Respecting the Black Family Story

Postcard image of St. Hilda’s school, which succeeded to the hotel in Harper’s Ferry.

Signing up for the Union Army in 1864 had been part of James T. Wormley’s bid to keep up his forebears’ rarefied fight for Black equality in a nation founded and formed along a racial fault line.

Wormley’s father, after all, had bought his freedom from a Virginia plantation owner. Then, the father settled in Washington, D.C. Initially, he earned a living ferrying White politicians and other powerbrokers in his previously owned horse-drawn carriage. Those Whites—along with the famed Frederick Douglass (L.L.B. 1908) and other abolitionists—were regulars at that world-class Wormley Hotel, which the father opened in 1856 on I Street between 15th and 16th streets. His son, James T. (B.S. 1870), eventually owned and operated that establishment for several years until a Sheraton, newer and fancier, went up across the street and eventually prompted a decline in the Wormley Hotel’s clientele and its closing.

For James T. Wormley’s great grandson, 70-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, lawyer Don Graves Sr., Howard Medical School graduate Wormley, a former pharmacist and manager of the Wormleys’ real estate portfolio, was a great man. He was a striver, pioneer and righteous Black rebel.

Wormley didn’t merely enlist in the Union Army in 1864, serving first in the 5th Massachusetts Calvary. In 1865, Wormley, two of abolitionist Douglass’ sons and others petitioned Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to have “colored” officers command “colored” troops.

In a second leg of his military service, Wormley returned to D.C., where he’d been born in 1844, as a steward in a military hospital. With that experience under his belt—and a prior stint as a Massachusetts pharmacy clerk while he was a boy attending the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school— Wormley set his sights on Howard Medical School. There, in 1869, he enrolled.

“There were only seven students in the class, and four or five were White. ... Mostly, they were related to the original trustees, who were White,” Graves said.

For the last 15 or so years, he’s been tracing Wormley family history. His notations start from the days of Dolly Madison— the wife of the 4th U.S. president, who also was acquainted with Wormley’s forebears—and extend to the present.

According to that medical school catalogue of 1870, Graves added, reading aloud over the telephone line, “You had ‘to have good moral character, be proficient in and have a basic understanding of Latin ...’”

In 1870, Wormley became Howard Medical School’s first pharmacy graduate. He worked in that field relatively briefly, Graves said. Post-graduation, Wormley bought inventory from a White pharmacist who was quitting business. In 1871, James T. was listed as a pharmacist serving the poor in D.C.’s Fifth District. Wormley concocted a cough syrup. But as far as Graves can tell from archives he dug up or ones retained by his older kin, that product didn’t get a lot of traction.

“There were a number of newspaper ads for it, but I don’t think it sold very well,” Graves said, “and there’s not much about it in the family lore.”

Discharged from the military in 1865, Wormley, when he wasn’t running the Wormley Hotel and other aspects of the family’s real estate holdings, set about challenging the racial status quo. Among other disruptions, he, in 1869, joined a notable sit-in at the National Theatre, protesting its deliberately segregated seating for Black theatergoers. He was forcibly removed from that venue.

Hell-raising coursed through the whole family: The Washington Post’s front page chronicled the trial of William Wormley—James T.’s brother—for knocking a lobbyist to the ground on I Street because he’d urged Congress to send recently emancipated Blacks to Liberia. William Wormley was convicted and fined $50 for what prosecutors labeled as an assault, Graves said. But Wormley’s father leveraged his connections to some members of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet to keep James T.’s brother out from behind bars.

“He comes from a long line of Washingtonians who fought for civil rights and education for the citizens of D.C. throughout the 19th Century,” said Graves, adding that several other Wormleys also graduated from Howard.

Imogene Wormley, Graves’ great-aunt and James T.’s daughter, started handing down to Graves the facts and some fictions of their family’s trajectory when the Ohioan was a boy visiting her in D.C. During her career, she ran kindergarten programs in D.C.’s public schools, Graves said.

She fully understood the power and portent of every family’s narrative and how essential it is for Blacks to control their story, to share it, to take pride in it. She was bent on Black uplift. In her old age, she sold to a private collector an original copy of the 13th Amendment. The document, which freed Black slaves, was signed by several then-members of Congress and granted to James T.’s father by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Lincoln’s good friend and one of the signers.

“Even though she probably was eating chicken necks—she was a recluse—she was sending money to schools in Liberia,” said Graves, explaining what his great-aunt Imogene did with those proceeds.

That small, single-page, signed copy of the 13th Amendment, dubbed “The Wormley-Sumner Papers,” is kept in a vault at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. A representative from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s philanthropic arm bought it for price called “fair,” but not specified in Library of Congress documents, Graves said.

Just about weekly, Graves said, he devotes time to unearthing family history, and in some cases, correcting misinformation that’s been bandied about but does not jibe with historical records.

Included in the mother lode of artifacts he’s culled and possesses are documents proving that James T.’s great-aunt, educator Mary Wormley, from 1819 to 1820, ran a school for free Blacks at 14th and I streets; he also has proof the Wormleys co-owned Harmony Cemetery, originally opened for free Blacks. “It’s been moved three times ...” Graves said. “Now it’s out in Maryland.”

Graves has silverware used at the old Wormley hotel, whose décor, dining menu and guest roster had been featured in newspaper society pages. He has envelopes and letters from Sumner and John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary, to James T.’s father.

He has James T.’s Civil War bayonet. He has enough one-line historical notations to fill what, thus far, is a 100-page document stored on his computer.

Graves studies those things. He ponders the weight, irony and gift of his family’s story: “In 1815, James Wormley, James T.’s father, was represented by (lawyer and National Anthem author) Francis Scott Key in securing his freedom papers. He had to sue a White plantation owner to get them.... You had to provide a piece of paper signed by two White people saying you were free. You had to carry it with you.”

Those papers were pulled out whenever the Wormleys, of that day, were trying to transact business, to build a Black empire, if you will, Graves explained. Over and over, despite their successes, they had to prove themselves.

Graves, in addition to being legal counsel to several commercial banks, also now represents the poor, mainly Black municipality of East Cleveland, Ohio, where his history-tracing efforts particularly resonate for him: Because the elected officials and residents of East Cleveland are so bankrupt—literally and ephemerally—they fixate on what seems impossible in the present, Graves said.

But if they considered from whence they came—including their past as a community once dotted with Black strivers who lost jobs when that region’s manufacturing-based economy was upended—they might begin to see a way forward.

“Even my very good, successful Black friends say, ‘I don’t have a story.’ And I say, ‘But for them, but for your ancestors, you wouldn’t be where you are,’” said Graves, noting his own forebears bankruptcies, debts and lost real estate. “We have to respect that story.... You don’t need to feel ashamed because of other people’s characterizations of us. Luckily, I have a family who preserved a great deal. But there are so many tools these days for discovering family history. We just have to dig.”

He continued: “History teaches you your worth.... That is part of what I’m preaching to my brothers and sisters. People need to hear these stories of Black heritage, the parts that are tragic and the parts that are not.”

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