III. The Locals’ Space in the City | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

Part of the point in yesterday’s post was that the challenge of jurisdiction and use go back to the Constitution–well before the land is even acquired or surveyed.  The city would be built slowly–much of the work done by slaves from Maryland as Joy Kinard reminded conference attendees this past weekend–and its governmental organization would change again in 1871, abolishing the previous courts and cities.  In its place, from 1871-1874, a new government based on that of the U.S. Territories was put in place with a Presidentially appointed governor and council, with an accompanying House of Delegates elected by the city’s men.  In 1874, a three man Commission, much like that from the city’s foundational years, replaced the territory-style government.  This system would remain unchanged until 1967, when an office for a Presidentially appointed mayor was established as a prelude to 1973’s District of Columbia Self- Government and Governmental Reorganization Act (87 Stat. 774) which granted self-government to the city, though Congress would retain a final say in accord with the Constitution’s provision.  Citizens of the city remain unrepresented in the U.S. Congress and have never had a meaningful vote for representation in that body.

Washington DC's flag, based on George Washington's coat of arms.

The city’s history has long been tied to America’s race history, beginning with its construction using slave labor.  Debates in Congress would lead to the closing of the slave markets between the Capitol and the President’s House (later the White House).  And, in April 1862, Lincoln signed the DC Emancipation Act, originally providing immediate emancipation and compensation for Unionist masters.  This made DC a popular location for runaways and refugees, a city that was already a station of the Underground Railroad, now offered freedom much closer than Canada.  Many of the refugees would settle in the neighborhood now called Shaw/U Street.  Howard University was established in this general vicinity and this would become a prominent and diverse neighborhood in the city.  This neighborhood would be a vibrant portion of the city up until it’s economic decline following Depression-era policies such as red lining (a practice, established by FDR’s administration, forbidding banks from making “unsafe investments” in “bad” neighborhoods–such as black, immigrant or Jewish neighborhoods–in order for banks to get FDIC insurance).  But, as Rachel Bernard pointed out at the conference this weekend, the state of universal disenfranchisement created a situation that was almost akin to equality with white residents in the city–particularly with schools.

DC's Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862.

Alice Addison filing for emancipation for her and her family; their masters, the Soffells, filed for compensation.

The next section of the blog is devoted to a discussion summarizing some of Bernard’s key points about the schools of Washington DC at the beginning of the 20th century.  Under the Commissioner system, there was a school Board of Trustees in which the two races were proportionately represented and superintendents corresponded racially with the segregated schools.  Teaching was a prestigious field for the black community and, thus, highly competitive.  With this competition came a certain amount of scandal surrounding the appointments, though in general the black schools had many fewer problems and scandals than the white schools.  During Congressional investigations into the DC school system white officials attempted to deflect scrutiny and mismanagement by drawing attention to hiring scandals among the black schools.  This deflection came with the suggestion that DC’s black school officials were simply not up to the task and should be reorganized under white supervision.  The backlash from the black community was swift and immediate (though its representative before Congress was soft and conciliatory).  Washington Bee editorials demanded that until DC and America’s black population was regarded as fully equal they would prefer the system remain as it was.  “We want our own,” became the rallying cry as it was forecast that if white influence took control of the black schools–some of the best in the country for either race–black teacher’s would be fired, black students would be treated unfairly and the quality of education would decline (here, they fore-casted, in many cases, the exact predicament that followed for black schools after Brown v. Board).  While total reorganization under white leadership was put off at this time, black leadership of black schools would begin to legally erode in the District.*

This case demonstrates the inherent challenges of both jurisdiction and space for city residents.  The U.S. Congress was running the city by proxy in this system and had a hand in everything.  So, what space belonged to the citizens, the City of Washington?  Everything was federal, but DC’s citizens had no vote in the assemblage of the federal legislative body.  Later, in response to federal slum clearing projects that threatened to eliminate neighborhoods for federal building projects and highway construction, District residents would form Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) to remind Congress that there were citizens living in the city.  If Congress wanted to proceed with urban renewal in the nation’s capital, District residents wanted to make sure they were part of the planning process–not displaced and moved into projects as had been the residents in Southwest DC when their neighborhood was replaced by highway 395 and federal buildings which today house, ironically, HUD among other departments.  St. Dominic’s Church is one of the only buildings to survive the neighborhood’s “revival”.**

St. Dominic's Catholic Church, 501 Sixth Street, S.W., Washington DC

A Southwest DC resident with her victory garden and service stars in the window.

Redevelopment projects in Southwest DC--many residents would be removed to other parts of the city.

This experience is similar to that of  Southeast residents who were displaced by the construction the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.  Unlike Southwest DC at the time of its “renovation”, this area was almost exclusively black.  The stadium, which opened in 1961, would be the home of the Washington Redskins–the last team to desegregate and more popular at this time with the suburban population in Virginia and Maryland–and the Washington Senators–a team named after a body in Congress that governed in DC, but for which DC residents had no vote.  While it promised economic renewal, none developed and the stadium was unpopular in the city for decades.

For many people outside of the Washington metropolitan area, the residents of DC are forgotten or disregarded.  This is all made more awkward by the fact that the city’s residents do not have full control of their own laws or neighborhoods.  However, with the expansion of the Metro system many neighborhoods have expanded and grown and are again vibrant places to live, visit and play.  On the other hand, many residents with deep roots have been forced out by rising property taxes and an increase in cost for everyday goods.  DC is a city that is also being gentrified and while crime has greatly declined (from absurd heights), it has shot up in neighboring counties.  A tug of war exists between longtime residents and newcomers in every neighborhood west of the Anacostia River, in addition to that between residents and the federal government.

In the next post, I will look more at the federal areas of the city and the competing visions for them.  This includes the use of public space by the city and its residents, as opposed to the feds.

*Rachel Bernard’s talk, “We Want Our Own: The Politics of African-American Education in Early Twentieth-Century Washington” is a section of her dissertation which is scheduled for submission in the summer of 2012 from Berkeley.

** I wanted to point interested readers to another blog focused on DC that also talks about Southwest’s redevelopment and a National Park Service article on the subject in general:

1) DC Mud blog – http://dcmud.blogspot.com/2010/07/recognition-from-hprb-long-time-coming.html

2)NPS – http://crmjournal.cr.nps.gov/Print.cfm?articleIDN=2576

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