By Harry Lewis, edited by Jenn Briggs

My great-grandfather appears on the 1920 census as living in Washington, D.C., cared for by his grandmother, Lizzie Mercer, at their bustling house on Franklin Avenue. In 1930, he took up residence in a boarding house within the city. As a Black man in the early twentieth century, my great-grandfather must have been in the heart of national politics. Although his role was likely limited due to his race, it’s possible that he ate with influential leaders or talked over the latest election results over a meal. Black-owned boarding houses in Washington D.C. in the post-bellum period served as more than just places for sleeping and eating; they were the center of political conversations and dialogue. Not only were they hubs of political development, they were considered places of moral and spiritual education for the broader Black community. Moreover, these boarding houses gained publicity in both Black and white-owned print media, meaning they played a valuable role in both the Black community and the broader white one.

Following the Civil War, print media commonly featured advertisements for boarding houses. They published not only traditional advertisements listing addresses and fees, but many also took the form of written endorsements. This one from Mary Ann Shadd Cary and William Wells Brown in Frederick Douglass’ Monthly described their experiences staying at William Still’s boardinghouse in Philadelphia. Shadd Cary described the house as “an elegant home at moderate charges [with] an agreeable and highly intelligent host and hostess.”

Ad for Mr. and Mrs. Still's Boarding House

Advertisement and reviews for William and Letitia Still’s boarding house. One of the reviews given is from Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Frederick Douglass’ Monthly, 1858-09-17. Black Abolitionist Papers.


“A Good Boarding House Greatly Needed by the Colored Citizens.” Source: Provincial Freeman [Canada] 6 Dec. 1856. Accessible Archives.


Alongside endorsements, Shadd Cary also published editorials. In the Provincial Freeman, a Black newspaper in Canada, she wrote about the need for a boardinghouse free of the influence of alcohol. In conversation with the temperance movement, Shadd Cary requested that Black leaders in both America and Canada seek to rid boarding houses of the influence of alcohol and related vices in order to not “demoralize the young.” This connection between the political nature of the temperance movement and the moral call made by Shadd Cary is characteristic of the dual nature of boarding houses as spaces of character and community building.

It is clear that boardinghouses held a special place in the Colored Conventions movement. Through the Black press, owners and their partners could publicize their businesses and encourage visitors to share their spaces and food. The boarding houses, of course, worked in concert with the political will of the time; Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s integration of the moral and the political in domestic settings is but one example of this trend. And, of course, Psyche Williams-Forson reminds us of the invisible labor of those Black women who owned, ran, and worked in boarding houses. Black-owned boarding houses served as spaces of community construction led by many Black women – spaces that I would like to think helped make my great-grandfather a better person. It is of the utmost importance that scholarship surrounding the Colored Conventions elevates the invisible labor of Black women who created and ran boardinghouses and celebrates the role they played in moral and political development.



Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census. 1920 United States Federal Census. Washington, D.C.: National Archives & Records Administration.

Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census. 1930 United States Federal Census. Washington, D.C.: National Archives & Records Administration.

Shadd Cary, Mary Ann. “A Good Boarding House Greatly Needed by the Colored Citizens.” Editorial. Provincial Freeman [Canada] 6 Dec. 1856: n. pag. Black Studies Center. Web.1 Apr. 2016.

“WILLIAM STILL’S BOARDING HOUSE.” Fredrick Douglass’ Monthly. 17 Sep. 1858, n. ed. n.pag. Online, Black Studies Center

Williams-Forson, Psyche. “What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?: Interpreting the Material Culture of Black Women’s Domestic Work & Labor in the Context of the Colored Conventions.” Forthcoming, 2016