During my time as a Georgetown student, I walked across the trolley tracks on O Street, slipped on their smooth surface in the blizzard last year and even pointed them out in a neighborhood tour for newly admitted students and their families. But I did not understand their significance outside of the charm they seemed to add to my present-day experiences.
It was not until my grandmother visited me in Washington, D.C., that I learned that her mother, my great-grandmother, might have taken the trolley that ran on those tracks more than 50 years ago.
My great-grandmother had left her small family farm in Pennsylvania to attend nursing school at what was once Garfield Memorial Hospital in the District. According to my grandmother, she graduated sometime between 1928 and 1932, though she might have left school for a short time when she was ill. The details were unclear, and we did not have any pictures.
Previously, I remembered my great-grandmother Elizabeth by her old, walnut-stained wooden trunk, filled with folded quilts. The trunk came with her when she started living with us, and when she was gone, I thought it was all she had left behind.
My newfound understanding of the trolley tracks led me to wonder whether she had left behind more than just a trunk. I searched through online records, not even to find her, but just to locate the hospital where she had attended nursing school. It had closed decades ago, and senior apartments were now standing where the hospital complex once spread on Florida Avenue, still surrounded by the hospital’s original wrought-iron fence.
My online search yielded a brief history of the hospital and several boxes of records kept by the Library of Congress. I spent a long Friday afternoon sifting through the boxes, until I finally found her name, typed out but spelled incorrectly, among the 29 nursing students in the alumnae record of the class of 1931. This led me to a picture of her graduating class, where she stood, smiling, in the second row. My grandmother, my mother, who is also a nurse, and I all saw this picture of her for the first time after uncovering the records.
Before taking on this project, I had lived in the District for almost two years, travelling on Florida Avenue and studying at the Library of Congress, without knowing that these remaining artifacts of my great-grandmother were waiting for me to find. My research into my family’s history was in large part a process of learning more about myself, not only because of our familial relationship but because I carry her name as my own middle name: Elizabeth
Beyond being able to share the related pictures and documents with my family members, my genealogical knowledge has enriched my experience in this city. It is fulfilling to know and be able to share this history, just as it is to walk through the National Mall and understand the political circumstances of the construction and location of its monuments.
More than anything, it has challenged me to consider what I myself leave behind here and whether or not that will fade into the background of the city that I love.
Emma Wenzinger is a sophomore in the College.
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