We wanted her to return home. The State Department sent observers to the trial. That’s a book in the making as well.
I went over to visit her. I love to travel and there were just two things I wanted to do. I wanted to visit several countries in Africa. I did that. And I wanted to work on my family tree.
Q: Where did you go?
JF: I went to South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ghana.
JF: Since 2000. My latest trip was to India. That was about three years ago. I also want to check out the Nile, maybe even further. Maybe Syria.
TH: This is not a good time to go there…
JF: I said, in that neighborhood. (laughter) If they shoot me I can’t hear them.
A FAMILY REUNION, 2015
Q: Shall we move toward concluding this interview by talking about your family reunion? How did it come about? Why did you do it? How did it go? What did people say?
TH: When we found George Pointer’s letter, James immediately concluded that the family needed to know about it. Beyond that, I think James has always wanted to have some kind of family reunion. So, this was going to be what we could wrap it around. So, he shared with his sisters what we had found and advocated bringing the information to the family through a reunion. They, in turn, contacted some of their first cousins in the area and told them about the wonderful discovery about the family taking us back hundreds of years: let’s come together and talk about a reunion. And so it came to pass that we had our first reunion planning meeting in February of 2015. There were eight of us. We went with the map and a copy of the letter and printed out other relevant information to share out with everybody. They were just amazed. We stated our desire to use this to bring the family together. That started the process. We met monthly. The preparations were shared out; different family members took different jobs. Other family members were contacted. James and I were the organizers for the reunion. I had experience doing this with my own family, so it was natural for these family members to look to me for suggestions about how to manage the process. From the beginning, we stated our desire to have the reunion on the Broad Branch Harris property. We thought for a minute about trying to have it down by the Potomac River in direct proximity to the ruins of George Pointer’s cabin. But we quickly deemed that idea impractical. So, we got in touch with Clara Green and Barbara Torrey, two historians who live in this area. They are working on a book about George Pointer and we are collaborating with them. They brought us over here to Lafayette Park and we walked the property. They were the ones who shared Pointer’s 1829 letter with us.
Q: Who are they?
TH: Barbara is Barbara Torrey, a local historian.
Q: And they are writing a book about Pointer.
TH: That’s right. James and I are involved in the book project on the Pointer family, too. An article is set to appear this April on the subject. (“Free Blacks of Washington County, D.C.: The Descendants of George Pointer,” by Barbara Boyle Torrey and Clara Myrick Green, Washington History Magazine published by the Historical Society of Washington, DC)
Q: Tiggy Green?
TH: Yes. Her name is Clara but we know her as “Tiggy.” After our visit to Lafayette Park, we contacted the U.S. Park Service to learn more about the reunion venue. All that was left to do was for the family to come together. And James is now handing you a copy of the reunion booklet provided to all the participants.
Q: Thank you! That’s terrific. We can scan the cover and include it with the text of this interview.
Booklet from the First Family Reunion Picnic of the descendants of George Pointer and Elizabeth Townsend
TH: Everybody came together that day. It was a beautiful day. Our biggest fear was that it would rain. The sun shined. The kids were in heaven. They had free run of the playground at the top of the hill.
Q: It was in the afternoon?
TH: It was all day; we started at 10:00 or 11:00 o’clock. We stayed until 6:00. We had the food area in front of the recreational center building. Everybody brought something. People came from as far away as New York and New Jersey, even Atlanta, Georgia. We hoped that a nephew might be able to join us from Oklahoma. The whole day long was a time to reconnect.
People were indescribably happy. James connected with people he hadn’t seen for years and years and years. Some of the children met for the first time. Everybody was thrilled to be part of this event. Those between 20-30 years of age were so excited, because they made connections or reconnected with cousins they hadn’t seen for years, because the family had been kind of divided.
The descendants of George Pointer and Elizabeth Townsend
JF: We had a banquet the next day and shared pictures of the park and our event, as well as images relevant to George Pointer’s life and the lives of his descendants.
Q: So, it was a two-day event.
JF: That’s right. That is how we planned it from the beginning.
Q: How many people came to the reunion?
TH: It was over 100; it may have been about 125.
Q: How many families participated?
TH: My guess is between 20 and 30.
JF: We need to get back to you with a more precise number.
TH: Word of the event traveled and drew more than we had originally anticipated.
TH: We are presently planning the next reunion—the first day a picnic, the second featuring a banquet. You can’t really talk to the whole group at the picnic. At last summer’s event I took over 100 pictures. I loaded them all into a PowerPoint presentation and then made that available for everyone to see. And then we arranged to connect with Aunt Kitty. She wasn’t up to coming, but we visited her and made a video of our conversation with her to share with reunion participants. It was a hit. Some of the kids had never met her.
Q: Where was Aunt Kitty living?
TH: She was in a nursing home in Southeast DC. She had been there for years. So, that worked out beautifully. And on banquet day, we began putting together the committee to run the next reunion. Our hope is that we can make this a yearly event.
Q: What did people say at the reunion?
TH: They were very excited about the discovery of our connection to George Pointer and about the kind of man he was. They were enthralled with the news that they shared a long legacy. For the younger children, the message was more difficult to convey. The significance was still beyond their comprehension. One of my goals for the coming year is to develop some sort of kid-friendly document to reach them with insights about their ancestor.
JF: One of my nephews is a painter and we thought he might contribute illustrations for such a document: George Pointer at work on the river, as an explorer, and the like.
TH: That’s a great idea, James. Because we actually have him giving some accounts of that.
JF: Public buildings could also be included, since some of the marble used in their construction was transported by George Pointer. Instead of or at least alongside bedtime stories about Fat Albert, the children could hear about their ancestors, including the Pointer descendants who fought on the Union side in the Civil War.
TH: Everybody was super-excited and wants more and more information. Much more can be done to recover this legacy. We would like to move the historic preservation authorities to preserve George Pointer’s cabin. The ruins are just sitting there, right by the river. The Park Service should have some interest in trying to save it.
Q: Is it in DC?
TH: It is actually in Maryland. Tiggy and Barbara placed covers over the ruins in an attempt to protect them. I think the next order of business is to arrange an archaeological study of the area. It should be a landmark of some sort.
JF: You can still see parts of the structure, including a cement wall that George Pointer may have helped to build.
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