Melanie Henderson

First Freed

a photograph

When freedom is clouds, pearls
& a swamp at the gates,
blood in the veins of three stars
and two stripes, you yank your feet
from the soil of Virginia,
the land of blooming shackles—
and run.

Your name is Thomas.

You are tall, lanky, dark.
Eyes, gray brown. You build
a church on F St. in old SW,
marry a big, fine woman &
after 13 free children, you sit
wearily in a wooden chair.

When freedom is shaped
like a diamond with a river
running through, you prick
the spirit and let the vein
along the shore.

You whisper to the shadows
and into the sky, that though there
is no proof you were ever born,
your work, your word,
your blood is your bond
to this and any earth.


This poem honors forebears whose full names are not known. The Southwest neighborhood of DC, especially along the waterfront, is one of the oldest areas of the city that was developed, but most of the original buildings were torn down during massive “urban renewal” schemes, which removed close-knit working-class communities in the 1950s and 60s and forced the relocation of approximately 23,500 residents. Prior to the Civil War, however, a large number of free African Americans lived in Southwest, then known as “the Island” because the Tiber River and James Creek cut it off from the rest of the city. Some of the earliest historically Black churches in the quadrant were: First Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church, Metropolitan Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church, Island Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church.


Melanie Henderson, Washington DC native poet, editor, photographer and publisher, is the author of Elegies for New York Avenue, winner of the 2011 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. An alumnus of Howard and Trinity Universities, she studied poetry in Dr. Tony Medina's "Boot Camp" and at the Voices Summer Writing Workshops (VONA) in San Francisco, CA prior to earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her poems have appeared in Drumvoices Revue, jubilat, Torch, Tuesday; An Art Project, Valley Voices, and The Washington Informer. She is a recipient of the 2009 Larry Neal Writers Award and a 2013 Pushcart Prize nomination from Iris G. Press. She is a Founding Editor of the Tidal Basin Review. To read more by this author: Melanie Henderson: Wartime Issue