1940s

Standing Room Only: DC's WWII Housing Crunch

Two African American children in Washington, D.C. alley (Photo source: Library of Congress)

During World War II, the job market in D.C. exploded; between 1940 and 1945, the number of civilians employed by the government almost quadrupled. The Defense Housing Registry, created by the DC government to help these new employees find housing, processed around 10,000 newcomers every month.

The housing market in D.C. was not at all equipped to deal with this influx; construction in the city had slowed during the Great Depression, and halted completely when materials and labor were diverted to the war effort. So what resulted from the overcrowding of Washington?

The "Exorcist" stairs in Georgetown, which did not figure in the actual case that inspired the movie.

The Real Story Behind "The Exorcist"

One of the most famous movies set in Washington is The Exorcist, the 1973 tale of a Roman Catholic priest's struggle to save a 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair) from demonic possession, which transfixed theater-goers with its phantasmagoric gore. The William Friedkin-directed film not only was a box office smash, but also became the first horror film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and four decades after its release,The Exorcist and its D.C. connection continue to resonate in the public imagination.

Case in point: The film's shocking climax, in which the protagonist, Father Damien Karras (portrayed by Jason Miller) takes the demon Pazuzu into his own body and is hurled to his death, has turned the steep set of steps in Georgetown where it was filmed into a macabre local landmark.

But The Exorcist has another, even more unsettling connection to the Washington area. William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the screenplay and the bestselling 1971 novel from which it was derived, was inspired by an actual case in which a 14-year-old boy purportedly was possessed by the devil, which occurred in Prince George's County 65 years ago.

Louis Armstrong (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

It's Raining Bottles at Griffith Stadium: The Music Battle of 1942

On July 23, 1942, Washingtonians packed Griffith Stadium to the gills for a special “Battle of Music” between African American jazz legend Louis Armstrong and white saxophonist Charlie Barnet. In segregated Washington of the 1940s, such an organized interracial competition was a big event and few people — especially in the black community that surrounded the stadium — wanted to miss the “musical fisticuffs.”

We Will Never Die Pageant, 1943

In an age before e-news, social media, and cellphones, one pageant helped bring the truth about the tragedy unfolding in Hitler’s Europe to the nation’s attention.

Seventy years after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, hundreds of members of Congress, and several Supreme Court Justices convened in Constitution Hall to learn of the atrocities being committed in Europe, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington marked the anniversary of that pageant, entitled We Will Never Die – a Mass Memorial to the Two Million Dead of Europe.

Jackie Robinson tied a National Negro League record by going 7 for 7 at the plate in a June 24, 1945 doubleheader against the Homestead Grays in Washington. (Photo source: Library of Congress, American Memory)

When Jackie Played Here

When you see the Jackie Robinson film, 42, it’s safe to assume there won’t be any scenes of Robinson’s Dodgers playing the Senators in Washington. That’s because it never happened, aside from maybe an exhibition game. The teams were in different leagues, so only a World Series would have had them square off. And, anyone who knows anything about baseball (or has seen Damn Yankees) knows the Senators were not exactly World Series material in the 1940s and 1950s.

But what you may not know is that Robinson actually did play in D.C. before he became a Dodger and it was a pretty big deal.

Fairlington Villages (Souce: Library of Congress)

Fairlington: Built to Last

The year is 1943. You’re new to the area and looking for a place to live that’s close enough to the city that the commute to your government job won’t be completely terrible. Maybe you’ve got a dog. Maybe you’re starting a family. It’s a busy time. The war is going on, after all, and Washington is buzzing with activity. Where are you going to live?

Well, if you were looking in Arlington, there’s a good chance you might end up in the new Fairlington neighborhood…  That is of course, if you could get a spot -– easier said than done in those days.

Woody Guthrie, 1943 (Library of Congress)

How Washington Saved Folk Music

Sure, it seems a bit counter-intuitive. How could the favorite subject of protest music also be its greatest protector? Well, believe it. If it wasn't for Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress there might not be a Woody Guthrie — and thus by extension — a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen, and well … you get the rest. In March 1940, Lomax arranged for Guthrie to travel to Washington, D.C. to record traditional ballads and his original songs at the Department of the Interior recording lab. What emerged from three days of sessions is one of the purest documents of Americana ever released.

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