54. Edmonson Sisters

The Edmonson Sisters, Emily and Mary, became celebrities in the years leading up to the American Civil War due to their attempted escape on The Pearl and their subsequent involvement in the abolitionist movement and Fugitive Slave Law Convention.  Born to a free father, Paul, and an enslaved mother, Amelia, the girls were also slaves based on Maryland laws that stated a child’s legal status was delineated from their mother.  The girls were “leased out” by their owner to wealthy individuals in Georgetown, their wages returned to them. It was in Georgetown that she met Paul Jennings one of the orchestrators of The Pearl Escape. Though several of the older Edmonson siblings had been able to purchase their freedom, the younger siblings were denied that opportunity.  Fearing that the children might be sold further south, the family took the opportunity to send the children to freedom when it arose.  On April 15, 1848, 77 slaves tried to escape from Washington, DC aboard the schooner The Pearl.  The ship was captured a few days later by a posse from Georgetown.  While some of the fugitives were returned to their owners, others—including the Edmonson sisters—were sold further south.   The girls and four of their brothers were transported by ship to New Orleans.  Mary and Emily, both in their teens, were considered prime candidates to be “fancy girls” to be trafficked in the illicit red light district.  A Yellow Fever epidemic in the city hastened the girls’ removal back to Alexandria, Virginia, while the Edmonson boys were kept in Louisiana.  In the meantime, Paul Edmonson had been working to secure the freedom of his children.  He met Henry Ward Beecher, an ardent abolitionist and preacher who raised funds to purchase the Edmonson girls and give them freedom.  Their emancipation was secured on November 4, 1848.  Beecher’s church continued to raise funds to support the girls, who were able to enroll at an interracial school in New York.  While there, the girls participated in Anti-Slavery rallies where they shared their stories and supported abolition.  Unfortunately, Mary died in 1853 of tuberculosis while attending Oberlin College in Ohio.  Emily returned to Washington when she was 18 and taught at the Normal School for Colored Girls located near Dupont Circle.  She eventually married Larkin Johnson in 1860, and she and her husband became founding members of the Hillsdale community in Anacostia.  She continued to be a supporter of the abolitionist movement and remained close friends with another Anacostia resident, Frederick Douglass. A sister of Mary & Emily was married to a prayer leader at Mt. Zion. (the Brents). Emily died in 1895.