City Desk

A Little Exploration in Adams Morgan

John Little's estate (1856)

John Little's estate (1856)

Dig up a bit of D.C. – literally – and you might be surprised at how much you find. It's well known that slave labor built the U.S. Capitol, that there were slave pens near the National Mall, and that there was a slave market just across from the National Archives. But a new site of interest – perhaps part of a property owned by one of D.C.'s biggest slave owners – has been discovered in Adams Morgan.

Ruins were recently uncovered in June by workers renovating the public volleyball court in Kalorama Park. Building contractors hit some bricks under a magnolia tree. They called in Louis Berger Group Inc. consultants to dig a bit more.

To the untrained eye, the finding looks like a couple of old walls. But to Jason Shellenhamer, who was part of the archeological team, they are far more, as he explained during a community presentation this week.

After studying maps from the mid-1800s to early 1900s and looking at the type of bricks, he concluded that the walls could be part of a rental house or carriage house attached to the property of 19th century cattle farmer and slave-owner John Little. His estate covered 56 acres, stretching north from Florida Avenue to Columbia Road and west from Champlain St. to Rock Creek.

The archeologist expects that the newly discovered site will be reburied – it's the best way of preserving it.

If you fancy trying to navigate around John Little's world, here are a few other places of interest:

1) Behind Julia's Empanadas, 2452 18th St. NW: Some of Little's slaves were buried here; his best known was Hortense Prout. According to neighborhood historian Mary Belcher, Prout made a daring bid for freedom in 1861. Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the arrival of Union troops, the 20-year-old slipped away from the farm. But she was found in one of the regiment camps, "completely rigged out in male attire," according to a Washington Evening Star article of the time, and returned to her owner.

2) St Margaret's Episcopalian Church, 1830 Connecticut Ave. NW: The church was named after Little's wife, Margaret, according to Lonn Taylor, a curator at the National Museum of American History. Legend has it that, one evening in 1892, Sophia Little, their daughter, was entertaining guests at their home at 19th Street and Columbia Road when she said she would fancy a church in the neighborhood named for her mother. One guest piped up: "Well. Let’s start this thing right now." He passed around the lid of a candy box and, by the end of the night, $5,000 had been raised.

3) The Old Brass Knob Warehouse, 2329 Champlain St. NW : Champlain Street used to be a stream, according to Belcher, and Little's butchery was somewhere on the west bank, in the vicinity of the Old Brass Knob. She suspects there could have been a steakhouse attached. The evidence? When a previous owner, Dominique Kostelac, began to develop the site a couple of years back, his excavations turned up hundreds of old bottles of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.

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