A Free Man of Color and his Hotel, James Wormley and the African-American Community in pre-and post-Emancipation Washington
Carol W. Gelderman, Distinguished Professor of English, University of New Orleans
James Wormley, born in 1819 in a two-room brick building not far from the White House as the ninth of ten children of a Negro hackney driver and his wife, was the unacknowledged descendant of one of Virginia’s ruling families. Educated by Mary Hall, a white woman and member of the Society of Friends who ran a school for free children of color and later at a schoolhouse built by his brother William until age 16, when a mob of white manual laborers plundered and set fire to the school and homes and churches of free persons of color during a two-day rampage referred to as the Snow Riot.
Although black codes, curfews, and other restrictions hampered the free movement of blacks, Wormley worked as a hacker in his father’s livery stable, then as a steward on Mississippi River steamboats, and later in his own catering and boarding house businesses. During Reconstruction, a short period of opportunity for African-Americans, he built and operated the Wormley Hotel, the city’s most luxurious at a time when most financial and government business was conducted in hotels. Not only did a number of notable diplomats–members of the French, German, and Chilean legations — and politicians – the hotel became the focal point of the comings and goings of President Chester Arthur’s cabinet members when the Chief Justice of England and entourage moved in — but because of its location in the commercial and political center of Washington, Wormley met and helped the city’s movers and shakers.
Even after the Supreme Court decisions that undid civil rights protection guaranteed Negroes by the Reconstruction amendments, and even after the Act of 1878 which abruptly disenfranchised native Washingtonians by stipulating that Congress would govern the federal area with three commissioners, James Wormley however disappointed and even worried he may have been, worked as hard and productively as before.
Not only one of the biggest business successes in the district, Wormley generously helped members of his race financially and politically. Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, funneled money she collected for the Contraband Relief Association through Wormley and when son William was appointed trustee of the colored schools for Washington and Georgetown in 1870, James publicly supported integrating the public schools,to use two examples. Wormley died at age 65 in 1884. A son continued to operate the hotel until 1893; the new owner continued to use the Wormley name until 1897 when it became the Colonial. In 1906 it was torn down to make way for the Union Trust.