The namesake of the FBI’s first Black special agent, James Wormley was a businessman whose famous hotel, Wormley Hotel, would become a neutral ground for political discussion and dealings during the late 19th century. Wormley was born in Washington D.C. on January 16, 1819, to free Blacks.
The experience that set him on the path to a career in business was working for the family’s hackney carriage business. It also helped that he was based in Washington D.C. at a time when there was plenty of business opportunities for those with the drive to succeed. This was also a time when the political wheels were constantly moving.
There were a few stories about Wormley’s life prior to his opening the Wormley House. One of those states that he was at the bedside of President Lincoln when he passed in 1865. Of course, there’s plenty of skepticism on this.
James Wormley traveled to Europe and work in the hotel and culinary industry for some time before running a restaurant for several years in the D.C. area. He would take the next logical step in buying a hotel.
Opened 1871, it had a prime location at 1500 H Street Northwest near the White House. Since he was a local favorite, Wormley Hotel took off very quickly and catered to politicians, businessmen, diplomats, and others.
As for the amenities that it had, it was known for being one of the earlier hotels to feature a phone and European cuisine prepared and served by Wormley himself. He would use the success and fame that Wormley Hotel generated to dip into politics a bit to better Black citizens’ lives in D.C. The first was the Sumner House. There was also to be an elementary school located in Georgetown.
Speaking of politics, the hotel served as the forum for deals and compromises in the 1870s and 1880s. The most significant was the Compromise of 1877 to get U.S. troops out of the South and finish Reconstruction. The compromise also meant that the U.S. government wouldn’t push through northern and Black politicians to hold positions in the South anymore. This would also lead to the election of President Rutherford Hayes.
All of this was achieved in the last 13 years of Wormley’s life. On October 18, 1884, James Wormley passed away after a failed operation to remove kidney stones. The school he pushed for wouldn’t open until 1885. The Wormley Hotel would be torn down by 1906 and replaced by the Union Trust Company.