Like the millions of African Americans whose glimpses into their family trees yield a bounty of names, faces, and unearthed narratives, Ziyahn Richardson has touched his past.
For the 11-year-old Washingtonian, his research did more than trace ancestry, though. It connected his lineage to one of the District’s most memorable historical events: Emily Edmonson and the Pearl Escape.
In the wee hours of April 15, 1848, 77 enslaved African Americans boarded the bay-craft schooner The Pearl as cargo headed to freedom. The Pearl escape, under the direction of freemen Paul Jennings, the former slave of President James Madison, and Paul Edmonson, would need to navigate more than 200 miles down the Potomac River to the Chesapeake Bay, across the Delaware Canal and along the Delaware River to New Jersey, a free state.
Edmonson’s 14 children, including his daughter Emily, Ziyahn’s great-great-great grandmother, were aboard.
“I love history and when my student came forward and told me his great-great-great grandmother was a part of this amazing history, and that she was the subject of a book, ‘Passenger on the Pearl,’ I was elated,” Ziyahn’s teacher, Kimberly Worthy, told The Informer. “I decided to have the entire seventh-grade class read the book because I felt it was that important.”
Worthy said that book signings and readings opened up for Ziyahn at their Friendship Woodridge International Baccalaureate Middle School in Northeast and within the larger community, including one on Jan. 21 at The Modern at Art Place, where his classmates and family gathered to support him.
“It is very important that we honor our ancestors, and the theme at Friendship Woodbridge is ‘Our history is U.S. history,’” Worthy said. “We know about Harriet Tubman and she is local, being from Baltimore, but Edmonson was from right here in D.C., and she did what Tubman did. That is huge.”
Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie issued a letter of congratulations and support to Ziyahn, saying that the youth represents “the best and most promising of our community.”
“I am extremely delighted to know that you look to your ancestor for strength, courage, and wisdom,” McDuffie wrote in the letter. “You have the genes to change the world and serve your community.”
As for Ziyahn, who proved shy only in front of the large crowd gathered to support him, finding his roots has only deepened his desire to learn more.
“When you look at my great-great-great-grandmother’s age when all of this happened, she was not a lot older than me, so I am inspired that she would have the courage to fight against injustice at such an early age,” Ziyahn told The Informer. “I felt a little sad finding out about slavery in D.C. and some of the hardships Emily had to face, but it has made me want to examine things that are happening today that what roles we have in fighting them.”
The Pearl never made its destination, having anchored due to inclement weather near Point Lookout, Maryland. The delay allowed slaveholders and an armed posse of 35 men to catch up to the schooner and recapture the passengers. With tensions running high, an angry mob formed among enslavers to exact revenge upon local abolitionists, resulting in three days of rioting.
Once the Washington Riot ended, those enslaved who had attempted to escape were sold to slave traders headed to Louisiana and Georgia. Emily and her sister, Mary, were purchased and freed with funds raised by private funds.
“This is a story that all D.C. residents should know and one which should captivate the minds of young adults who are unaware of the city’s slaveholding history,” Celestine Valentine, a Ward 6 advocate for Black history in D.C. Public Schools, told The Informer. “Young people have to be able to lasso their ancestors’ courage and understanding to their own trajectory; they must be taught that even though some things are painful to explore, there is always a counterweight of resilience, steadfastness, tenacity, pride and love.”
Ziyahn and the members of Worthy’s class will examine enslavement using slave codes, film, and “Passenger on the Pearl” as tools of engagement throughout the school year. The book is available at book outlets online, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.