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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Published Diaries, Memoirs, and Documentary Editions

Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States : a Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave, Under Various Masters, and Was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War : Containing an Account of the Manners and Usages of the Planters and Slaveholders of the South, a Description of the Condition and Treatment of the Slaves, with Observations Upon the State of Morals Amongst the Cotton Planters, and the Perils and Sufferings of a Fugitive Slave, Who Twice Escaped from the Cotton Country. Lewistown, Pa: Printed and published by John W. Shugert, 1836. (BFCSC Rare Book Collection catalogue record) (Available through Hein Online Slavery in America and the World)

Berlin, Ira, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. Ser 1. vol. 1. The Destruction of Slavery.  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1985. (catalog record) (See Chapter 3, "The District of Columbia," 157-184)

Berlin, Ira, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. Ser 1. vol. 2. The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1985. (catalog record) (See Chapter 2, "The District of Columbia," 242-364)

Bethune, Mary McLeod, and Florence Alexander. Mary McLeod Bethune, Her Own Words of Inspiration . Washington, D.C: Nuclassics and Science Pub. Co., 1976. (catalog record)

Brooks, Noah. Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971. (catalog record)

Calvert, Rosalie Stier, and Margaret Law Callcott. Mistress of Riversdale : the Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821 . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991. (catalog record)

Clemmer, Mary. Ten Years in Washington : Life and Scenes in the National Capital, as a Woman Sees Them . Hartford, Conn: A. D. Worthington, 1876. (catalog record) (HathiTrust)

Drayton, Daniel. Personal Memoir of Daniel Drayton : for Four Years and Four Months a Prisoner (for Charity’s Sake) in Washington Jail. Including a Narrative of the Voyage and Capture of the Schooner Pearl. Boston: B. Marsh, 1855. (catalog record, BFCSC Rare Books) (Available through Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American History, 1493-1945)

Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Boston: A. D. Phelps, 1849. (catalog record) (HathiTrust)

Hines, Christian. Early Recollections of Washington City . Washington, D.C: Junior League of Washington, 1982. (catalog record, BFCSC Rare Books)

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes : Formerly a Slave, but More Recently Modiste, and a Friend to Mrs. Lincoln, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. (catalog record) (digital version)

Lee, Elizabeth Blair., and Virginia Jeans. Laas. Wartime Washington : the Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. (catalog record

Logan, John A. Thirty Years in Washington, or, Life and Scenes in Our National Capital : Portraying the Wonderful Operations in All the Great Departments, and Describing Every Important Function of Our National Government ... With Sketches of the Presidents and Their Wives ... from Washington’s to Roosevelt’s Administration . Hartford, Conn: A.D. Worthington and Company, 1901. (catalog record) (HathiTrust)

Miller, Kelly. Segregation : the Caste System and the Civil Service. Washington: Howard University, n.d. (catalog record)

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave : Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River in Louisiana . Vancouver [British Columbia: Inkflight Classics, 2014. (catalog record) (Available through Proquest Ebook Central

Payne, Daniel Alexander. Welcome to the Ransomed, or, Duties of the Colored Inhabitants of the District of Columbia . Baltimore: Printed by Bull & Tuttle ..., 1862. (catalog record)

Smith, Margaret Bayard, and Gaillard Hunt. The First Forty Years of Washington Society in the Family Letters of Margaret Bayard Smith . New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1966. (catalog record)

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Arno Press, 1969. (catalog record) (Available through Gale Primary Sources

Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World . London: Prentice Hall International, 1997. (catalog record) (Available through Alexander Street Press)

Washington, John E., and Kate Masur. They Knew Lincoln . New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. (catalog record

Washington, John M. "Memorys of the Past," in David W. Blight. A Slave No More : Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom : Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation. 1st Mariner books ed. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009.  (catalog record)

Manuscript Diaries, Memoirs, and Narratives

Adam Francis Plummer Diary, 1841-1905 (Anacostia Community Museum digital copy with transcript and online exhibition)

A book of remembrances written by Adam Francis Plummer (1819-1905) who was enslaved at Riversdale, the Calvert family plantation in Prince George's County, Maryland (near present-day Riverdale). The diary reveals important dates in his family's history, particularly his marriage to Emily Saunders, who lived with her enslaver in Georgetown when they were first married, and their subsequent separations due to the slave trade.

Michael Shiner Diary, 1813-1865 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division finding aid

Remembrances written by a Black man Michael Shiner (1805-1880) who was born enslaved in Piscataway, Maryland, worked at the Washington Navy Yard, and was manumitted in 1836. He provided an eyewitness account of the War of 1812 in Washington, a harrowing account of the abduction of his family by slave dealers, and a labor strike at the Navy Yard in 1835.

A transcript with an introduction and notes written by John G. Sharp for the Naval History and Heritage Command is available here.

Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers, 1793-1861 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division finding aid, digital collection)

In these diaries and notebooks Anna Maria Thornton (1775?-1865), the wife of architect William Thornton, describes in detail social life in Washington, including the expenses and routines necessary to maintain her house located on Capitol Hill. She refers frequently to the people enslaved by her and her friendships with elite Washingtonians. The diary also records the entry of Arthur Bowen, a man enslaved by Thornton, into her bedroom with an axe on August 4, 1835; he was later charged with attempted murder, an incident that led to mob violence aimed at free Blacks and abolitionists. 

Oral Histories

Oral History Collections at The People's Archive, D.C. Public Library

The People's Archive has an extensive collection of oral histories given by local politicians, business leaders, community organizers, and other residents taken by their staff and community groups that donated their work to the DCPL. These interviews are available as transcripts and in audio format. For an alphabetical list of interviewees, see this page.

The oral history collections available on DigDC include:

The Lessons of the 1960s Oral History Interviews, GWU Gelman SCRC (finding aid, YouTube channel)

The Lessons of the 1960s is an organization, working in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, dedicated to documenting the social and political activism of the 1960s and 1970s by conducting oral histories of the students, community organizers, and other activists involved in the March on Washington of 1963, anti-Vietnam protests, MayDay, and early battles for fair housing and against gentrification. 

Marion Barry 1978 Campaign Oral History Project, GWU Gelman SCRC (finding aid, Internet Archive)

Oral histories of people associated with Marion Barry's 1978 campaign for mayor, a campaign that was initially dismissed but its success transformed city politics. Veterans of the Barry campaign organized this project. The collection consists of 45 interviews taken between 2015 and 2017; audio, video, and transcripts are available.

Washington Metro Oral History Project, GWU Gelman SCRC (finding aid, Internet Archive)

Oral histories of the developers, local politicians, and other figures who planned the Washington Metro system. Audio files and transcripts are available for most of these interviews taken by Zachary Schrag, Ph.D., who used them for his book The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (2006).

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