Washington, D.C.'s Contradictory History

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Given the location of Washington, DC, the city seemed destined to have a contradictory relationship with its growing African American population. On the one hand, the construction of a new capital attracted thousands of black workers, who eventually made up about 30 percent of the population by 1800. These free blacks formed the foundation of what would affectionately be called in modern times the “Chocolate City”—a predominately African American community that was at the vanguard of black politics and culture. On the other hand, the political compromise that founded the District of Columbia embedded it in the South, creating the spectacle of free black artisans living and working alongside slaves. Moreover, the city’s status as a federal entity left it largely under the control of the national government, and many critics of this arrangement have pointed out its glaring racial undertones. Finally, the city’s reputation in the 1980s as a failure of urban planning has led to intense debates in the 21st century over school reform and gentrification, which often split along racial lines. Thus, almost inevitably, Washington has become another proving ground for the American experiment in pluralism and representative democracy.

Adding to the irony: among the early contributors to the city was astronomer Benjamin Banneker, who was appointed to survey the land and for the construction of the new district. And yet, despite the growing free population, the notoriety of Washington’s slave market rivaled that of New Orleans. The market was located within walking distance of the major landmarks of American democracy. Moreover, Washington was hardly a safe city for any black people, whether they were freeborn, emancipated, or escaped. Slave hunters found the city’s inhabitants to be easy targets for false arrest and extradition to the South, with the most famous example being that of Solomon Northrup, author of Twelve Years a Slave. The slave trade lasted there until the Compromise of 1850, though this merely pushed the market outside of the city limits. It was not until the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on 16 April 1862, that the three thousand slaves in the city were freed.

From then on, the black population grew rapidly, with Frederick Douglass among the many migrants to the city. And even as the Jim Crow era began, the District nevertheless became an incubator for a black bourgeoisie unlike almost any other major city. From this community emerged a number of leaders who continued working for equality, including Mary Church Terrell and the pioneering founders of Howard University. By the time segregation began to collapse in the 1950s, the demographics of the city had shifted to the point where African American leadership became inevitable. And yet the unique political status of the District often seemed designed to suppress its growing black population. Washingtonians have only one non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, and the federal government controls the budget and services of the city. Indeed, the recent death of former mayor Marion Barry brought up once again the issue of “home rule” in the District. The controversial Barry, a civil rights activist who derailed his career in the early 1990s with a drug conviction, was reelected several years later to find the mayor’s office virtually stripped of power by new federal restrictions.

This lingering debate has always carried with it a racial implication, which has been exacerbated by new changes in the city’s demography. In 2003, the District began a campaign to attract 100,000 new residents over the next decade. By 2013, that number came closer to 85,000—enough to radically change some neighborhoods and accelerate both a decline in the African American population and an increase in income inequality. Thus, while the city as a whole may be more viable in terms of tax revenue and economic development, many seem to have been left behind. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contentious battle over school reform, which now seems almost a natural consequence of the gentrification the city has witnessed.

With our latest Community Spotlight, edited by Sharon Harley, we tried to connect these two disparate versions of Washington, showing both the foundational years as well as the modern issues that continue to attract national attention. What comes through in both these articles and primary documents is the sense of Washington as a shared national place that must live up to its ideals if our democracy is to succeed. As Frederick Douglass put it in 1877, as the era of Reconstruction came to an end, “It is our national center. It belongs to us; and whether it is mean or majestic, whether arrayed in glory or covered with shame, we cannot but share its character and its destiny.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief Oxford
African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
February 2015

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