Washington D.C. is indeed a wonder. As the first modern city in the world to be planned exclusively as a national seat of government, all of Washington, D.C., including its many circles, figures, trian- gles, diagonal avenues, is by design and not by chance. As one who began a sightseeing tour company 20 years ago, I am still amazed by the unique cultural and historical attractions in our nation’s capital. I first became interested in Washington, D.C., during a visit with my high school marching band to perform in the National Cherry Blossom Parade.
While I enjoyed the experience, I realized years later that my visit to Washington could have been more meaningful. Three years later, I began studying the history of African Americans in Washington, D.C. from 1608 through the era follow- ing the Civil War. This study would intro- duce me to some very fascinating and outstanding African Americans who played major roles in our country’s his- tory, such as Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass. Both are honored at places in Washington, D.C.
Whether my tour groups have seen Lincoln Memorial where Marian Anderson performed in 1939, Dr. King’s bust at the U.S. Capitol, the Mary McLeod Bethune and Emancipation Statues at historic Lincoln Park, or one of the city’s neighborhoods, the response has generally been the same from all groups, regardless of their ethnic back- grounds.
That is, the experience was very informative while being very entertaining. Come to Washington and complete your American Experience by visiting the African American Historical attractions listed in this page.
African Americans in Washington, DCElizabeth Clark-Lewis
Even before Congress created the Federal City in 1791, free persons and slaves resided and worked in the busy commercial center of Georgetown, now a well-known Washington, D.C., neigh- borhood.
Although the national leaders entrusted planning for the new ten-mile square capital to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, his African-American assistant Benjamin Banneker — a brilliant mathematician, astronomer, author and inventor — pro- vided the information that permitted the final surveying and planning for the city. From its inception, Washington, D.C., was more than one-third African American.
African Americans developed a self-reliant community that revolved around churches, schools, and mutual benefit societies. As early as 1807, this community built its first school; in 1814, free and enslaved persons were worship- ping without white patronage at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church; and, in 1815, the entire city acknowledged its debt to the “free people of color” who spent months digging the earthworks crucial to the defense of the city.
Michael Shiner’s diary, kept at the Library of Congress, chronicles the life of a freeman working at the Navy Yard, including his unbearably long work days, the harshness of local magistrates and the many evenings he enjoyed visiting the homes of other workers. Shiner, whose career lasted from 1813 to 1865, helped carry the George Washington Memorial cornerstone while being required to carry a pass.
His diary helps us understand how a slave like Althea Tanner, who worked in “President’s Square,” bought her freedom and free- dom for twenty-two relatives and friends; African American businesses like Beverly Snow’s restaurant prospered; and deter- mined groups founded chruches. Washington, D.C., nationally known as “an emporium of slavery,” responded to slave uprisings by imposing special ‘slave’ control laws on all free persons during the 1830s and 1840s.
When William Costin went to court to chal- lenge these “Negro security regula- tions,” he was a highly regarded “Bank of Washington employee and the most respected colored man in the capital.” His loss of the case heightened the resolve of all members of the emerging African American community to battle city codes created to hinder African American progress.
In the 1850’s Frederick Douglass stated, “Men are not valued ... for what they are; they are valued for what they do.” Living up to Douglass’ challenge, abolitionists from Washington, D.C., who were viewed as anarchists in the pre-Civil War era, openly demanded to end slavery in the United States.
Although fear and uncertainty about the issue paralyzed national leaders, church- es and civil leagues in the federal capital were constantly writing and speaking out against slavery and racial intolerance. Congress ended the buying and selling of slaves in the District of Columbia in this era, but it could not stop the rising tensions between the northern and southern states over the issues of slavery and states’ rights.
As the Civil War began in the 1860’s, the African American population in Washington, D.C., continued to grow, fueled by persons such as the nearly three hundred slaves who escaped from Fredericksburg, Va., and purchased a horse stable where they started the Shiloh Baptist Church and began one of the city’s first African American Sunday schools. During the war, all free persons and slaves in Washington, D.C., felt unique strains because neither the local nor the federal government had devel- oped effective methods of defending the city, situated between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. The African American community responded to this urgent need with soldiers for the conflict and workers to protect the entire city.
Congress ended the scourge of slav- ery in Washington, D.C. on April 16, 1862. Each year, Emancipation Day activities enrich the entire city’s under- standing of this event in African American and United States history. The Fight for Freedom Continues The Freedman’s Relief Association and the Colored Citizens’ District Equal Rights Association were only two of the many 1860s era groups that registered voters, worked to abolish segregation on public transportation vehicles, and established tax-supported schools for all children. In this period, Howard University was established to offer med- ical, legal, and religious training; Miner Normal School focused on teacher train- ing; and, participation in local election ensured a voice for African Americans in political progress.
From the 1870s through the 1920s, a series of laws collapsed political and legal gains in the District of Columbia, a city where African Americans had made greater strides than anywhere else in the United States. Despite the political set- backs, local organizations like the D.C. Colored Baptist Home Mission Society were “putting shoes on the feet of the poor, clothing on them, and giving them immediate aid.” The People’s Advocate, the Washington Bee, and the Washington Afro-American (which is still being pub- lished) documented the programs and educational organizations developed by citizens to oppose racism in the federal city.
Despite the decline of African American’s legal position, its members were working to combat political and legal discrimination. Personal correspon- dence illuminates the many music appre- ciation groups, artists leagues, and liter- acy societies of the time. All these docu- ments and publications are available at Howard University’s Moorland- Springarn Research Center. Civil Pride Moves the Community In the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s, the continued push for freedom, equali- ty, justice, and community self-help uni- fied the District of Columbia. Leaders like Dr. John R. Francis took on the tireless work of “ordinary tax-paying families, who without access to the political appa- ratus or economic equality, are fostering ‘Negroes civil pride’ and moving their communities” from the margins to the center.
The U Street corridor became “Black Broadway” as well as the hub for busi- nesses like the Industrial Saving Bank of Washington. Churches like Elder Michaux’s Church of God and the United House of Prayer for All People expanded programs to feed and employ District of Columbia citizens during this era. Though African American soldiers fought in Europe and in Asia during the first half of the 20th century to keep the world safe for democracy, by 1950, the irony became clear that African American soldiers, including those in the nation’s capital, were being denied the same rights they were securing for others.
The eyes of the world were firm- ly fixed on the people of the District of Columbia as they fought to enact open accommodations laws that guaranteed African Americans equal access to pub- lic commercial facilities such as restau- rants, hotels, and theaters. In the 1950’s through the 1960’s, the African American community stressed that the collective ascent out of segrega- tion required both community empower- ment and interest from the entire nation. The 1953 District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson case outlawed discrimination in public restaurants. After that decision, many local hotel owners volunatarily made rooms available to all persons. D.C.’s 1954 Bolling v. Sharp — argued simultaneously with the Brown v. the Board of Education case — resulted in a court order to desegregate schools.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is remem- bered by many city residents as a nation- al civil rights leader who worked with local leaders to focus international attention on the District of Columbia’s resistance to equality in schools, summer camps, youth clubs, programs for at-risk youth, low-cost housing, and other programs. After King was assassinated in 1968, the volatile environment in the nation’s capital exploded. The riot, like the 1919 post- World War I riot in Washington, D.C., was fueled by mounting impatience with employment inequality, housing discrimi- nation, and the ever-increasing razing of inner-city areas for highways. Many resi- dents detested the real estate boom which pushed stable African American families out of areas like Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, and other communities. In 1974, after years of pressure from the citizens of Washington, D.C., Congress granted the city the right to elect a city council and mayor for the first time in 100 years.
African Americans in the nation’s capital felt a renewed commit- ment to public service and eagerly worked in organizations like Advisory Neighborhood Councils. Despite the poverty that persists in some parts of the city, Washington, D.C.’s African American community is consistently rated among the best in the nation for its arts, culture, employment opportunities, and other assets. Institutions such as Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia further enhance the communi- ty.
Two leaders and their legacies
Legend has it that Mary McLeod Bethune’s eyes were open when she was born. She would see things before they happened, the midwife who deliv- ered her is said to have told McLeod’s mother. The fifteenth child of former slaves, McLeod became an important educator, civil rights leader, and presi- dential advisor. Convinced that education was the most powerful weapon in the fight against racial discrimination, Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in 1904. Keeping the school open required creative thriftiness – Bethune used pieces of charred wood for chalk -- and the cultivation of major donors. In 1935, after becoming nationally known for her political organizing, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), aimed at uniting and developing leadership in black women around the nation.
The organization campaigned for legislation that would improve the lives of black Americans and outlaw white supremacist practices such as the poll tax and lynching by vigilante mobs. Bethune is remembered in Washington, D.C., at a memorial erected in 1974 by NCNW under the leadership of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, who served as president from 1958 to 1997. In Height’s six decades of leader- ship, she has served on major policy- making bodies affect- ing women, economic development, and civil and human rights. She was instrumental in the initiation of NCNW-sponsored food, childcare, housing and career educational programs that embody the principles of self-reliance. As a promoter of black family life, she con- ceived and organized the Black Family Reunion Celebration in 1986. Now in its 13th year, this cultural event has attracted some 10 million people in cities such as Washington, D.C.. Both Height and NCNW’s current president, Dr. Jane Smith, keep Bethune’s legacy alive.
Perhaps Washington, D.C.’s African American community is best known for its role on the national stage, hosting major demonstrations such as the 1939 protest following the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to allow a concert by contralto Marian Anderson, the 1963 March on Washington, and the 1995 Million Man March.
From the 19th-cen- tury rallies against slavery in the Caribbean to the anti-apartheid protests at the South African embassy in the 1980s, the African American community in the District of Columbia has proudly served as advocates for oppressed per- sons of African descent throughout the world. With events such as the Million Family March being planned for 2000, the leadership role of Washington, D.C.’s African American community will continue in the 21st century. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is the Director of the Public History Program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration (1996); editor of First Freed: Washington, D.C. in the Emancipation Era (1998); and co-producer of the award winning documentary, Freedom Bags.