Category Archives: Lectures

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 –

2)NPS –

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I. Introduction: Spaces and Places | Washington DC, the Place and Space, Series

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, site of the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference, Nov. 5-6, 2010

The Program for this week.

In honor of and inspired by the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference held this past weekend in Washington DC at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, this week is devoted to the investigation of the city from the perspective of places and spaces.  This taps into an old love of mine–Washington DC history–and takes me back to my first career path out of college as a tour guide for Bike the Sites and a Program Instructor for the Close Up Foundation.  For the first few years after graduating from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC was my classroom, my stage and my playground.

The conference this past weekend was in all honesty indulgent!  Sadly, my teaching schedule and my family engagements prevented me from attending the entire conference, but I really enjoyed what I was able to attend.  It was great to discuss both the academic and methodology questions with professional historians.

What follows in this post is an introduction to the overarching theme I am following this week in a series of posts dedicated to Washington DC, its places and spaces.  DC is not like most other cities in the United States, nor other capitals in the Western World from which it was born.  The many unique circumstances and situations were both intended and accidental.  It is essential when discussing the history of the city to understand its at times conflicting roles which create challenging concepts of space in this city and capital.

The Place . . .

First and foremost in the minds of most Americans is the fact that Washington DC is the capital of the country.  As such it is the primary workplace and hub for the federal government.  For many people, the concept of the city begins and ends with this idea.  Like other big cities, people are drawn to it for career reasons that often revolve around our federal workings and mechanizations.  I know many people who have worked in the city for multiple decades but have no other connection to it.  When people use the expression “inside the Beltway”, they often refer narrowly to the offices from which the federal government is run, highly misleading if one were to look at a map and conceive of the space that actually sits “inside the Beltway”.  The “Beltway” is the 495 loop which encloses not only the District of Columbia but parts of northern Virginia and counties of southern Maryland–multiple jurisdictions, in fact!

Where Federal employees go to work: the National Mall and Federal Triangle.

Secondly, people in this country think of the great marble edifices that dot the Washington landscape.  While this includes sites such as the White House and the Capital, they are seen not so much as office buildings, but as monumental shrines along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.  These are symbols to be visited, photographed and cataloged in the family records (often on hot and humid summer days or in eighth grade school groups!) and are part of the DC civic pilgrimage that often further includes the Smithsonian Museums or the National Gallery of Art.  What’s more these are all free of charge (unless you pay for a transportation or guide service), making them further highly desirable because they make for a cheaper vacation in many respects than other family vacations as families can stay further out and use Metro to get into the city.  This is the “visited DC” as opposed to the one people come to for a job or even a mission–although, there is certainly room for overlap!

Some of the marble shrines of Washington DC: the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Finally, there is the awkwardly forgotten residential DC which is frequently only remembered by the people who actually live in or near the city.  It is entirely possible to visit the District of Columbia and completely avoid the residential portions!!  In fact, other than passing through the city jurisdiction on Metro you can spend an entire week in DC and pretty much avoid the city’s actual jurisdiction altogether–hotel in southern Maryland or northern Virginia, Metro to Smithsonian Station on the Mall and spend the entire vacation either at the Mall’s monuments or the Smithsonian museums, Metro back out of the city from the Smithsonian station and back to the hotel.  When you think about that, it is pretty astonishing.  But, in fact, people do live in DC and some of DC’s best cultural niches, stores, cafes and restaurants are in these residential neighborhoods.  (Besides, how much time can you really spend looking at museums and monuments before you just start to go a little numb in the brain?)

U St. Neighborhood in DC and Ben's Chili Bowl--best half-smokes anywhere!

. . . And, thus, the Spaces.

So, this small plot of land, under 70 square miles, is geographically a cacophony of uses, experiences and jurisdictions–you wouldn’t believe how many police forces exist in that small plot of land–DCPD, FBI, Amtrak Police, National Park Service Police, Capitol Police, etc…   There are many claims on this land and people experience this city differently: sometimes because of race or economics, sometimes because of politics or personal quests, sometimes because of greater or lesser understanding about how our country functions.

The health and maintenance of the city as well as the capital is difficult to achieve at times because there are often competing ends.  The city does not have full autonomy to self-govern, nor does the Congress necessarily have vested interest in cooperating with city’s requests.  City government is always difficult, but far more so if one has to involve Congress–and this has been the rub in DC’s history from the very beginning.  Solving its problems and accommodating its growth and residents has been an ongoing tug of war on top of the social issues that affected our country from its beginnings to the present.*

The week ahead.

In conclusion, DC is unique.  Whether you are talking about mayoral races or greater issues such as segregation, DC has always been a special case.  Again, with the inspiration of this past week’s conference presentations, I am going to run a 4-post a series looking at the unique space of the District of Columbia.  These will include a look at the city’s inception and the original conception of the Federal City, tomorrow; the locals’ space in the city, Wednesday, versus the locals’ space in the capital, Thursday; and finally, the city as it is a democratic stage and shrine on Friday.

In these posts I will cite some of the historians I listened to this past week.  Their ideas along with the many I have cultivated in the course of a handful of years studying and presenting on the city (both for entertainment and education) will be a brief introduction into the complexities that few people outside of the DC metropolitan area regard or consider, presented both with an eye to the past and the present.

*Note: There exists a much more sophisticated discussion about spatial relations in sociology and social justice.  I am not sufficiently well-versed or well-read to open an extensive discourse along those lines but they feature prominently in debates centered around urban-planning and spatial claims of social justice, in particular, and broader areas considering the lived environment in the U.S., including rural, urban and suburban living.  Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Edward Soja treat these ideas specifically in their works–the application of which on the case of DC is a particularly intriguing question (one that George Washington University doctoral student, Greg Borchadt, is researching and presented on in “Democracy’s Stage as Contested Terrain: The Spatial Politics of Washington’s Early Civil Rights Movement, 1939-1954” at this conference).

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