Black History

Julius Hobson's Unlikely Relationship with the F.B.I.

Julius Hobson was as active an activist as you could imagine, but he also collaborated with law enforcement for several years. (Image source: DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division, Collection 1, Julius Hobson Papers.)

We’ve written before on this blog about the exploits of Julius Hobson. A D.C. civil rights activist in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, his campaigns against segregation and injustice were based on equal parts audacity and bluff, ranging from staging a “lie-in” at a D.C. hospital, to encouraging people to paste pro-integration stickers over the punchcards on their power bills,  to threatening massive protests and boycotts that had no chance of materializing. He combated police brutality by following policemen around with a long-range microphone, and, most famously, promised to release cages full of rats on Georgetown if the city didn’t deal with the rat problem elsewhere. His antics effected genuine social change, in large part because everyone was too nervous to call him on his bluffs, for fear that he might be able to back them up. His acts were already so outlandish, anything seemed plausible, except for one rumor that seemed to be too uncharacteristic to be true. Yet, it was the truth: for years, Julius Hobson passed information to the FBI.

Marion Barry Leads Bus Boycott

Boycotters board a “freedom bus,” one of the provided forms of transportation. (Source: Jet Magazine, Feb 10, 1966, accessible via GoogleBooks)

The price of public transportation in D.C. is rising and people are angry. Although this statement could accurately describe the present time, let’s turn back the clock to 1965.

D.C. Transit had just announced plans to raise bus fares and one man wasn’t having it. This man was Marion Barry, who would go on to become mayor of D.C., serving four terms. But Barry wasn’t mayor yet. He was a relatively new resident in D.C., having moved here to open up a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry saw the bus company’s raised rates as a direct hit to low income people in the District, who were mostly African American.

Hobson with his station wagon and trademark pipe and fedora, ready to harangue the multitudes. (Source: Evening Star)

Julius Hobson Gets Out of the Rat Race

If you lived in DC in August 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.

A Place for the Poor: Resurrection City

Resurrection City spent six muddy weeks on the National Mall, within view of landmarks such as the Capitol. (Photo source: Wikipedia Commons)

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1968, thick clouds of tear gas rolled through a multitude of shacks on the National Mall.  This shantytown was Resurrection City, and its residents were the nation’s poor. As many ran from their shelters, they saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final dream of economic equality withering in the gas. They had been citizens of the city for six weeks, all the while campaigning for rights for the poor around D.C. Now their work seemed all for naught. After an increase in violence and with an expiring living permit, the police had come to chase them out. Children were crying, adults screaming, and some were even vomiting. But amid the chaos, a song rang out: “we shall overcome.”

Picketers, including future Maryland State Senator Gwendolyn Greene Britt, stand outside Glen Echo Park in 1960. (Photo source: National Park Service)

Remembering the Summer of 1960 at Glen Echo

You might not immediately associate roller coasters with racial equality, but more than three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, Maryland’s Glen Echo Park was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. It made sense: since its opening in 1899, Glen Echo had been the premier amusement park for white Washingtonians. The park featured a number of modern roller coasters, a miniature railway, a Ferris wheel, an amphitheater, a pool: everything and more that other parks provided.

Contraband Camps of Northern Virginia


It's easy to remember the battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Antietam and more — but the Washington, D.C. area was also home to many other significant Civil War events, too. After all, it was here that Col. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and followed his home state of Virginia to the Confederacy; it was here that President Lincoln directed the Union's war effort; it was here that the President was assassinated in 1865.

And, it was also here that thousands of African Americans first experienced freedom after generations in bondage through the "contraband" camps, which the federal government created on the abandoned lands of secessionists during the war. 

Local Civil War blogger Ron Baumgarten has been exploring these largely-forgotten camps on his Civil War blog, All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac.

Elizabeth Keckley rose from slave to the Lincoln White House thanks to her supreme skill as a dressmaker. Her autobiography provides one of the most powerful accounts of the First Family's personal lives. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.

In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves.  From her autobiography:

With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.

In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.

Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.

Malcolm X traveled widely in the early 1960s, but Washington was the site of two seemingly unlikely connections for him. (Photo source: Library of Congress.)

Malcolm X's Unlikely Washington Connections

In the early 1960s, Malcolm X traveled widely preaching black separatism on behalf of the Nation of Islam and – after splitting from the group in 1964 – promoting a more moderate vision for American race relations. So, it's no surprise that he came to the nation's capital on a number of occasions.

On the 50th anniversary of his death, we look back on two rather unusual connections Malcolm made in Washington.

In 1964, D.C. was the site of the only known in-person meeting between Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was significant considering the two leaders' very public differences on approaches to the civil rights movement. Malcolm once called King "Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing" in a not-so-subtle critique of non-violent civil disobedience.

The two staged a made-for-the-cameras meeting in the U.S. Capitol. But, as strange as the photo-op with King seemed at the time, Malcolm made headlines with an even more unlikely connection in Washington a few years earlier.

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd broke the color barrier in professional basketball when he debuted for the Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950. (Photo source: NBA.com)

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd Breaks Basketball's Color Line

Earl Lloyd was a rising basketball star at West Virginia State College, but little did he know how soon he would become an important part of sports history. Toward the end of Lloyd’s senior season he was heading to class with a classmate and she told him she heard his name on the radio that day. Unaware of what she was referring to, Lloyd simply asked what she heard. She told him some team in Washington called the Washington Capitols had drafted him.

“You’re going to Washington and they’re going to try you guys out, so show them your best,” said Lloyd’s college coach, Marquis Caldwell. Being from Alexandria, Virginia, it was almost a homecoming party for Earl Lloyd. Before he was at West Virginia State, he graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946, Alexandria’s only African-American high school.

The Scurlocks Photograph Washington's Secret City

A husband and wife stand outside the Metropolitan Church (Source: Scurlock Collection/The Smithsonian)

Addison Scurlock dressed in a suit and tie whenever he held a camera. Confident and serious about his work and his appearance, he presented himself to the world the same way that he presented his subjects.

Scurlock was only 17 when he moved to Washington and listed “photographer” as his profession in the 1900 census. He apprenticed with a white photographer for three years before opening his own studio in his parents’ house. By 1911 he had a studio in northwest Washington, and soon he had two apprentices of his own: his sons, Robert and George. As adults, they joined him in the photography business. 

“I would describe my father as very intense, in all of his endeavors,” Robert Scurlock said in a 2003 interview. “He had a lot of drive to him. If he saw something he wanted to explore, he would find all means of doing it.”

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