A History of DC through the lens of race

Review of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017, 564 pp. $26.49 (Nook edition).

The topic of race suffuses U.S. history. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for example, drives home how integral race has been to the development of the country, from Indian removal to African slavery to Jim Crow and into the era of Obama, Black Lives Matter, and the current race-baiting occupant of the White House.

It is appropriate that within a year of the opening of that museum, a new book arrives to look at the history of the District of Columbia through the prism of race. In Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, faculty members at the University of the District of Columbia, have produced possibly the best concise history of D.C. to come along to date. The fact that the authors locate race at the center of that history is nothing but an asset, for every significant development in the history of the district has had a racial component. This is a city whose very existence is steeped in racial geography.

However, this book is "not solely a history of D.C.'s African American community," the authors write. "Instead, we explore how questions of race and democracy have shaped life in the capital city for residents of all races." The story starts not with slavery, therefore, but with the first encounter of D.C.'s native Nacostine people (a name later Latinized to "Anacostia") with Europeans in 1608 in the person of Captain John Smith, exploring the Chesapeake region from his base in Jamestown. That native community, thriving when Smith first found it, was nearly gone a century later due to the “cumulative effects of war, disease and subjugation.

By the mid-1700s, plantations using slave labor were in operation in the land that constitutes today's D.C. But the story of race and the nation's capital takes center stage when, shortly after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, discussions began about where to locate the constitutionally mandated seat of government.

In 1790, the new government had more to worry about than where to locate the capital. Financing of the Revolutionary War had been the responsibility of the states, and most of them had gone into debt to support the fight for independence. By 1789 some of the states, mostly in the South, had paid off their debts, but others, mostly Northern states, remained dangerously in the red. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume the remaining war debt; it not only would relieve the states of their fiscal burdens, but also contribute to "national unity and the strengthening of the federal government." Southern states objected; they had paid their debts and objected to a bailout of the deadbeat North. In addition, states-rights partisans such as Thomas Jefferson feared that assuming the war debt would strengthen the federal government too much.

The issue was resolved in a quiet dinner in Manhattan between Jefferson, Hamilton, and James Madison. Hamilton reminded his Virginia colleagues that Pennsylvania, a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment, was making a strong push to be the site of the permanent capital. With the national government bathed in such a radical atmosphere, slavery could be threatened throughout the nation. At the dinner a plan was hatched: the Virginians would urge the South to support assumption while Hamilton would convince the North to agree to locate the capital in slave territory. The three carried out their parts of the bargain, and Congress decided to place the capital on the Potomac River, with land for the federal district to be ceded by Maryland and Virginia.

African Americans were an integral part of the capital's life from the beginning, not all of them slaves. A self-taught free black astronomer, Benjamin Banneker, was hired to lay out the exact boundaries of the 100-square mile federal district. "Banneker's accomplishments . . .raised at the least the possibility of a capital city founded on free, rather than enslaved, labor," Asch and Musgrove write, but it was not to be. The scarcity of laborers in the rural region where the new city of Washington was being built led the government to turn to slaves, who not only were cheaper than free laborers, but who also helped suppress the wages of the white labor force. By the time the federal government moved to Washington in 1800, enslaved people made up more than 25 percent of the city's approximately 8,000 people.

Between the founding of Washington and the Civil War the district had a substantial slave population, but also a growing community of free blacks. Despite oppressive "black codes" that imposed curfews and limited assemblies of even free blacks (in blatant violation of the First Amendment), Washington had a "reputation as a tolerant place for black people" compared to the rest of the country. In 1800 blacks were over 30 percent of the population, 2,072 slaves vs. 400 free blacks. On the eve of the war, however, free blacks outnumbered slaves by nearly four to one.

Nevertheless, free blacks were as fully disenfranchised as slaves, and even more so than the largely disenfranchised white population. The Federalist administration of John Adams, as part of its agenda to expand the powers of the federal government, enacted legislation that rendered the citizens of the district wards of the federal government. Previously, D.C. residents on the east side of the Potomac could vote in Maryland elections, and on the west side, in Virginia. The new law stripped them of this right and subjected the district to direct federal control. White D.C. residents protested, but to no avail; the views of these 6,000 denizens of the muddy city-in-making were of little concern to Congress.

Yet Congress threw the city a bone. The existing cities of Georgetown and Alexandria that had originally been part of Maryland and Virginia, respectively, before being incorporated into the district had retained their municipal governments. Congress likewise provided a municipal legislature for the yet underbuilt City of Washington, a jurisdiction bounded by the Potomac on the southwest, the Anacostia on the east, Rock Creek on the west, and an arbitrary line across the north that roughly followed the path of today's Florida Avenue. The power of the three municipal governments was limited, however, as Congress acted as the "state" government for all of D.C.

As Asch and Musgrove document, the decades leading up to the Civil War saw growing antislavery sentiment in D.C., both within the community and on Capitol Hill. Washington was an active station in the Underground Railroad, and antislavery members of Congress pressed for the emancipation of the district's slaves. Fear of emancipation - which Congress' control of D.C. would allow - was a central motivation for the former Virginia portions of the district to seek to be returned to that state. Congress agreed, and in 1846 the area of the district was shrunk by one-third.

In April 1962, one year after the start of the Civil War, Congress finally did free the district's slaves, some nine months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Emancipation unleashed "a torrent of black migration to the city," Asch and Musgrove write, causing Washington's black population to more than triple to 43,000, one-third of the city's total population. Many of them saw freedom as only a step toward full citizenship, which would be accomplished only after gaining a measure of political power. "After the war, black Washingtonians placed suffrage at the top of their agenda," the authors write, and their appeal found sympathetic ears among the ascendant Radical Republicans in Congress, who were as eager to punish pro-Southern whites as help blacks. In January 1867 Congress passed a bill extending suffrage to D.C.'s blacks over the vociferous opposition of many local whites. Later that year, black voters turned out in force to elect for the first time a Republican majority to Washington's city council, marking the triumph of "an interracial, cross-class coalition that promised to be a political juggernaut," although the victory was only partial for blacks: They could vote, but the city charter still forbade them from holding office. It wasn't until the following year that the first elected black officials took office alongside progressive white mayor Sayles J. Bowen, who appointed a record number of blacks to office and embarked on an extensive public-works program.

But reactionary whites dug in against Bowen's government. If democracy meant a measure of black rule, whites would rather have dictatorship; they preferred to lose their own rights than grant any to blacks. Their persistent criticisms of Washington's government, as well as over-ambitious spending by Bowen that drove the city into debt, led Congress, in 1871, to merge the separate jurisdictions of the district into a consolidated territorial government. Voters could still elect a lower House of Delegates, but the key levers of power were held by presidential appointees, particularly the powerful Board of Public Works, which was dominated by the wily Alexander "Boss" Shepherd. Under Shepherd, the district embarked on a campaign of public-works improvements that dwarfed Bowen's, both in scale and the debt they incurred. In 1874 the Congress, citing the district's tide of red ink, dissolved the territorial government and the last vestiges of home rule, putting D.C. under a presidentially appointed three-man commission. "District men, white and black, rich and poor, lost their right to vote," the authors write. "They would not cast another meaningful ballot for nearly a century." Which was just fine for much of Washington's white elite.

The following century was a time of struggle and occasional halting progress for the District's black community. D.C. continued to be a magnet for blacks; even without the right to vote, the well-established black community tended to be more welcoming than much of the country. But being denied the vote after the brief period of enfranchisement was a bitter pill. "The interests of the District will never be protected until the people have a voice in selecting their rulers," said prominent black physician Charles Purvis. But with the federal government providing 50 percent of the district's budget, many D.C. whites were willing to be bribed to forego full citizenship. The federal government provided employment opportunities for many blacks, but rising beyond low-level jobs was rare, especially under the racist administration of Woodrow Wilson, which enforced a harsher brand of workplace segregation.

Over the following decades the district transformed from a city of diverse and vibrant neighborhoods to a rigidly segregated one. Urbanization spread beyond the original boundaries of Washington City, with newly developing communities on the outskirts such as the West End and Chevy Chase strictly limited to whites. In a precursor to today's epidemic of gentrification and displacement, the black community of Fort Reno, which dated back to the Civil War and was surrounded by the white neighborhood of Tenleytown, was driven out during the 1930s and replaced by today's Fort Reno Park. A similar fate was met by Southwest D.C. in the 1950s and 1960s. Many blacks at the low end of the income scale occupied dwellings in the infamous alley neighborhoods, where conditions were frequently squalid but which also constituted close-knit communities where the residents looked out for each other. Reformers were targeting these dwellings for destruction by the late 1800s, but they were completely expunged only after World War II.

D.C. blacks continued to push back against the bonds of oppression, and their effort hit pay dirt when they challenged their exclusion from the new Sousa Junior High School in far Southeast. The lawsuit they filed, Bolling v. Sharpe, made its way to the Supreme Court as a companion case to Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation across the country.

Change came quickly to the district after that, as the city became a major battleground in the civil rights revolution. It was natural that these struggles should play out in the district; besides being the seat of government, it had become majority-black by 1960, a product both of blacks being drawn to the city and whites fleeing to the suburbs. Funk musician George Clinton dubbed D.C. "Chocolate City," an acknowledgment of both its demographic makeup and its place in the aspirations of African Americans, and not only those already living in the district. The city drew civil rights activists from around the country – among them, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from Tennessee named Marion Barry.

Asch and Musgrove give an overview of Barry's rise on the D.C. political scene as the militant, dashiki-clad leader of the Free D.C. movement, which married civil rights tactics with a revived effort to win home rule. But resistance from both the federal government and the local white elite to the aspirations of the black majority boiled over when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, and the city erupted in riots.

Was it only a coincidence that immediately after the rioting ended, Congress suddenly showed interest in granting the district more self-government than it had in the previous century? Over the next six years D.C. gained an elected school board, a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, and, in 1974, an elected mayor and council. Asch and Musgrove lay out the history, but they decline to address the obvious: Were Congress and President Lyndon Johnson running scared? Did they address the district's disenfranchisement only when they themselves were threatened with violence? The authors' failure to explore this connection is one of the book's few weaknesses.

The new government took power with a black mayor - Walter Washington - and a black-majority council, most of whose members had backgrounds in civil rights activism. The limits of the new government's authority were immediately apparent, however, as Congress had the right to overrule local legislation, and the city had no voting representation in Congress. A new movement emerged to demand that the district accept no less than statehood.

Marion Barry defeated Walter Washington for re-election as mayor, and immediately set about doing his best to fulfill the aspirations of the city's black majority for both political and economic empowerment. Barry stocked his administration with "energetic young city administrators who reflected the city's demographics." He started an aggressive program to put the city's 4,500 abandoned houses in the hands of low-income homeowners, and he promoted the growth of a black middle class as he "leaned hard on white contractors, telling them that they must hire black workers if they wanted city business," and "encouraged black entrepreneurs to create businesses specifically for city contracts."

But Barry's arrest for crack possession in 1990, in the midst of a nationwide crime and drug epidemic that was especially severe in the district, forced him out of office - for a while. After a stint in prison, he was elected mayor again in 1994 in a racially polarized election, with overwhelming black support and "near infinitesimal" support in white precincts. Reverend Willie Wilson, a Barry supporter, explained that Barry was someone "that everyone in [the black] community can identify with because they've been in the same place - in jail and in trouble." Barry's election, however, hardly resulted in black empowerment; Congress used a fiscal crisis that Barry inherited from his predecessor to strip the local government of virtually all its power and transfer it to a congressionally appointed control board.

Local activists cried foul; they knew that the city's finances were only an excuse to thwart Barry and disempower D.C. blacks. But years of protest did less to restore a measure of home rule to the district than did Barry's decision not to seek re-election in 1998. His replacement was Tony Williams, the former chief financial officer who, although black, pitched himself to white voters as a financial wizard who would govern less as a politician and more as a manager. Congress loved the bow-tied intellectual and restored D.C.'s home rule to its pre-control board status, with a bit more latitude for self-government but still subject to congressional intervention.

Williams was only too eager to act his part. From his administration to the present, the district has gradually lost its image as a model of black empowerment to become the city we know today, with gleaming new condos, balanced budgets, and a diminution of black power. In 2012, for the first time in the history of home rule, D.C.'s council became majority white. Barry's effort to build the black middle class had been perhaps a bit too successful as much of it decamped for the suburbs, while whites, especially singles and childless couples, flocked into a city that appeared to them on the upswing. As formerly edgy neighborhoods gentrified, lower income blacks were displaced, some moving to the city's remaining ungentrified neighborhoods, some to the suburbs, others falling into homelessness. By 2014, D.C. was only 49 percent black, down from a peak of 71.1 percent in 1970—Chocolate City no more; "chocolate melts," lamented local poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Black voters pushed back by in 2010 ousting Adrian Fenty, another black mayor who, like Williams, was seen as catering to whites. But his replacement, Vince Gray, was hardly a Barry, and he governed with an eye to the no longer black-majority city that D.C. had become.

What, then, of the future of race relations in the district? The authors take a pass on prediction, only hoping that their book "will inspire Washingtonians . . . to build a more just, egalitarian, and democratic nation's capital." But in this gleaming, gentrifying city, progressive activists of all ethnicities already are working across racial lines to combat displacement and gentrification, police brutality and economic inequality. More recognize that greater local autonomy is critical to the district's future, with 79 percent of D.C. residents voting last year to petition Congress for statehood. It also is clear, as the authors point out, that the District today is transforming from a mostly black-and-white city to a more diverse one, with growing populations of Latinos and Asians. The need for racial justice is as great as ever, but it is clear that lasting progress will require alliances across the racial divide.

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