Celebrating Black History in Washington DC
We can’t talk about Washington D.C. without acknowledging the African Americans who helped build and shape it, leaving a lasting mark that continues to this day.
Let’s start with April 16, 1862. That was the day Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, officially ending slavery in D.C.
Around 20 percent of Black people in the city were already free before the emancipation act was passed. But they were living in apartheid-like conditions, forced to carry freedmen documentation and fined for things like breaking racially imposed curfews or playing cards or dice.
It would take another nine months for Abraham Lincoln to pass the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, freeing all Black Americans from bondage (at least on paper).
And yet, Black Americans built many of the city’s historic buildings, including the White House and the US Capitol.
They also built community, establishing Black churches, private schools, and aid societies. The businesses they started helped them build wealth, despite the ever-present threats of racism and repressive segregation.
Reconstruction: A Period of Black Progress in D.C.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877), more than 25,000 African Americans moved to Washington.
The city’s pro-Union stance meant the city was safer for Black Americans. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 gave the city’s African American men the right to vote three years before the 15th Amendment was passed. But it would be another 50 years before Black women gained the right to vote.
In 1867, African Americans were able to vote for the first time in the District. In 1871, Washington officially became the District of Columbia. Frederick Douglass—the celebrated abolitionist, writer, and orator who escaped slavery in Maryland—was appointed an upper member of the house.
And in an ironic twist, in 1877 Douglass was appointed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. Which meant a free Black man was now in charge of the federal agency that once sent its marshals out to capture enslaved African Americans under the Fugitive Slave Act.
African Americans in D.C. were making remarkable headway in both the civilian and political realms.
The Pushback: Jim Crow in D.C.
But this brief period of progress wouldn’t last. Whites were getting restless, complaining that Black Americans were amassing too much power and sway in Washington.
By 1891, the expansion of Black opportunity was dwindling and many of the jobs for African Americans in city government had disappeared.
Jim Crow was rearing its ugly head in D.C., supercharged by the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Wilson’s wife complained about Black men working in government offices alongside white women, so in 1913 President Wilson signed a law segregating all federal workplaces.
But Black Washingtonians didn’t let these new oppressive efforts hold them back. They continued to build a robust community centered around U Street (once called “Black Broadway'').
They opened grocery stores and heat fuel companies, ran two steamboat operations, started a Black-owned bank as well as Black-owned insurance companies and several Black employment agencies. And the NAACP was becoming a powerful entity, too, with more than 1,000 members in the D.C. chapter as early as 1900.
During the Great Depression and World War II, the early civil rights movement gained ground. In 1933, President Roosevelt began the process of ending segregation in the federal government. Meanwhile, Black men were organizing against racist hiring practices in white-owned stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
Progress in the Post-World War II Era
In the decades after World War II, Black activists in Washington organized sit-ins, organized against police brutality, and led efforts to end segregation in school, and fought against voter suppression efforts.
Several Supreme Court cases in the post-World War II era helped move the needle on civil rights.
In 1948, the Court declared in Hurd v. Hodge that restrictive covenants prohibiting a person from owning or occupying property based on race or color were unconstitutional.
Then in 1953 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public places within the District of Columbia is unconstitutional. And in 1954, a local case that was part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case found that segregated education in D.C. was unconstitutional.
The Assassination of MLK Jr. and the 1968 Riots
In 1963, more than 250,000 people flooded the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech calling for an end to racism. This historic event lives on to this day as one the most important in our nation’s history.
After MLK Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Washington D.C. reacted with grief and anger. During the 1968 riots, many African Americans took to the streets in D.C. demanding an end to racism and injustice.
Julius Hobson was one of D.C.’s most important (but often forgotten) civil rights leaders. He ran dozens of picket lines in more than 100 retail stores in downtown D.C. in the early 1960s. His tireless efforts led to the employment of 5,000 Black people in the city. Hobson also led desegregation efforts and worked to get Black people in D.C. hired as bus drivers, auto salesmen, and dairy workers.
In January 1965, the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—led by Marion Barry—organized a huge boycott to stop D.C. Transit from raising its fares. It worked. The transit company lost an estimated 130,000 to 150,000 fares. Two days later, the transit commission scrapped the fare hike.
By 1975, African Americans made up 70 percent of D.C.’s population. The Black Arts, Black Power, and Women’s movements were flourishing. Marion Barry served as the city’s mayor from 1979 to 1991 and then again from 1995 to 1999.
Washington D.C. Today
Black Americans have been making their mark on D.C. for generations. Records show they lived and worked in Georgetown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, since at least 1751.
Over the last century D.C.’s Black residents have helped build an important cultural hub. They created their own brand of funk music and established schools, bookstores, repertory theaters, and all kinds of businesses. All of this has contributed to a rich Black culture in Washington D.C.
While the number of African Americans has declined in D.C. since the 70s, Black residents are still a powerful force in the city. Today they make up around half of the city’s population.
And after so many decades of struggle, we’re finally seeing more and more Black representation in Congress. When D.C.’s Emancipation Act was passed in 1862, there were zero Black members of Congress. Today there are 58, from California to New York.
In 2016, D.C. celebrated the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s a must-see destination on your next pilgrimage to our nation’s capital, along with the African American Civil War Memorial, the National Mall, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
We honor the thousands of African Americans in Washington D.C. who have worked tirelessly for Black freedom and equity.
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