A short history of black Washington


There are a number of things that make the story of black Washington different. Among them:

– Washington has always been a colony. Thus even if the city’s blacks would become equal to other DC residents, they would still not be equal to other Americans. Further, at a number of critical moments in DC history – such as during the Shepherd period in the 19th century and the Marion Barry era – purse and prejudice became inseparable components of opposition to self-government. Ethnic issues were frequently disguised as economic ones.

– Another characteristics of colonies is that their stories, their history, their spirits, and their places tend to be ignored or discounted. Thus, even among African Americans, the importance of the city is not as widely known as one might expect.

– Washington has always been a weak place and weak places are particularly susceptible to the waves of history. Places like Boston, Chicago, or New York have strong enough local cultures, traditions, and self-sufficiency to affect or slow down national change. A place like Washington is an easy mark for both good and bad trends. Thus during the rise of black power, DC became proudly known as Chocolate City but following September 11, it became the country’s most locked down urban area.

– Although often forgotten today, Washington was very much a southern city until the 1980s. The northern and the southern civil rights stories are quite different and DC belongs among the latter. Nonetheless, the city’s segregation was almost entirely by custom rather than by law and it had a number of curious anomalies.

– Washington always had a large number of free blacks and was considered, even during slavery, as a relatively good place to be compared to other parts of the south.

One of the early free blacks, Yarrow Mamout, a devout Muslim, earned enough from his hauling business to buy a house in Georgetown in 1800.

Aletha Tanner purchased her own freedom in 1810, then went on to free her older sister and five of her children, eventually helping 18 people become emancipated.

In 1813, Tobias Henson, a slave in the Anacostia area, purchased his freedom. He would later buy twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren.

In 1800 more than a quarter of DC was black and nearly 20% of the blacks were free. By 1820 the number of slaves had doubled but thereafter declined. The number of free blacks continued to grow.

There was also an active abolitionist movement even though in 1835 Congress banned anti-slavery literature in the city.

Being free, however, meant living under conditions that in our day we associate with apartheid. For example, in 1808 the city passed a series of Black Codes that included fines for blacks out after ten pm, requirement that freedmen carry documents, fines for playing cards or dice, and forty lashes for slaves caught at disorderly meetings. There were also cash bonds that were required.

DC was also a major slave trading center and the restrictive laws increased include on that required every black family to post a peace bond. By 1835 business licenses were denied African-Americans for everything except driving carts and carriages.

Nonetheless, Washington was considered much better than further south and the black population continued to increase. In fact, one of the threats the city’s slaveholders used was that they would send unruly servants to “hell,” i.e. further south.

In 1835, Beverly Snow, a free black restaurant owner, allegedly insulted the wives and daughters of white Navy Yard mechanics. In the riot that followed white mobs destroy the homes, churches, and schools of free blacks. In the wake of the riot, Congress increased the bonds required of free blacks.


77 slaves surreptitiously boarded the sailing vessel “Pearl” for a planned escape that was aborted when the ship was captured 140 miles from Washington. In an interesting example of the conflicts involved in class and race, a free black hack driver reputedly blew the whistle on the Pearl – angry that one of the slave women aboard had refused his hand in marriage. He was allegedly also angry at others who had tipped him insufficiently when he drove them to the pier.


Becomes illegal to bring slaves into the city for sale but slaves owned by District families can still be sold.

Washington was a hotbed of southern sympathies during the Civil War. The businessman WW Corcoran fled the city during the war, leaving his house in the hands of the French so it wouldn’t be seized. And in 1862, the remaining 3,000 slaves in the city were emancipated.

In 1869 the city passed a law against racial discrimination in places of entertainment expanding it the following year to include restaurants, bars, and hotels.


Georgetown and the city of Washington hold referendum on “negro suffrage.” In Georgetown. Only one out 700 some voters approves in Georgetown and only 35 voters approve in the city.

Also, 90 years before the Montgomery bus boycott Sojourner Truth integrated the city’s horse cars by simply ignoring a conductor’s order to move from the white section.


Congress votes black male emancipation except for those who served the Confederacy, paupers, and those convicted of an “infamous crime or offense.”


Blacks vote for the first time in the District. The Evening Star writes that the election put “to flight the fears of those who apprehended serious disturbances on the occasion of the first exercise of the right of franchise by the colored people.”

John F. Cook, a black Washingtonian, is named chair of the Republican Party.


Two blacks are elected to the Common Council. Sayles J. Bowen, a Radical Republican, is elected mayor. He advocates the integration of white and colored school system.


Alexander Shepherd and friends convince Congress to pass a territorial bill, merging all jurisdictions under a presidentially appointed governor and upper house, and a weak elected lower house. The new entity is called the District of Colombia. Among the members of the upper house was Frederick Douglass. The Georgetown Courier complains about Grant’s appointments: “Not one old resident, nor a Democrat, nor a Catholic nor an Irishman, yet we have three darkies, Douglass, Gray and Hall, a German, two natives of Maine and one of Massachusetts.”

This was the Reconstruction period, a short lived moment of progress following the Civil War that has certain parallels – in both brevity and importance – with the short-lived period in more recent times known as the civil rights movement. Similarly the loss of local self-government that shortly followed during the post-reconstruction Jim Crow era was spurred by a combination of complaints of too much black power and not enough fiscal restraint – again echoed much later in the time of Marion Barry.

In 1871, a free black, James Wormley, opened the Wormley Hotel at the corner of 15th & H NW, which quickly became popular among the city’s movers and shakers, especially for its turtle soup and Chesapeake Bay seafood. It had the first hotel elevator and the first hotel telephone in the city. In 1876 it was where the disputed election of 1876 was resolved in what became known as the Wormley Agreement. Ironically, it was this agreement, which led to the removal of federal troops from the south and the election of Rutherford Hayes marked the end of Reconstruction, but Wormley, in his defense, only provided the hall.

The expansion of black opportunity during reconstruction dried up and by 1891 the many jobs for blacks in city government had disappeared and there were only 25 African-Americans on the city payroll.

There were still some stereotype-busters such as the six African Americans who showed up in the Social Register in 1888 or the fact that President McKinley had two local blacks on his Inauguration Committee.

But Jim Crow was settling in and among of its worst proponents were Woodrow Wilson and his wife. Mrs. Wilson complained to her husband that she had found black men working in government offices with white women and the president in 1913 signed a law that segregated all federal workplaces. Elsewhere the city was segregated largely by custom – and illegally at that since it turned out years later than the 19th century civil rights laws had never been repealed. There were a few exceptions to the custom such as the Library of Congress, public libraries, streetcars, and Griffith Stadium.

Yet in a truly amazing response to the new oppression, Washington’s black community – with a leadership centered around U Street – built a self-sufficient and resilient alternative to the world from which they were barred. Black Washingtonians now owned two steamboat companies, grocery stores, heat fuel companies, and the Adams Oil and Gas Development Company, which was looking for oil in Oklahoma.

Within ten years there was a black-owned bank, Capital Savings; two black-owned insurance companies and at least 11 black employment agencies.

In 1909 the local chapter of the NAACP had over 1,000 members, the largest in the country, with its headquarters on U Street.

As an article in City Journal noted, “The Union League printed a directory of black-owned businesses that those looking for work or a place to shop might consult. ‘There is no better index to the character and development of a people than the number and nature of organizations they sustain,’ declared the directory’s editor. The booklet soon ran to more than 100 pages. Other leaders encouraged blacks to patronize black businesses. ‘If the colored people are to have their quota in the skilled trades, in business and in professions,’ editorialized one black newspaper in 1894, ‘colored people must have more confidence in the ability of men and women of their own race to fill these positions than they have yet shown.’

“By 1894 more than 3,000 black families owned their own homes in the District. The total value of assets owned by black Washingtonians that year was estimated to be about $17 million. Some members of the city’s black upper classes maintained country houses in Virginia, employed servants, and held debutante balls for their daughters. Others sent their children to predominantly white boarding schools and colleges in New England. . . . In 1899, students at Washington’s one black high school scored higher than their white counterparts on citywide academic achievement tests.

“Dunbar sent its graduates to the best colleges in America. From 1918 to 1923, for example, 15 students went on to graduate from Ivy League schools. In 1949 Dunbar sent one graduate each to Colby, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Smith, and Yale. A total of five went to Bates and NYU. One hundred fifteen went to Howard University. Of the 310 students who graduated from Dunbar that year, 267 went to college, five joined the military, and only 37 went immediately to work.

“By the end of the Second World War, the District contained a higher proportion of black college graduates than any other place in America, more than twice that of most cities. A survey conducted in 1950 found 92 black dentists, 181 black lawyers, and 211 black physicians practicing in Washington.”

In 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300. The DC black schools are the only ones in the country under the control of black administrators. The schools are considered the best available for blacks in the country. At one point a black DC school had four female Ph.ds teaching in it.

Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem’s Apollo converted to black performances) and two first rate movie palaces.

There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

In 1919 ethnic riots broke out in Washington and 24 other cities. “The white mob – whose actions were triggered in large part by weeks of sensational newspaper accounts of alleged sex crimes by a ‘negro fiend’ – unleashed a wave of violence that swept over the city for four days. Nine people were killed in brutal street fighting, and an estimated 30 more would die eventually from their wounds. More than 150 men, women and children were clubbed, beaten and shot.” – Washington Post

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.

This was a proud community. “We had everything we needed,” recalls one older resident. “And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well.”

The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: “There was no family my family didn’t know or that didn’t know me. I couldn’t go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn’t just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us.”

The late Thurlow Tibbs recalled, “We are forced to deal with one another on every economic level. In my block we had school teachers, a mail man, a retired garbage man, and a registrar of Howard University.”

Said John Beckley, “If you went to the Lincoln Theatre, you would know if you were sitting next to the bootblack or the president of Howard University. . . You would think, this is a human being, so I’m going to treat me as if he was the president of the university, because he might be.

Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington’s early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.

Of all the civil rights leaders in modern American history, perhaps the most underrated one was DC’s Julius Hobson. Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities that led to a permanent court injunction to prevent Hobson from encouraging people to paste stickers over the holes in punch-card utility bills.

Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to the District Building that encouraged the District to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school ‘superintendent and first elections of a city school board. Beyond all this, Hobson was repeatedly involved in peace, police, and transportation issues; he filed a major suit in 1969 accusing the federal government of bias against blacks, women, and Mexican~Americans.

Perhaps the large demonstration in local DC history occurred in January 1965, when DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The organizer of the boycott was Marion Barry.

One evening in 1972 Judge William Bryant was trying to resolve a hostage crisis in which Kenneth Hardy, the head of the Department of Corrections was being held by prisoners. One year earlier 39 had died in the Attica uprising. This night, however, Bryant handled it differently. Prisoners, hostages, US Marshalls and every leading black leader in the city sat quietly as Bryant listened to the complaints promised to consider them. Del Lewis – later head of NPR was there – Petey Greene was there crying. One of the prisoners tells Judge Bryant, “We love Mr. Hardy. We don’t want to kill nobody. We don’t want to hurt nobody. We are tired of people putting us in positions where we act like animals” The participants go back to the prison and gather in a cavernous hall as prisoners, reporters, activists engaged in earie discussions and confrontation. Judge Charlie Halleck tells a prisoner, ” “The first man who gets a hose on them, you get a habeas corpus and come into my court and I’ll stop it.” And by midnight the hostages are released.


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