In our backyard: a tribute to the District’s Black history


Ben Wilcox

Erin Harper

In the Southwest quadrant of DC, right off the National Mall, stands a man with folded arms and stone-faced determination, casting sight across the entire District and the country. He is quiet, yet resilient. Kind, yet tough. He is Martin Luther King Jr., and his vision championed a movement anchored in freedom, democracy, and opportunity for all. Many other African-American leaders like King have fought for the rights for minorities. Throughout the month of February, we paid homage to African American Washingtonians who have struggled through hardships to achieve equal rights.

Acquiring land from Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia, the location of DC was the result of a compromise: Hamilton wanted the federal government to pay the debt that other colonies acquired in the Revolutionary War, while Jefferson wanted the location to be accessible for slaveholding interests. In the early years of DC’s history, the city focused on Jefferson’s interests, becoming a slave city. Gradually, white residents began to align more with northern opposition to war and slavery, leading to plantation owners freeing Blacks. President Lincoln soon signed the DC Emancipation Act in 1862, freeing African Americans in the District, making Washington the first freed city in the nation.

However, Jim Crow laws put in place by President Wilson caused tension between whites and Blacks, resulting in the 1919 race riots. The division between whites and Blacks in DC grew significantly, as more African Americans poured into the city. Whites began to live mostly around Georgetown and upper Northwest, while African Americans began to settle around other quadrants throughout the city.

We soon established our own “city within a city”: U Street. Also known as “Black Broadway,” U Street was the corridor where African Americans could own businesses that weren’t subject to Jim Crow legislation. Producing talents such as Duke Ellington and Lillian Evanti, U Street was our local Broadway and 5th Avenue, combined into one.

Unfortunately, the removal of Stokely Carmichael from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the assassination of MLK Jr. sparked the looting and arson of U Street, known as the 1968 riots. At the end of the riots, 13 people were killed and over 7,600 were arrested.

1968 was a year of social change in DC, as the division between races increased greatly. One of the greatest local protests happened at Howard University. Due to President James Nabrit charging 39 students for protesting their judiciary system, 1,000 students gathered by one of the main buildings at Howard on March, 19, 1968 to protest for the resignation of the President. After a few days of protest and unrest, Nabrit struck a deal with students: in exchange for an end to protests, he would drop charges against all students and would retire at the end of the school year.

One of the main staples that separates DC from other cities is our genre of music: go-go. First started in the 1970s, it was popularized by Chuck Brown, the Godfather of go-go. Famous for its call-and-response method, go-go was a way to include the audience and keep the fans dancing for hours.

Go-go was one of the core aspects of Chocolate City, a time period when the city’s population was majority Black and led by Black leaders. Perhaps the most notable of these leaders was legendary mayor Marion Barry, who was cherished by many DC residents for the sense of ownership of the city that he gave to Black residents. Barry also created job programs including the Summer Youth Employment Program, which employs hundreds of DC teenagers every summer.

Growing up in DC, there are facts that all of us know. We know that DC has seen a rise in gentrification since the ‘80s, and we know that as a result, many African Americans have been forced to leave the city. But in order to honor the lives of African Americans before us, we need to know more about the past. In 2019, we should all make it a priority to honor our Black history here in DC.