I recently watched a lecture given by Steve Livengood of the Capitol Historical Society about those who lived on Square 688 just southeast of the Capitol. While most who lived there were exactly the kinds of people you would expect – doorkeepers of the House and Senate, for instance, one man in particular jumped out at me: William C. Costin.
Costin (that’s him on the left) was born about 1780, the son of Ann Dandrige-Costin, an enslaved woman owned by Martha Washington’s father who was quite possibly fathered by John Dandridge himself, making her a half-sister of Martha. (Others believe that Ann Dandridge-Costin was, in fact, the granddaughter of John Dandridge) It is also postulated that Costin’s father was Jacky Custis, Martha’s son, making Costin not only Martha Washington’s nephew (or grand-nephew) but also her grandson.
His exact paternity is as unclear, as his early life in general. It is not even quite clear whether or not he was himself enslaved when born. More certain is that he did not live at Mount Vernon with his mother.
His story becomes more clear when, as a young man of about 20, he moves to Capitol Hill, where he marries Philadelphia Judge, generally known as Delphy. Judge had been enslaved by Martha Washington, but was given to her daughter Elizabeth Parke Custis on the latter’s marriage to Thomas Law. Law in turn eventually sold Judge and their children to Costin.
Costin remained close to the Custis/Washington family, and a letter from Nelly Custis Lewis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, to him written about 1813, in which she asks him to drive her and her family to Philadelphia. By this time, Costin had built a house on A Street SE on Capitol Square, as square 688 was called back then.
Costin started work at the Bank of Washington in 1818. The 1822 city directory indicates that the bank was located on New Jersey Avenue, between B and C Streets southeast, so Costin’s commute was an easy two-block walk.
While his job was that of porter, he used his money and connections to their fullest, buying up and building numerous houses around the neighborhood. He was also busy in other ways, starting a school for African American children, a church, and a masonic temple.
He is probably most famous for his fight against a law that had been passed in April, 1821, that regulated the ability for African Americans to live in the District of Columbia. Over 22 paragraphs, the law enumerated what was required of every free and enslaved Black and what the penalties for non-compliance were. All free African Americans had to not only submit papers attesting to their freedom, but also documents from three white inhabitants attesting to their good character, and leave a $20 bond with a white citizen to ensure their continued “good, sober, and orderly conduct of such person or persons of color, and his or her family.” This would have to be repeated each year.
Costin refused to comply, and was fined five dollars. In the court case that ensued, Judge Cranch allowed the law to stand, but only for those moving to the District after its implementation. Costin and others whose life in the District predated the law were exempted.
Costin lived in Washington for another 20 years, dying in 1842. He was eulogized on the floor of the House of Representatives by former President John Quincy Adams with the words “The late William Costin, though he was not white, was as much respected as any man in the District and the large concourse of citizens that attended his remains to the grave – as well white as black – was an evidence of the manner in which he was estimated by the citizens of Washington.”
The Baltimore Sun wrote of his funeral:
The funeral of the late William Costin, took place on Wednesday last; it is supposed there were nearly two hundred hacks and other vehicles in line, besides a great many persons on horseback. May his excellent example be followed, and his many virtues imitated by the whole colored population of this country.