“The Rough and Tumble of a Public School”

In March, I noticed two articles about Franklin School in Washington, DC. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stands vacant at the corner of 13th and K Streets, NW. It is being considered as the site of a new museum in the capital. The news stories caught my eye because Franklin School is just a block from the site of James and Lucretia Garfield’s Washington, DC home at 13th and I Street.

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just around the corner from the Franklin School.  (Bundy)

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just down the street from the Franklin School. (Bundy)

When Franklin School was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, its significance was explained:

“The Franklin School was the flagship building of a group of seven modern urban public school buildings constructed between 1862-1875 to house, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the capital of the Republic. It was hoped that this new public school system would serve as a model for the nation as the need to provide equal educational opportunities for all Americans was finally recognized as essential to the survival of a democratic society.”

The building was designed by Adolf Cluss, and built in 1869. It had a bust of Benjamin Franklin on the façade, large windows, airy spaces, and an auditorium that seated 1,000. With its location in a prominent neighborhood, and its offices for the Superintendent and the Board of Education, Franklin School was a symbol of the new graded system of classes for boys and girls. Were the Garfield children among its students?

It is clear from Garfield’s diaries that the older boys, Harry and Jim, attended public school in Washington, DC for some time in the 1870s. Confirmation comes from Lucretia Garfield Comer, daughter of Harry and granddaughter of President Garfield. In her biography of her father, Harry Garfield’s First Forty Years: Man of Action in a Troubled World, she writes about Hal’s early schooling:

“In the fall of 1869, Harry was entered in the Primary Department of the Franklin Union School, and there he continued through the spring of his ninth year…The parents tried Jim there too, but scarlet fever intervened; and after the weeks of quarantine were over they put the younger boy in a small private school.”

It seems that Hal attended the Franklin School for the 1869-70 through 1873-74 school years; Jim’s time there is less clear.

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum.  (Author photo)

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum. (Author photo)

As a father and an educator, Garfield thought seriously about the boys’ school experience. His diary entry for Tuesday, February 13, 1872 indicates concern: “…Am troubled about Harry’s school. Scholars are a rough set. Must try to find a private school though the rough and tumble of a public school is good for a boy.” In November, 1873 he was still worried about “the most difficult question I have ever confronted, namely what shall I do with my children in the matter of education. I believe that the mind naturally hungers and thirsts for knowledge. I cannot doubt that something is wrong with our system of education which has made both my boys hate the sight of a school book.”

The busy congressman had time to be involved with his sons’ school. On May 19, 1873: “…In the evening took Crete and Mother to the Franklin School concert, and staid till half-past nine.” Perhaps in an effort to understand the “system of education,” on May 15 “…In the Evening Miss Perkins and Miss McCall took dinner with us. They are the teachers, respectively of Jimmy and Harry, and I am glad to talk of late methods, and see how the teaching world has been going since I left it…” And on June 4th that year: “…Attended Harry’s examination at the Franklin School Building. Harry did very well; though I think he is like me in this, that he does better under pressure than on ordinary occasions. Some of the nervous boys did not do themselves justice. I am persuaded that our public schools are overworking their scholars. I saw many signs of nervous exhaustion among the little fellows in Miss McMahon’s class…”

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens' educations.  Despite President Garfield's early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success.  (Library of Congress)

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens’ educations. Despite President Garfield’s early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success. (Library of Congress)

The next school year Hal, Jim and Mollie Garfield attended a local “kindergarten.” In May, 1874, Garfield wrote, “I am troubled to know what to do with the children next in regard to their education. They do not seem to have that hunger and thirst after knowledge that I always felt when I was a child.”

That fall the Garfields ended their experiment with public school. October 26, 1874: “Crete and I started out early to settle Harry and Jimmy in school. We have determined to keep Mollie at home this Winter and teach her a little of housekeeping and something of books. Harry and Jimmy need the hand of a master at school and after much discussion of the subject, we concluded to send them to Mr. Young’s private school on the west side of Franklin Square. Terms, twenty dollars each for ten weeks…” Mr. Young’s school was the Emerson Institute, established in 1853 as “a select, classical, and mathematical school for boys.” The school was on 14th Street, between I and K streets. Harry Garfield was ten years old, and Jimmy was eight when they were enrolled there.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part II

After the war, Wormley had become so successful that, in 1869, he purchased the initial portion of the previously mentioned Wormley Hotel main building, located at the SW corner of 15th and H Streets to add to his business locations. He then alternately referred to the original collection of five boarding houses and a restaurant on I Street as the “Annex” and the “Branch Hotel”. While Garfield was spreading his national image and building his house in the city, Wormley’s newest structure had become the privately owned, yet public, seat of political maneuvering, high society and statesmanship in the District.

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869.  (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869. (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

As a military and political leader in support of the rights of Blacks, Garfield had to be in touch with Wormley fairly frequently. Unfortunately, since this research regarding Garfield has just begun we have not, as yet, uncovered expansive direct information about their personal relationship. We do know that as Mr. Garfield entered upon his life in the White House the existence of the relationship became more widely known.

In the fall of 1879 John Hay and his wife had taken up a two month residence at Wormley’s Hotel while they waited for their new home a block away on H Street to be finished. Just a few years previously in this same building it was reported that the Presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes had been negotiated. During the period 1880 to 1881 the patrons of the hotel included famous and wealthy aristocrats like the Astors, Henry Adams, the Alexander Graham Bell family, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Garfield’s presidential election Democratic opponent General Winfield Scott Hancock, Robert Lincoln and family and the Hawaiian Annexation Commission.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries during the Civil War.  President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881 while Hay was staying at Wormley's Hotel, but Hay declined.  John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  (Library of Congress)

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881, but Hay declined. John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

During his Presidency Garfield appointed several close black friends of Wormley to prominent federal appointments including Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, and Blanche K. Bruce. The well known Post Office “Star Route Scandal” investigations originating under Garfield’s administration included an allegation that Henry Bowen attempted a $25,000 bribe while at the hotel. Garfield’s Postmaster Thomas L. James, charged by Garfield to clean out the corruption, was a Wormley’s patron and was honored at a banquet at the hotel on March 16, 1881 which was attended by members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court.

Garfield, as part of his pre-inauguration activities on the evening of March 3, 1881, spoke at the hotel to his fellow Williams College alumni and is quoted as saying, “…Tonight I am a private citizen. Tomorrow I shall be called to assume new responsibilities and, on the day after, the broadside of the world’s wrath will strike.”

For the next few months the new President would settle into his duties at the White House, which brings us to Saturday, July 2, 1881, the day of his shooting. After the attack by Charles J. Guiteau, the President was brought to the White House to minister to his wounds. Among the early attendees to the needs of the President was James Wormley. James had been known to be called to attend to the care of many prominent men of the 19th century including President Lincoln after his shooting and also to attend to his son Willie who had lain dying in the White House nearly 20 years earlier. According to many accounts Wormley also had been a “nurse” to political luminaries the likes of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and many others. As likely the most famous caterer and nurse of his time, James was asked to care for the needs of Garfield as he lay attempting to recuperate from his wounds and the ministrations of his physicians in the White House.

A look at James A. Garfield's March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley's Hotel.  Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day.  (Library of Congress)

A look at James A. Garfield’s March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley’s Hotel. Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day. (Library of Congress)

According to an article in the New York Herald dated July 26, 1881, Wormley was immediately sought out to prepare the meals of the President by the attending physician, Dr. Willard Bliss. One of the foods most requested by the President was something called “beef tea.” This concoction was prepared from the finest tenderloin available. The meat was placed upon a broiling iron, not to cook but to sear the surface. It was then placed into a mechanical press provided from Wormley’s which compressed the meat with a pressure of 300-400 pounds until all the juices had been squeezed out of the steak. The juice or “tea” according to contemporary sources was one of the most nutritious foods provided to the President as he attempted to recuperate. Multiple news accounts, such as that in the Times Picayune on August 9, 1881, report that most of the foods provided for the suffering President came from Wormley’s farm and country homes on Pierce Mill Road on the outskirts of the city.

Despite the best care available and the aid of mechanical appliances devised by inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, the President died on September 19, 1881. Wormley, as an expression of his sorrow, commissioned a large white funerary bouquet in the shape of an angel holding a silver trumpet and about the size of a five year old child which was suspended above the coffin as the President lay in state.

The body was transported to Cleveland in a train from Washington with members of the family. It was followed approximately 20 minutes later by a train for dignitaries. This train was catered by James Wormley and his staff as it made its way to Cleveland. This catering for the train resulted in a bill for liquors, wines and lunches in an amount exceeding $1,700.00 and was the source of some consternation as reported in the Daily Globe on March 29, 1882.

Garfield’s Vice President and successor, Chester A. Arthur, had already been a patron of Wormley’s and that continued throughout his administration. One of the most important accomplishments of Garfield and, ultimately, Arthur was the viable creation of the Civil Service Commission. The first meetings of the Commission were held in the rooms of Chairman Dorman B. Eaton at Wormley’s.

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley's became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley’s became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881. (Library of Congress)

James Wormley survived Garfield for only a few short years, dying from complications from surgery in Boston in 1884. It seems that both of these significant men would have survived but for the relatively primitive medical procedures undertaken on their behalf. Perhaps the scholarship around these two men will bring greater illumination to how the leader of the nation would have engaged in regular intercourse with a Black man in our nation’s capital over their twenty years of daily prominent existence within a few blocks of each other.

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor