Reflections from 2000: The Communists of Shaw

A slice of DC’s little-known Left history was unearthed by Pleasant Mann, a former local DSA chair and Shaw resident, for this article from the Labor Day 2000 Socialist.
— Bill Mosley

The Communists Next Door
by Pleasant Mann

When one starts thinking about Washington’s radical geography, neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Takoma Park easily come to mind. However, I have found that my own neighborhood — Shaw — has an established history of radicalism: it was once home to the DC Communist Party.

The Shaw neighborhood has historically been a diverse community, from its earliest development to the 1870s. The early years saw mostly German, Irish and Jewish immigrants living and opening shops here. However, as one of the few areas of the city free of racial real estate covenants, Shaw became increasingly Black at the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1920s, upper Seventh Street, NW had developed a Black proletarian character.

Believing that the “tenets of Communism are equality of races, marriage without benefit of clergy, destruction of individual rights and property and atheism,” the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association made a concerted effort to drive radical activity from their neighborhood in the early 1930s. By comparison, the mixture of immigrant and Black cultures found in Shaw at the time matched closely with Third Period Communism. May Day celebrations usually started with an open-air rally at Seventh and P Streets, then the location of two DC public schools. (One school, the former Central High, was ironically the alma mater of J. Edgar Hoover.) A formal May Day program at Communist Party headquarters (1337 Seventh Street, NW) followed.

Communist activity in Shaw was not limited to May Day. A 1932 newspaper reports that Sylvia Roth and Florence Playton were “two 18-year-old members of the Young Communist League who were arrested last night at Fourth and N streets … Miss Roth was arrested about 7:30 p.m. when she was lifted onto the shoulders of several colored persons and began a speech to several hundred persons who had collected at the corner.” The protest was against the prosecution of Black men accused of killing a police officer at Logan Circle. The two were fined $20 each for starting the ruckus.

This period of militancy and heavy Communist involvement in Shaw diminished over time. Starting in 1934 with the formation of the “United Front May Day Arrangement Committee,” May Day rallies were moved to Franklin Square. The Communists still held a number of public events at U Street venues in Shaw throughout the 1930s, including the Pythian Temple, Murray’s Casino and the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge at 10th and U.

The Communists left the Shaw neighborhood in 1937, moving downtown, eventually settling in the Atlas Building at F and Ninth. Most of their events also took a more downtown tone, with the National Press Club Auditorium serving as their main public venue during the Second World War. But the Communists still kept ties with the Shaw community as the Cold War started. In one notorious source, the 1951 bestseller Washington Confidential, the authors mention that “To show how much they love the Negro, the white Communist brethren hold their District powwows at Shilo [sic] Baptist Church, a Negro house of worship in the NW section.” The Marxist New Left of the 1960s came and went without leaving much of an impact on Shaw. Eventually even 1337 Seventh Street, the site of so much militancy, was replaced with a moderate-income housing project. Shaw — at least for now — has lost its radical cachet.

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