Letter from Washington — From the September 2014 issue

Washington Is Burning

Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

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On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Avenue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem itself got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses — most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

Portrait of Sir George Cockburn © De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

Portrait of Sir George Cockburn © De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. Lonnie Bunch, who is overseeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.” Workers have already installed a 1930s guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary and a Jim Crow– era railroad car.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Holt) will be published next March.

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