A New Connection with Lincoln's Washington

By John O'Brien

Washington D.C.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Commerce Department Appointee Graves is descendant of Civil War Hotelier


One of the great business success stories of early Washington D.C. was about James Wormley. He was a free-born man of African descent who learned cuisine and the hospitality arts on a trip to France with millionaire William W. Corcoran before the Civil War. He purchased a house on I Street near 15th for his first hotel, and added others as his reputation for excellence grew. In 1871, Wormley opened his grandest hotel on 15th Street at H.


Wormley was the preeminent caterer for families in the Lincoln Administration. Among those mentioning his exquisite fare were the Blairs, John Hay and John Nicolay, Gens. Winfield Scott and George McClellan, Sec. Welles, Asst Sec. Gustavus Fox, and Sen. Charles Sumner. He was a community leader who collaborated with Elizabeth Keckly, William Slade, Rev. Henry Tanner, and Frederick Douglass. Wormley also combined his knowledge of nutrition with nursing skills. He is thought to have helped care for the Lincoln family during bouts of illness.


Today, the Wormley tradition of excellent service has shifted to the government. A direct descendant, Don Graves, Jr., has been nominated by President Biden as Deputy Secretary of Commerce. Graves will be second in command of a department that is charged to rebuild the pandemic-striken U.S. economy. Graves is an attorney who has managed large projects for Biden before, and he has a vision. “Hopefully, I will be in a position to make sure people from all communities are dealt into the bargain,” Graves told the Washington Post.


Don Graves, Jr., by Matt McClain/The Washington Post

I have had the pleasure of helping his father, Don Graves, Sr., with his ongoing Wormley family research. He is a retired lawyer in Cleveland who often travels to D.C. We have enjoyed exploring the network of connections that frequently overlapped people and places familiar to Lincoln. I was happy to host lunch for his visiting family at Eye Street Grille on the site of James' first hotel restaurant. Our connection has brought us new appreciation for the personal lives of men who shaped a legacy that still benefits this community and our country. The descendants of James Wormley are continuing a multi-generation commitment to the highest ideals of service above self.


Here is a link to the Washington Post article by Courtland Milloy on Don Graves, Jr, and the Wormley family: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/commerce-don-graves-family-history/2021/02/23/c4c47218-75e8-11eb-8115-9ad5e9c02117_story.html