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Wormley, James(1819–1884) - Entrepreneur, Chronology, Opens Elegant Hotel

washington wormley’s business black

James Wormley, a pioneering black nineteenth-century businessman and owner of the Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C., opened the capital’s first integrated hotel. He was also known for his business acumen and lobbying efforts to secure adequate funding for the first Washington, D.C. public schools for black Americans.

Wormley was born in Washington, D.C. to Pere Leigh and Mary Wormley. Both parents had lived as free people with a wealthy Virginia family prior to moving to Washington, D.C. in 1814. On January 16, 1819, while living in a small, two-room, brick building located on E Street, near Fourteenth Street, northwest, James was born. His father owned and managed a hackney carriage business, which he purchased for $175. Being located in the hotel section of Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue allowed his business to flourish. James, the eldest of five children, acquired his first job there. At the family business James began driving his own hack, learned skills and values, and won the confidence and trust of his patrons, which allowed him to monopolize the trade of the capital’s two leading hotels, the National and Willard. Many of his patrons, some of the most wealthy and influential citizens of Washington, became lifelong friends and benefactors.

Chronology

1819

Born in Washington, D.C. on January 16

1841

Marries Anna Thompson of Norfolk, Virginia

1849

Goes to California during the gold rush

1868

Accompanies Reverdy Johnson, minister, to England, as his personal caterer

1871

Opens the Wormley Hotel; sponsors legislation for the creation of public schools for blacks in Washington, D.C.

1877

Owns hotel famous as the site of the Wormley Conference

1884 Dies in Boston, Massachusetts on October 18

In 1841, Wormley married Anna Thompson of Norfolk, Virginia. From this union three sons and a daughter were born: William H. A., James Thompson, Garret Smith, and Anna M. Cole. His second son, James Thompson, became the first graduate of the School of Pharmacy at Howard University. In 1849, at the age of 30, Wormley went to California to prospect gold and subsequently served as a steward on a Mississippi River steamboat and various naval vessels. After returning to Washington, Wormley contacted some of his friends and used his new skills to become a steward at the elite Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. Unlike his father, he had acquired the rudiments of an education at the community Sabbath schools and had become confident about his business talents and contacts. As a result, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, he accumulated enough capital and support to open a catering business on I Street near Fifteenth, next door to his wife’s candy store. Among his patrons were some of the most prominent public men.

Opens Elegant Hotel

In 1868, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson was appointed minister to England. He had heard of Wormley’s reputation as a caterer and decided to offer him a position as his personal caterer. Even though he had a wife and four children, he accepted the offer. It is said that his culinary skills contributed to Johnson’s diplomatic success and Wormley’s reputation as a caterer was that much improved. While abroad he visited the cuisine kitchens in Paris. Excited about the additional culinary skills learned in Paris, in 1871, he moved to a more spacious location on the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets near the White House. At this location, with the aid of U.S. Representative Samuel J. Hooper, the silent partner and nominal owner, Wormley opened an elegant hotel which became known as the Wormley Hotel. The older property on I Street was used as an annex to the hotel. The five-story building boasted 150 rooms, including a bar, a barbershop, and a world-renowned dining room noted for its cuisine (turtle soup and Chesapeake Bay seafood). It was also renowned for its well-managed rooms and became the first hotel in Washington, D.C. to have an elevator and a telephone connected to the city’s first switchboard. For more than two decades the hotel was the meeting place for black and white elites as well as distinguished foreigners.

There are those who have said that Wormley’s hotel was primarily for the wealthy and powerful white males in the capital. Wormley’s granddaughter, Imogene, however, indicated that people of color were guests at the hotel. One person in particular was the Haitian minister and noted African scholar, Edward Wilmot Blyden. Other distinguished guests, friends, and allies included George Riggs, a banker; William Wilson Corcoran, philanthropist and financier; and Senator Charles Sumner, a frequent visitor to the Wormley Hotel.

Another milestone for Wormley on July 21, 1871, according to the Agribusiness Council in Washington, D.C., was a resolution he authored with the aid of Senator Charles Sumner. He and Sumner, a Massachusetts Republican and an abolitionist, persuaded Congress to provide legislation for funding the first public schools in Washington, D.C. for black Americans. As a result of his efforts, in 1885, a school known as the Wormley Elementary School for the Colored was built in Georgetown at Thirty-fourth and Prospect Streets. The school, the last physical monument attesting to Wormley’s life and time, remained an all black school until 1952. Subsequently, it was used as a vocational training center for special needs students. The building was condemned in 1994 and was purchased in 1997 by Georgetown University with the intent of housing its graduate policy program. Unfortunately, the university later decided to sell the property.

The hotel was the site of the Wormley Conference of 1877, where representatives of the future president Rutherford B. Hayes and opponent Samuel Tilden resolved the disputed election of 1876. A “secret deal” later known as the “Compromise of 1877, or the Wormley Agreement,” ended the dispute of the twenty electoral votes. Nineteen of the votes were from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and one from Oregon. The result of the agreement on February 26, 1877, was that Hayes received all twenty votes. There is no evidence that Wormley participated in this agreement, which signaled the end of the Reconstruction era and the fate of black Americans left to the southern state governments.

Never looking back, Wormley continued to operate his hotel and expanded his properties. In the 1870s and 1880s, Wormley and his eldest son, William, owned two country houses on what was then called Peirce Mill Road near Fort Reno in upper northwest Washington, D.C. In addition to being known for his hotel, Wormley was also recognized for his patent on a boat safety-device.

At the age of sixty-five on October 18, 1884, Wormley died after a kidney stone operation at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Members of his family were present at the time of his death. His body was returned to Washington and “lay in state” in the Sumner room because the furniture in this room was purchased from Sumner’s estate after his death. Because Wormley was held in high esteem, all of the hotels in the city flew their flags at half-mast. His funeral was attended by men prominent in public and private life. Many men of high ranking positions in the civil, military, and naval services of the United States were in attendance.

After his death, Wormley’s estate was estimated to be over $100,000. His second son, James Thompson Wormley, managed the hotel into the 1890s. By 1893 it came under new management but retained the Wormley name until 1897 when the name was changed to the Colonial Hotel. The hotel was later torn down and replaced by the Union Trust building in 1906.

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over 5 years ago

I am a direct male descendant of James Wormley (Great-g-g-g-g-Grandson). I have been researching the Wormley family for many years and trying to correct a lot of misinformation currently found on-line. Please note, you state, "Wormley was born in Washington, D.C. to Pere Leigh and Mary Wormley." Original death records from Boston show his father was Lynch Wormley and his mother was Cleo (last name blank).