Carol Gelderman is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New Orleans. She has written eight books, including A Free Man of Color and His Hotel (Potomac Books, 2012).
James Wormley, the free man of color of the book’s title, came into the world in 1819 in a two-room brick house in Washington, D.C. as the ninth of ten children of a black hackney driver and his mulatto wife and the unacknowledged descendant of one of Virginia’s ruling families. The first Wormeleys in America arrived in Virginia from England in the 1630s. They were the fifteenth generation descended from Sir John de Wormele of Hatfield. They established themselves as one of the leading families of the colony and resided in an elegant manor called Rosegill. At the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, they owned 320 slaves. Then, the family fortune was lost and their name might have been forgotten were it not for the Wormeley children who were born to an, “unidentified colored woman.” The colored branch of the family dropped an “e” in the spelling of Wormley, moved to Washington, worked hard, and flourished.
James Wormley was one of these enterprising black Wormleys. Although codes, curfews, and other restrictions hampered the free movement of blacks, Wormley worked as a hacker for his father’s livery stable, then as a steward on Mississippi River steamboats, and later in his own catering and boarding house businesses. Then, between 1865 and 1870, Congress passed three amendments, the Thirteenth abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth establishing citizenship for those born in or naturalized in the United States, and the Fifteenth giving citizens the vote. These amendments, together with civil rights and enforcement legislation, created a new Constitution giving African Americans full citizenship rights.
During this Reconstruction period, Wormley built and operated the Wormley Hotel, D.C.’s most luxurious at a time when financial and governmental business was conducted in hotels. Not only did well-known men stay at or live in the Wormley—men like English novelist Anthony Trollope, Civil War Generals Winfred Scott and George McClellan, Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, Vice-president Schuyler Colfax, and historian Henry Adams—but because of its location in the commercial and political center of Washington, Wormley met and helped the city’s movers and shakers.
Then, the Supreme Court in three decisions, one in 1873 and two in 1876 slowly dismantled Reconstruction leading to the contested election of Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes. Because Negroes lost federal protection in voting, Tilden won the South. . .probably. Election results in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were disputed, but, even so, Hayes won the electoral count.
After 1877, the idea of a strong national government protecting the rights of American citizens lay impotent. At first, James Wormley felt none of these changes, but he understood what the change portended for the future. He ran his hotel until his death in 1884. His son James T. Wormley took over management, but the total disenfranchisement of Negroes prompted him to sell in 1893.
The period we live in today is alarmingly similar to the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century, when the federal courts used their power to protect businesses from regulation rather than people’s rights. The United States, then and now, has arguably the most unequal distribution of wealth in the western world. Moreover, the elections of 1876 and 2000 are remarkably similar. Like Samuel Tilden in 1876, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote but the state of Florida with 25 electoral votes was too close to call. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a manual recount. Bush appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the count. By a vote of 5-4 the court decided to stop the count. Bush was ahead by 66 votes at this point. The court’s decision gave Bush Florida’s electoral votes, resulting in a Bush victory by one electoral vote. After Chief Justice William Rehnquist died, President Bush nominated John Roberts as Chief Justice, who right away showed his states’ rights colors in the 2010 Citizens United decision to allow businesses and unions to spend freely on commercials for or against candidates thereby ending decades-old restrictions. In another 5-4 decision the Roberts court restrained the federal government from limiting the right to keep and bear arms.
And so goes the recurring American story, a tug of war between states rights and a strong federal government. During three brief periods in our history—the Federalist era in the early days of the Republic, during Reconstruction that enabled the Free Man of Color to build his Wormley Hotel, and again, half a century later, beginning during FDR’s New Deal and lasting through our own civil rights era, the Union had achieved primacy in the sense that the federal government provided protection of citizens’ rights.
Because the Constitution instituted a system of divided sovereignty, the seesaw between states’ righters and federalists continues into the twenty-first century.