PORTRAITS: The Angel of Brookland

Clara Barton was already known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” when she first met Antoinette Margot. Barton’s work with wounded soldiers and their families during and after the American Civil War had made her famous, not only in the United States, but in Europe as well. It was in Switzerland in 1870, where Barton had gone to rest and to learn about the newly created International Red Cross, that she was introduced to a shy young French woman who had signed up to nurse soldiers wounded in the Franco-Prussian War.

 (Photo: Clara Barton, at about the time she met Antoinette Margot. Barton was 21 years older. Library of Congress)

Antoinette Margot was born in Lyons in 1842 and raised by strict Protestant Huguenot parents. She had a talent for painting, and made a name for herself when she won a gold medal in Paris. But she wanted to help people as well, so joined the fledgling Red Cross. She and Clara Barton met at Basel in 1870 and traveled together to the front. It was a horrific eye-opening experience, especially for Antoinette Margot.


(Photo: Antoinette Margot, Library of Congress)

Many years later, Barton wrote of that time: 

I fell into the path of the Franco-Prussian War and with the brave and beneficent Red Cross went through it…. This slender lady…Antoinette Margot…went with me every step of the way; over broken ranks, through fire and blood, and both came out alive, God knows how.

Barton and Margot became close, so close that Margot went to live with Barton in London after the war, and then in Paris, where they shared an apartment at the Place Vendôme. More than a secretary but less than an equal, Margot helped Barton organize relief activities, while continuing to paint. One of her portraits was of Barton’s cat, Tommy, which became one of her favorites.

African American Civil War Descendants Project

The National Park Service and American University are beginning a new project, studying the local history of African American “contraband” communities, established during or after the Civil War. Contrabands -- slaves who had escaped or otherwise came north -- were drawn to the ring of forts surrounding Washington during the Civil War. There they were given basic necessities in exchange for work around the forts. They often set up small enclaves nearby.


A community of Civil War contrabands. Library of Congress.

The new study deals with eight of the forts, including Fort Bunker Hill in present-day Brookland. Here is a link to more information about the project and a video: African American Civil War Descendants ProjectThere is also a flyer that explains the project in a little more detail.

The project is being run by Sue Taylor of American University, and I encourage anyone descended from or with knowledge of these local communities to contact her. 

phone: 202-885-1830

email: suet@american.edu 

mail: Sue Taylor, Ph.D., Department of Anthropology
           American University
           4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW 
           Washington, DC 20016 

HISTORIC PLACES: The First National Cemetery

There will be a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery today, followed by a parade of colors. Though Arlington gets all the attention, it was not the first national cemetery. The first one was much closer to us - the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery.

Soldiers’ Home Cemetery in 1864. New York Public Library.

What is now the Armed Forces Retirement Home was called the U.S. Military Asylum when it opened in 1851, but quickly became known as the Soldiers’ Home. Disabled and elderly soldiers who had served in the Mexican War were the first to live there, but the Soldiers' Home also had some special guests. For nearly a quarter of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln did not live in the White House, he and his family lived in a large cottage on the 250-acre grounds of the Soldiers’ Home.  It was, in a sense, Lincoln's Camp David, and he used it well, staying from June to November beginning in 1862. Not only could he escape Washington’s downtown heat, he could get away from the daily pressures of the White House.

The Soldiers’ Home Cemetery, just a few hundred yards from Lincoln’s cottage, was dedicated after the first battle of Bull Run, in July of 1861. It began to fill up quickly. While President Lincoln was staying there, he would often go for walks around the grounds, sometimes chatting with the wounded veterans, sometimes keeping to himself as he pondered the life and death decisions of the Civil War. Day by day as the war dragged on, Lincoln could see men digging fresh graves and it surely affected him deeply.

BLACK AND WHITE IN BROOKLAND: Irish and African-American perceptions of life here in the 1930s.


Race issues have been a dominant part of Washington city life ever since the Great Migration of the 1930s and '40s and the subsequent White Flight to the suburbs. That period is crucial to understanding today’s demographic issues, so I thought it might be useful to take a look at two newspaper columns that appeared a few weeks apart in 1979. On St. Patrick’s Day that year, The Evening Star printed a nostalgic column from Jeremiah O’Leary (right), their State Department and White House correspondent, who reflected on growing up in Brookland. It was filled with stories of young romance, church socials, sledding down Newton Street and other pastimes. O’Leary called Brookland in the '30s an “Irish ghetto,” and his column has some particularly telling paragraphs:

Our ways were simple, due to the depression, our mothers and our priests. It was not, I have learned in later years, all too different from the way it was in Ireland for our parents or grandparents… It was in every sense an Irish enclave, dominated by the looming edifices of the Franciscan Monastery, CU, St. Anthony’s Church and most of us were as isolated as if there were high walls around the neighborhood. I never knew a black person in that long-ago time, and precious few other exotic species with the exception of a few Italian families who controlled the several shoemaker shops. The Protestants were around because, when in sufficient numbers, they would call us “Cat-lickers.” the only Jewish families were the Muchnicks, who owned the DGS at 18th and Monroe N.E. and a boy named Leonard Sokol who seemed to have acceptance on the playground because he was a good baseball player.

He goes on to describe day-to-day life in the neighborhood:

Brookland was a pleasant place to grow up in half a century ago. As the corporal and spiritual home of the Washington Irish, it lasted only from 1920 to the outset of World War II. It had no such thing as a shopping center but everyone knew the focal points. The Hamilton Bank at Twelfth and Newton had such financial custom as this deeply middle-class neighborhood required. The two movie theaters were the Newton, hard by the bank, and the Jesse - now a porno house - near Eighteenth and Rhode Island.

We patronized Doc Hall’s drug store, Haske’s bakery, the Sanitary and the Muchnick DGS or the groceries known as Heider’s and the Murray, Parran and McMullen store. Dr. Aloysius Gray on Newton street handled every ailment from appendicitis to coronary disease. Moore’s was the hardware store."

O’Leary joined the Marines at the outset of World War II and became a well-known war correspondent. In his column, he refers to that war as marking the end of the Brookland he once knew:

We didn’t know it then, but Brookland’s day was done when the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. When we came back in 1945, we were men of the world and the families went on the move again to greener pastures. It was the end of the last Irish neighborhood Washington ever knew."

Brown S

Brookland’s day was done? When I first read that in 1979 it rubbed me the wrong way. It also bothered another Brookland resident, the distinguished poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown (left). A month later, he responded with his own column-length letter to the editor in the Star. It’s worth reprinting in its entirety.

© Robert Malesky 2017