Tucked away between a GW garage and a few residence halls lies a little piece of history at the corner of 22nd and H streets – a small park to commemorate the former location of the home of abolitionist Leonard A. Grimes, an active player in the Underground Railroad in the D.C. area.
During the first half of the 19th century, D.C. was an important slave trading center, providing cheap labor that was bought and sold to slave owners in the South for a higher profit. Because the District was below the Mason-Dixon line, slavery was not outlawed until 1850, but the proximity of the city to the North meant that it had a large and growing free black community. Many individuals in D.C. played an integral role in helping fugitive slaves to freedom, including Grimes.
“It stands to reason that Foggy Bottom, with its good size black population, was a significant site of activity (for the Underground Railroad),” said James Horton, a professor in the American studies department.
Grimes eventually used both his home and his profession to help the Underground Railroad’s cause. He ran a horse-and-buggy taxi business, which he used as a cover to help smuggle slaves to freedom by transporting them to Pennsylvania. When necessary, Grimes would also allow runaway slaves to stay in his home on the corner of H and 22nd Street, which came to be considered a safe house.
His heroic acts were not without their own risks, said John Vlach, a professor of American studies and anthropology.
“On one occasion when he went deep into Virginia to pick up some potential escapees, he was caught and imprisoned,” Vlach said.
Last July, in honor of the hard work and sacrifices that Grimes made for the runaway slaves, GW dedicated a plaque for Grime’s accomplishments at the corner park. The plaque is the first in D.C. to honor the Underground Railroad. Money for this plaque came from University funds in addition to student funds that former Student Association President Lamar Thorpe donated.