Black History

"Belair at Bowie": Segregated Suburbia

Karl Gregory tries to buy a home in Belair at Bowie

By 1963, “Belair at Bowie” was thriving. Since its opening in 1961, over 2000 houes had been occupied. But its prosperity hid an uncomfortable truth. William Levitt’s vision of the perfect neighborhood included attractive homes, affordable prices, comfort, and community—but only one type of neighbor. From the moment Levitt arrived in Washington, local activists—and even the government—became aware of the developer’s racist policy: none of the homes in Belair could be sold to people of color.  

The 1868 Mayoral Election, African-American Vote, and Riots That Followed

Howard University near Miner Hall in 1867

On January 8, 1867, Congress passed the District of Columbia Suffrage Bill, granting African-American men the right to vote for the first time in U.S. history. D.C.’s black community was ecstatic. But though this was certainly an exciting start, the stakes surrounding the black vote escalated in June 1868, when the two candidates for Washington’s new mayor promised vastly different futures for the city.

Portrait of Josiah Henson, 1876

"Not Fiction, but Fact": Josiah Henson and the Real Uncle Tom's Cabin

Josiah Henson is not a well-known name in American history—or even in the Washington area, where he was enslaved for many years. Born into bondage in Maryland, he lived in Montgomery County before eventually escaping to Canada—there, he served in the army, became a preacher, and established a prosperous settlement for escaped slaves. He was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, serving as the inspiration for the titular character. But though the novel made him a well-known and popular figure in the nineteenth century, Henson was determined to tell his own story. As he says, the truth is stranger than fiction. 

Honoring Alexandria's Two Lynching Victims

Memorial Corridor at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Credit: Soniakapadia via Wikimedia Commons. Used via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is dedicated to all the victims of racial terror lynching in this country. The memorial is made of hundreds of steel monuments with the names of all known lynching victims inscribed on the front. A monument representing Alexandria, Virginia contains two names: Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas. This is their story, and our community's history. 

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Mary and Elizabeth Edmonson

The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria: Legends in the Fight Against Slavery

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.

Police removing sit-in participants from the Alexandria Library (Source: Wiikpedia)

Alexandria Library Sit-In, 1939

In 1939 -- decades before Virginia schools were integrated, and sit-ins emerged as a primary strategy for protesting segregated businesses and public facilities in the South -- Alexandria, Virginia lawyer Samuel Tucker organized a successful sit-in to demonstrate against the Alexandria Library's "whites only" policy. It is believed to be the first sit-in for desegregation in American history.

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