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Black Lives Matter(ed): Isaiah Lemmon

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The man whose memory we are honoring today is the wonderfully named Isaiah Lemmon, born in 1833 in Georgetown to a free woman Charity Lemmon and an enslaved man only known to history as John. The couple would have at least one more; a son also named John.  That and the fact that he was dead by 1870 is all we know about Isaiah’s father. Yet, there is a tantalizing clue about who enslaved him. In the 1840 census, Charity Lemmon is listed as living in Georgetown, with three other free African Americans and with one enslaved man between the ages of 24 and 35. This may well have been Isaiah’s father. It was not an uncommon practice for free African Americans to purchase the freedom of relatives, but to not manumit (or free) them because the law might require those freed to leave the area. So this enslaved man in the 1840 census could very well be Isaiah’s father. There is another clue coming up.

Isaiah first appears officially by name in the Indentures of Apprenticeship of Washington, DC (a registry that recorded the identity of the employer, length of the indenture, and relevant personal information). From this, we learn that in 1844, the eleven-year-old Isaiah was indentured to William Edes (a prominent man in Georgetown); Charity’s other son, John, was indentured that same day to another man. The records note the identity of Isaiah’s parents, and also mention John’s slave status, and says that Charity, who is of “indigent circumstances,” agrees to the agreement that Isaiah will be bound to Edes “in such manner and employment” as Edes saw fit until Isaiah turned 21 in 1851.

Here’s the clue. In the 1862 Emancipation Compensation Claims, William Edes wants to be paid for loss of an emancipated woman. In the claim, he says that she has been working to pay him for her freedom and has already contributed some $300 to that end, so we know that Edes was open to that. Perhaps Isaiah’s father had been purchased by Isaiah’s mother or perhaps he lived with her but was still enslaved by Edes while Charity worked toward purchasing his freedom.

Four years later, Isaiah is arrested on May 23, 1848 on the suspicion of being a runaway slave by a James Marshall. He languished in prison for over a month (again, he was only15 years old!) until he was released after being recognized as a free man. Isaiah was lucky. The arrest of free African Americans in Washington, DC was not at all uncommon, nor was their being put off for auction before they could prove their freedom, often to be sold again to work on cotton plantations in the deep South. This was a handy way for the predatory to make some easy money.

By 1860, Isaiah is working for the US Treasury Department and now living in a household headed by Charles, who is just two years old – so possibly a brother or cousin and eight other Lemmons, including his brother John and a wife Letty, who was born in Texas and three years younger than Isaiah. Isaiah and Letty did not have children.

As the years pass, Isaiah Lemmon is working his way up, employed variously as a tailor or a messenger. He lives with his wife and extended family, remaining in the heart of Black Georgetown, on P St or Dumbarton. An article in The National Republican from November 24, 1869 notes that Isaiah has been elected as an officer for the Workingmen’s Protective Mutual Association, an integrated organization formed to protect labor rights.  In 1870, Isaiah opened an account with the Freedman’s Bank, depositing in it $140, signing the document with his own hand, suggesting that he was literate. His wife Letty, his mother Charity, and brothers John, Charles, and Henry are also listed.  This piece of evidence is testimony not just to the grit of Isaiah Lemmon, though it surely is that, it also shows the strength and dedication of that young indigent mother who had to agree to the loss of her children, and whose family stayed intact and persevered against such challenges.

Only five years later, though, the Freedman’s Bank would collapse, a victim of classic Gilded Age corruption, greed, and stupidity by its White board of directors and in spite of Frederick Douglass’ desperate, last-minute financial donations.

He died in his home on P St., where he lived with his wife Letty. Isaiah was 44 years old.  I could find no obituary for this remarkable man.

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