Friday, February 23, 2018

330 T Street, NW in LeDroit Park: Owned by Prominent Lawyer Fountain Peyton, Born Enslaved

           The owner and builder of the house at 330 T Street, NW, Charles A. White, applied for and was granted an Application for Permit to Build numbered 1338 for its construction on April 28, 1880.   White listed builder Fred W. Pilling as responsible for its construction, but neglected to list an architect responsible for its design.  The estimated cost of construction was $5,000, about twice that of the typical townhouse being built in Washington, DC at the time. 
          Charles Abiather White authored a total of 236 books during his long career in geology, paleontology, and biology - we'll talk about him in a future blog post here.  He would own and live in the house for 28 years, until July 1908, when he sold it to a prominent African-American lawyer.   

1910 Census taken at 330 T Street, NW
The new owner, Fountain Peyton, listed his occupation in the City Directory as a lawyer.  He and his family were listed at the house in the 1910 census.  Peyton had been born enslaved in 1861 in Stafford County, Virginia.  Both of his parents had also been born in Virginia.  His second wife Mary E. had been born about 1869 in Maryland, also the birthplace of both of her parents.  Together, they had five children, all of whom called 330 T Street home that year.  They had all been born in Washington, DC and included: Benjamin (born about 1889), Mary L. (born about 1890), Elliott (born about 1892), Esther C. (born about 1900), and Jennette J. (born about 1901).   Peyton indicated that he owned the house with a mortgage.  He and his wife had married about 1886.         

1887 Hopkins Map.  330 T is seen on the southeast corner of Maple (T) and Linden (4th) Streets
The entire Peyton family was then described as 'Mulatto.'  Census enumerators that year were instructed “to be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto.  The word here is generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood.”  Importantly, it was up the census taker to observe and determine race, not the subject being interviewed, often resulting in a multitude of errors.              

            Peyton indicated on the 1910 census form that he worked as a federal prosecutor.  The Peyton’s were again listed at the house in the 1920 census, below, along with several boarders.  Only their children Benjamin, then age 31 and an author, Elliott, then age 28, Ester, then age 27, and Jenette, then age 19, remained at home in 1920.  Elliott worked as a chauffeur for a taxicab company, and Esther worked as a schoolteacher.  Fountain Peyton indicated that he then has his own general practice.   It is interesting to note that the Peyton’s were then enumerated as black. 
1920 Census for 330 T Street, NW
            The Peyton family welcomed four boarders into their home in 1920.  They were all enumerated as Mulatto, and included Burton Boteler, age 8, Edward Chapman, age 14, Ursaline Brooks, age 4 1/2 , and Joseph Boteler, age 6. Quite impressive indeed, considering the Payton’s had already raised five children of their own.
        Fountain Peyton penned a rather unusual book on an African-American Shakespearian actor named Ira Frederick Aldridge that was published in 1917, a rare combination of a black author highlighting a black actor at the time, according to the Library of Congress.[1]  
             The Stafford County Historical Society was able to research Fountain Peyton, a remarkable story from being born enslaved, being educated, becoming a lawyer, and breaking many of the racial hurdles and stereotypes of the era.  Their brief history reads as follows:[2]

"Many slaves lived in Stafford, but the names of most have been lost to history. A number of those who were able to leave the county and get to Washington or elsewhere became successful. Fountain Peyton was one such man. Born a slave in Stafford, he became a successful attorney in Washington, DC. This article is based upon material fond in The Washington Bee, a newspaper that served Washington’s Negro population during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author has supplemented the material contained therein.

Fountain Peyton was born a slave in Stafford County, the son of Wingfield Peyton and Mary (Whiting) Peyton (born c.1838). Mary was born and raised in the Clift and Moncure families. When she was bout twenty years of age, a death in her owner’s family resulted in her being sold to a slave trader who sent her to Richmond preparatory to shipping her to the Red River territory by way of New Orleans. Separated from her home and family, all seemed lost until she was informed that Benjamin Wamsley, who lived in the general vicinity of her former home in Stafford, had purchased her. She was brought back to Stafford and reunited with her family and friends and about a year later married Wingfield Peyton. He had been born on the Wamsley plantation. Fountain was born there in 1861.

During the Civil War, Fountain’s father was taken south by the Confederates. Mary seized the opportunity to escape to Washington, taking little Fountain with her. Arriving in Washington, they were classed by the Union army as “Contrabands of war.” Mary and Fountain endured all the hardships that fell to the other contrabands who came there under like circumstances. Nothing more is known of Mary Peyton.

At age six, Fountain commenced school in Washington and proved to be an exceptionally bright child. As he grew older, he partially supported himself by selling newspapers. His ambition from childhood was to become a lawyer. After eight years of public school, he entered Wayland Seminary, a school established by the Baptist Home Mission Society. He paid his fees by teaching grammar and mathematics there. He subsequently applied to Howard University, but discovered that while competent in math and English, he didn’t have enough training in the classical languages. Fountain left Howard and became a teacher at Leonardtown, Maryland, a position he held for five years. Presumably, he used this time to become familiar with those subjects he was lacking. Fountain then passed his Civil Service exam and took a job as a letter carrier in Washington. He reapplied to Howard University and was accepted into the law program there. His job with the post office took most of his time and he struggled to attend class and study. ‘Even the lecture hour was the hour for collecting mail; but he would remain to her the lecture, then seize his mailbag and run all over the route in order to get in at the post office on schedule.”
On April 26, 1890 Fountain graduated from Howard, third in his class of fourteen. He immediately opened an office and commenced his practice. One of about three Negro attorneys in the District of Columbia at that time, he quickly became noted as a successful criminal defense lawyer. Fountain was the first black lawyer to argue a case in the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia and was the first black Examiner in Chancery for Washington. He was appointed to the city’s School Board in 1915 and by 1918 was chairman. He served until at least 1919."

           Fountain Payton and his wife were again listed at the house in the 1940 census, he being retired at age 79.  Their daughter Esther continued to reside there, still employed as a public school teacher.  Interestingly, the boarder named Ursaline from 1920 had taken on Peyton as her last name, and indicated that she worked as an Assistant History Professor at nearby Howard University.  Fountain Peyton indicated that he estimated the value of the house as $8,000.  

Fountain Peyton died in August of 1951. His obituary appeared in the August 10, 1951 edition of the Washington Evening Star, which reported that he had been active right up to the week before his death.  It recalled that as a young kid selling newspapers, he was one of a group that would regularly run to sell a paper to President Grant “because of the extra tip he gave.”  After his retirement in 1921, he remained active, wrote short stories, and studied French as a hobby.  One of his favorite past times, the obituary listed, was dismantling and reassembling radios on the dining room table.  He was buried in Payne Cemetery.      

        Title to the house was put into daughter Esther Peyton on March 31, 1953.  She continued to reside there until her death, when a representative for her estate sold the house on July 1, 1994 to DC Councilman Frank Smith, Jr. 

        Current owner Aaron Rinaca is in the midst of a spectacular authentic renovation of the house, down to the fine details recreating missing architectural elements like copper finials, porch railings, and slate roofing.      

                                                                  Copyright Paul K. Williams