Making a Home: Reconstruction and Integration

Following the Civil War, the rapidly expanding black population of Washington looked for housing and for educational opportunities. A significant number of the newly freed blacks had to settle in the alley dwellings, Washington's version of slum housing, but the Freedmen's Bureau proposed a different solution, one which would address housing and education at the same time.

Public schools, which were established separately for whites and for blacks in 1862, were funded by separate tax assessments on white and black property throughout the city. Despite laws like the 1865 School Act, the municipal government continued to withhold funds for black schools; during this time, the government built only one school for blacks in the whole city. The Freedmen's Bureau threatened a lawsuit over the inequitable division of funds, and finally got some money turned over to a panel of colored trustees for administration of the colored schools. White residents, in turn, refused to sell or lease land for colored school construction.

The Freedmen's Bureau developed a program to construct black housing and to fund education at the same time. With much secrecy, it began buying up land from the Barry family, just north of the federal insane asylum in Anacostia. By 1867, the Bureau had assembled $25,000 worth of land there, which it sold, rented, and leased to blacks, to raise money for higher education (Howard University was among the recipients). For between $125 and $300, black families were able to purchase a one acre lot and enough lumber to build a house. Buyers paid in installments of $10/month, roughly the rent of a shanty in one of the city's alley dwellings. The Bureau converted former military barracks in the area to low-cost temporary housing for the families during construction. An 1868 Freedmen's Bureau report linked the development of the Barry's Farm community with the relocation of black families from alley dwellings: the barracks were converted with "the design of removing the families of freed people from some of the worst quarters of this city and Georgetown, where they were occupying miserable huts, in a condition to generate disease and crime...moderate rent was charged for these rooms, about one-third of the amount paid for the shanties the people had left." (1) Members of the Bureau inspected the converted barracks daily and strictly enforced housing codes in the growing community. By the end of the first two years, a settlement of 500 black families lived in the neighborhood. Families worked in the city by day and built their homes across the river by night. Visitors described "the hills and valleys dotted with lights...the sound of hoe, pick, rake, shovel, saw, and hammer rang through the late hours of the night." . (2) Within three months of the community's founding, enough money had been generated through an escrow fund to purchase a lot for Anacostia's first public school for black children.

Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph in the 1890s
Regardless of race, all residents of Anacostia were united in their belief that the municipal government wasn't providing enough in the way of public services to the area. The all-white Anacostia Citizens Association and the black citizens represented by the Barry's Farm/Hillsdale Civic Association complained repeatedly of poor service to their side of the river. Streetcars appeared in the central part of the city in the 1860s, but the government didn't extend service to Anacostia until 1895. No high school existed east of the river until 1935. A 1907 petition by Anacostia residents charged that 79% of all public expenditures by the D.C. government in the preceding 70 years had been made for areas west of the Capitol. Frederick Douglass wrote the D.C. Commissioners in 1894 to ask for repairs to a retaining wall following a regrading of the street outside his home; the repairs weren't made until 1976.

Douglass, who broke the restrictive covenant in all-white Uniontown in the 1870s, had more extensive contact with whites in Anacostia than did most black residents living there at the time. He was a member of the predominantly white Uniontown Literary Society and was familiar with many of the white professional men in the area; at the same time he also involved himself extensively in the life of the black neighborhoods and churches in Anacostia.

Lawyer John Moss, around 1900
In the 1870s the black neighborhoods had housed chiefly agricultural and construction laborers, domestic servants, farmers and blacksmiths; by the 1880s they also included teachers, grocers, carriage makers, dressmakers, wheelwrights, police officers, and government clerks. Whites patronized several of these black businesses in the 1880s and '90s, notably the sign painters, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights; one black lawyer, John Moss, who lived in the area successfully defended a white D.C. policeman charged with murder in 1890.

In the 1870s a brief period of home rule gave a popularly elected City Council the chance to pass ordinances guaranteeing equal service to all residents regardless of race; home rule ended after a few years due to insolvency, and when the Commissioners revised the D.C. Code in 1901, they eliminated these public accomodation laws. At the turn of the century, Washington had the largest black population of any city in the United States; this population was subject to increasing segregation during the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson signed a law which formally segregated formerly integrated federal workplaces; in a study of Washington segregation, Howard Gillette and Fredric Miller note that the 1913 law is evidence that segregation "thus followed federal rather than strictly local practice. In fact, we become increasingly aware that the federal government as much as local residents determined the evolution of Washington's race relations." (3) Although Washington posted no signs and passed no laws regulating interaction between blacks and whites outside the federal workplace, blacks and whites rode in different parts of the bus, rooted for different baseball teams, relaxed at separate public parks, and watched movies in separate theaters.

The colored schools suffered enormously during the decades of segregation. A 1950 National Capital Parks and Planning Commission report showed that enrollment in colored junior high schools exceeded capacity by 3,452 students; white junior high schools were 717 students under capacity. Figures for senior high schools and vocational schools showed similar disparities. (4)

White residents of Anacostia marching to protest the desegregation of schools
A series of Supreme Court decisions outlawing restrictive covenants and guaranteeing equal access to restaurants, theaters, and other public accomodations coincided with Truman's 1948 order which barred discrimination against blacks in the federal government. It seemed the tide was turning, a fact acknowledged by the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission in its 1950 Comprehensive Plan for the District, which called for the planning of new schools "with an eye toward desegregation...elimination of arbitrary divisions in neighborhood communities based on racial, national, or religious distinctions...the removal of racial segregation in public recreation." (5) In the wake of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, and coupled with the development of freeways and suburbs, Washington became a predominantly black city. Within ten years of the Brown decision, the schools were 90% black; Anacostia's population changed from 82% white in 1950 to only 37% white in 1967. At the same time, however, Anacostia's total population grew by 50%, during a time in which the city as a whole experienced a mere 6% population increase. (6) The disproportionate increase in population can be explained in part by the movement of blacks into formerly white neighborhoods, moving from the more expensive central city to relatively spacious environs in Anacostia, but it has also has a great deal to do with the expansion of the federal government, urban renewal projects elsewhere in the city, and public housing.

The Changing Face: Urban Renewal and Public Housing


1  Washington D.C. Department of Urban Renewal, _Washington's Far Southeast '70
 Report_, xi.

2  Louise Hutchinson, _The Anacostia Story:  1608-1930_, 83.

3  Fredric Miller and Howard Gillette, "Race Relations in Washington, D.C., 1878-1955:
  A Photographic Essay," _Journal of Urban History_  Nov. 1994: 61.

4  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Open Spaces and Community
 Services_, 1950: 41.

5  National Capital Park and Planning Commission, _Washington:  Present and Future_, 
1950: 39, 5, 34.

6  Miller and Gillette 81, Washington D.C. Dept. of Urban Renewal 3.