Your dinner is served, Mr. President

Published 4:50 pm Monday, March 4, 2024

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As we kick off our March ‘Women’s History Month’ I want to talk about someone Washington needs to know more about.
But before I tell you about this amazing and humble woman, let me tell you who she was associated with.

This picture is the home of Congressman John Humphrey Small, located at the corners of Main and Bridge Street in Washington. Mr. Small is notable for many reasons in addition to having a school and street named after him.

He was mayor of Washington (1889-1890) and is known as the ‘Father of the Intercoastal Waterways.’ This is because one of his major interests involved increasing waterborne transportation along the Atlantic coast.

Small felt that such a waterway not only would serve the transportation needs of the general public but also would provide added commerce and trade routes for the coastal regions of the eastern seaboard. He envisioned a series of interconnecting canals extending from Boston to Key West, Fla., a distance of three thousand miles. The waterway was completed in the mid 1930’s.

Equally renowned to the African American community was Mrs. Malvina Ragsdale Medley. Born enslaved in 1848 on the Ragsdale Plantation in Virginia, she gained her freedom at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

She married Mr. Richard Medley, a formerly enslaved man from the same plantation. He became a Methodist preacher in 1868, and they later moved to Washington where he became Presiding Elder of the Washington district. Mrs. Malvina became a house servant and nurse for the Small family in 1897, after the deaths of her son Thomas in 1894, and her husband in 1895.

When Small was elected a Democrat for the 56th Congress in 1899, the Small family moved to Georgetown taking Mrs. Malvina with them.
Malvina met and served many members of Congress and many other Washington D.C. notables.
My favorite story about Mrs. Malvina is when President Woodrow Wilson came to dine with the Smalls. Malvina was coached by Mrs. Small to use proper etiquette when announcing dinner to the President. “Don’t say supper Mrs. Small told Malvina, that’s what southerners say, we’re in the north now.” Malvina practiced saying dinner but when it was time for dinner to be served to the President, Malvina proudly announced, “Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served, now come get your supper!”

Mrs. Malvina returned to Washington in the late 1920’s with the Small family. She remained with them for 52 years. She owned several properties in Washington, and lived at one of them on Van Norden Street near Third where the Little Grove Holiness Church is today, a block from my grandparents.

She often talked with neighbors about her ‘time in the north’ and how much she missed gardening on her little plots of land in ‘little town Washington North Carolina’ as she called it. I never met Mrs. Malvina but her stories about meeting famous people and presidents in Washington DC was something the elders proudly passed on to us.

Mrs. Malvina died on May 13, 1949, at the age of 101. Her wake took place at the John Small home for public viewing, six hours before her funeral services at Beebe Memorial Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. She was greatly loved and respected by many people, Black and white.

She was buried at the Fairview Cemetery at Bridge and Eleventh Streets where Washington’s most prominent and prosperous African Americans were interred at that time. Her tombstone was later moved to Cedar Hill Cemetery when the Fairview was restructured to become a local city park now known as Beebe Memorial Park.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.