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Meet James Wormley, The Owner Of Washington, D.C.’s First Integrated Hotel

Meet James Wormley, The Owner Of Washington, D.C.’s First Integrated Hotel

He had a strong legacy in the nation’s capital!

James Wormley was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the son of Pere Leigh and Mary Wormley, reports. His parents both lived as free people with a wealthy Virginia family before moving to the District in 1814. James was born just a few years later on January 16, 1819. The oldest of five children, he got his first job working for his father’s carriage-for-hire business, also known as a hackney carriage. 

While working the family business, Wormley learned the tricks of the trade, building rapport with his patrons and cornering the market at two of D.C.'s leading hotels, the National and Willard. Wormley eventually parlayed his business with the wealthy Washington influencers into lifelong friendships, which would prove fruitful later in life when he branched off on his own. 

Wormley married Anna Thompson in 1841 and the couple had four children, William H.A., James Thompson, Garret Smith, and Anna M. Cole. In 1849 at the age of 30, Wormley left D.C. to head to California during the gold rush. There, he served as a steward on a steamboat that ran along the Mississippi River. Eventually, he returned to Washington, pivoting to become a steward at the prestigious Metropolitan Club. By then, Wormley was quite confident and assured of his entrepreneurial skills, saving up enough money just before the beginning of the Civil War to open his own catering business. Directly next door, his wife Anna owned a candy shop. 



His business continued to thrive and in 1868, Wormley was offered a job as a personal caterer for Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson, who had just been named the minister to England. Rumor spread that it was Wormley’s culinary skills that improved Johnson’s diplomatic success, and his legend only grew. While traveling abroad, Wormley studied in kitchens in Paris, returning to the states in 1871 where he expanded his business into a larger location on the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets, just walking distance from the White House. 

In his new prime real estate, and with the help of U.S. Rep. Samuel J. Hooper, Wormley’s silent partner, the carriage-driver-turned-chef took on his largest undertaking yet: opening a hotel. The Wormley Hotel was a luxury hotel; next to it, an older five-story property functioned as an annex. Wormley’s hotel was the talk of the town, boasting a bar, barbershop, world-class dining room featuring turtle and seafood soup, and 150 rooms! The property made history as the first integrated hotel in Washington, D.C., and the first to have an elevator and telephone connected to the switchboard. 

Wormley would have success with the property for more than two decades, the Wormley Hotel becoming a staple meeting spot for Black and white elites alike. Wormley used his accumulated wealth for good, working with legislators to fund the first public school in Washington, D.C. for Black youth. In 1885, the Wormley Elementary School for the Colored was built in the Georgetown neighborhood at 34th and Prospect Streets. The school would remain an all-Black school for nearly 7 decades before its closing in 1952. Afterward, it was used as a training center for special needs students. 



However, Wormley’s affiliation with white elites didn’t always sit well with other Black people. The hotel was the site for a number of key political agreements, including the Wormley Conference of 1877 where representatives of presidential candidates Rutherford B. Hayes and his opponent, Samuel Tilden, met to strike a “secret deal” to resolve the 1876 election. The Compromise of 1877, also known as the Wormley Agreement, was responsible for settling the dispute over twenty electoral votes. Hayes subsequently received all twenty votes, ending the Reconstruction era and leaving many Blacks in the South disenfranchised after the government removed federal troops. 

Still, Wormley prospered, expanding his properties throughout the 1870s and 1880s. He and his eldest son owned two other country houses in D.C., and Wormley became known for both his hotel and his patent for a boat safety device. Wormley and his family continued to be in good fortune and the historic Washington, D.C. hotelier passed away on October 18, 1884 at the age of 65. Upon his death, his estate had an estimated worth of more than $100,000. His son James Thompson Wormley would manage the hotel until the 1890s before it retained new management, changing its name to the Colonial Hotel in 1897 before being torn down and replaced by the Union Trust building in 1906. 

May the industrious spirit of James Wormley live on forever. Because of him, we can!

Meet James Wormley, the owner of Washington, D.C.’s first integrated hotel. James Wormley circa 1869. Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.