Michael Shiner (ca. 1805-1880), born enslaved but free by 1840, wrote a "diary" (or memoir, as he apparently wrote it years later) covering his observations of life as an employee of the Washington Navy Yard and as a resident of the city from 1813 to 1869. Few first-hand citizen accounts of that period of Washington history exist today from anyone, African American or white.
Born in Maryland, Shiner is believed to have been enslaved by the James Pumphrey family. He came to Washington around age seven and was working at the Washington Navy Yard as early as 1826. Thomas Howard, the chief clerk of the Navy Yard, purchased Shiner in 1828 and leased his labor to the Navy Yard Paint Shop.
Howard died in 1832, and his will stipulated that Shiner be manumitted (released from slavery) in eight years. The 1840 federal census in fact listed Shiner and his wife and children as free people of color.
Shiner's reminiscences, which can be read in transcript form on the Department of the Navy web site http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/shinerdiary.html, primarily covers life at the Washington Navy Yard, noting commanders, vessels built or docked there, co-workers, accidents and deaths, fires and rebuilding, unusual weather, and prominent visitors, including several U.S. presidents.
The memoir also provides a rare first-hand glimpse of the War of 1812, an account of Shiner's successful efforts to recover his wife and three daughters after they were kidnapped off the street near their home and sold to Alexandria slave dealers in 1833, and details about the 1835 Snow Riots, during which white mobs attacked black residents and destroyed their property and institutions.
Despite the gravity of some of the events it describes, Shiner's memoir is imbued with optimism and spirituality.
The Shiner journal also comments on the ten-hour work days at the Navy Yard, Andrew Jackson's wiliness, the first railroad train in DC, the cornerstone-laying for the Washington Monument, President Lincoln's second inauguration, and the loyalty oaths required after the start of the Civil War.
Shiner continued to work at the Navy Yard Paint Shop until about 1877, when he was described in the city directory as a watchman. He apparently also maintained a stand at Eastern Market and was contracted by Alexander Shepherd to pave 11th Street, between Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street, NW. He was active in politics after the Civil War. As a Ward Six leader, he and his son Isaac served as delegates to the Republican Nominating Convention in 1870.
In 1867 (or possibly before) Shiner purchased Square 946, a 9,000-square foot, triangular property bordered by Ninth, Tenth, and D Streets, SE, and South Carolina Avenue, SE, and built a house there. Until 1871 the address for the house was 474 Ninth Street; after that it became 338 Ninth.
By 1891 the property was out of the family, and Grace Baptist Church was built on the site. That building is now Grace Church condominium, 350 Ninth Street, SE.
Shiner died of smallpox in 1880.