UNO Distinguished Professor Will Deliver Keynote Lecture at 39th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies

University of New Orleans Distinguished Professor of English Carol W. Gelderman heads to Washington, D.C. this month to deliver the keynote lecture at an annual conference on historical studies.

The 39th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies runs Oct. 18-21. Following an all-conference reception, Gelderman will deliver the 2012 Letitia Woods Brown Lecture at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 following at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Carnegie Library, 801 K Street.

The annual lecture series honors Letitia Woods Brown, born in 1915, in Tuskegee, Ala. to professors at the Tuskegee Institute. Brown, a Tuskegee graduate, earned her Ph.D. in history, taught social sciences and history at Howard University, then American Studies at George Washington University. According to the historical society, she made her mark on Washington through her scholarly works and efforts to preserve sites of local and national importance to African-American history.

Gelderman’s speech is based on her tenth book, “A Free Man of Color and His Hotel -- James Wormley and the African-American Community in pre-and post-Emancipation Washington.”  The book, published last year, tells the story of a free person of color who experienced remarkable achievements during Reconstruction, a brief period in which Gelderman says that African-Americans of the time experienced a window of opportunity.

According to an abstract of Gelderman’s speech, Wormley was born in 1819 in a two-room brick building not far from the White House. He was “the ninth of 10 children of a Negro hackney driver and his wife…the unacknowledged descendant of one of Virginia’s ruling families.” Wormley was educated at a school for free children of color and later at a schoolhouse built by his brother William until age 16, when an angry mob of white manual laborers set fire to the school, homes and churches of free persons of color during a two-day rampage known as the Snow Riot.

Black codes, curfews and other restrictions limited choices, Gelderman said. Wormley worked as a hacker in his father’s livery stable, a steward on Mississippi River steamboats and later in his own catering and boarding house businesses. Reconstruction brought a short period of opportunity for African-Americans and Wormley “built and operated the Wormley Hotel, the city’s most luxurious at a time when most financial and government business was conducted in hotels.”

The hotel’s location in the commercial and political center of Washington helped Wormley to meet and help the city’s movers and shakers—and the young African-American man eventually “became one of the biggest business successes in the district (and) generously helped members of his race financially and politically.”