Last week we shortchanged you and didn’t write about the life of one of those interred in the Mt. Zion/Female Union Band Society cemetery in Georgetown, which we want to emphasize is a rare gem in that very few, if any, urban African American cemeteries of this age still exist in the United States. We will make it up next week.
This week’s life is a complicated but important one, and it is the life of Henrietta and James Lewis. Details about their lives are hard to find. She was born in Virginia in 1833, just 3 months after James was born in Maryland. The Free Negro Registry notes that a James Lewis was manumitted in 1858 along with his brother Andrew, which possibly could have been Henrietta’s James, but outside of that no mention is made relating to Henrietta or James until the very end of their lives. The two were married for 35 years and had no children, although Henrietta was known in her community as “Aunt Rett,” suggesting that she had a nurturing soul. Henrietta, like many African American women, worked for white families in the area. James was sexton at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church.
Trouble appeared in 1904 or thereabouts, according to the Evening Star. James had trouble fulfilling his duties at St. Margaret’s. It is not clear what type of neurological malady beset him. Perhaps dementia, perhaps mental illness. What is clear is that he wasn’t sleeping. He made violent threats. He wandered, and when he did Henrietta searched for him. One night in the summer of 1904, she was discovered on Dupont Circle near the house of her doctor. When he inquired why she was out so late, she replied, “My old man went away today and I can’t find him. We’ve been together forty years, and this is the first time he’s remained away from home.” Concerns about James grew, but the influence of the community at St. Margaret’s prevented local authorities from committing him to an asylum. Henrietta’s doctor worried that the strain of caring for her volatile husband would kill her. Eventually on March 19th, authorities seized James and took him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Henrietta called out as he was taken, “We have been together more than forty years, and I can’t live if you take him from me.” Within hours of his departure, Henrietta collapsed and died. James died that year. I could find no obituary.
This is the complicated story that many Americans who care for those with mental illness or dementia know. It is the story of pain and devotion and fear, of searching at night, of racing down the street. Tragically, it is a story still being lived by many. But it is also the story of a man and woman who forged a bond so strong that endured under great duress, so really to me it is a love story, not a romantic one, but a fierce one. Something to think about next time you drive around Dupont Circle.