Black History

Marian Anderson in 1940. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Marian Anderson Actually Did Get to Sing at Constitution Hall

In 1939, in what became one of the most painful moments in Washington music history, celebrated African-American singer Marian Anderson was denied an opportunity to perform for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall because of her race. Then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned and operated the concert hall. Anderson's manager, Sol Hurok, capitalized on the First Lady's support to seek federal government approval for the singer give an open-air performance instead.

On April 9 of that year, a crowd of 75,000 people, which included Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and listened to Anderson sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" on the memorial's steps. According to the New York Times' account, six microphones carried Anderson's voice to millions of radio listeners throughout the country.

Host to History: 1966 NCAA Final Four at Cole Field House

Texas Western's NCAA Championship victory over all-white Kentucky at Cole Field House in 1966 went way beyond sports. (Photo source: El Paso Times)

Nowadays the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four is played in huge football stadiums that can seat 50,000 or more fans. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, the games took place in much smaller, on-campus arenas and the media coverage was paltry compared to what we see now. Such was the case in 1966, when the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House hosted college basketball’s final weekend.

That might not sound like a big deal, but with the way the tournament unfolded, the 1966 championship game proved to be a major event in the civil rights movement.

Oscar-Winner "12 Years a Slave" is a Reminder of the Local Slave Trade

Director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, serves to highlight a horrific and shameful part of local history — the area's role as a transit depot and resale market for humans held in involuntary servitude.

For those who haven't yet seen it, the acclaimed film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist who in 1841 traveled from his home in New York to Washington, DC, with the promise of a high-paying job as a circus musician. He didn't know that his prospective employers actually were slave traders. 

Happy Emancipation Day, DC!

We all learned in history class that Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in Confederate states by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. But did you know that until April 16, 1862, slavery was still legal and widely practiced in Washington, DC? Today DC celebrates Emancipation Day, marking the passage of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act that legally freed all slaves owned in DC.

After the Pearl was captured and returned to Washington, many of the slaves on board were sold to the deep South. Emily and Mary Edmonson (above) had a better fate when their freedom was purchased with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher's Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

The Pearl Incident

1848 was a busy year for the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington monument was under construction and Congress was hotly debating the question of slavery in the new territories.  Closer to home, most white Washingtonians favored slavery though many had objections to actual slave-trading taking place in the capital. D.C.’s large free black population, which contained a great many marriages between enslaved and free, sought freedom for those who didn’t yet posses it, and were spurred by an increasing number of abolitionists flocking to the city.

To put it mildly, Washington was a tense place in April 1848, and it was about to get even moreso. Enter the Pearl.

On February 2, 1959 (l-r) Michael Jones, Gloria Thompson, Ronald Deskins and Lance Newman became the first black students to break the color line in Virginia's public schools. (Source: Washington Post website)

It Happened Here First: Arlington Students Integrate Virginia Schools

On February 2, 1959, Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn High School) in Arlington was the first public school in Virginia to be integrated. That morning, four African American seventh graders – Ronald Deskins, Lance Newman, Michael Jones and Gloria Thompson – started classes at the school with over 100 Arlington County police officers in riot gear standing guard. To the great relief of the community, there was no violence or disorder (though two students were sent home for setting off a firecracker in a school bathroom)

The day had been a long time coming.

John Phillip Sousa Junior High School. (Source: Wikipedia user Dmadeo)

D.C.'s Own "Brown vs Board"

Ask most people what Supreme Court case ended public school segregation and (perhaps after checking their smartphone) they will say, “Brown vs. Board of Education.” That is would be correct… for most of the country. But, for citizens in the federally-controlled District of Columbia another case was more important.

On December 10, 1952 the Supreme Court heard the first arguments in Bolling vs. Sharpe, a case filed on behalf of eleven African American parents whose children had been denied enrollment at D.C.'s John Phillip Sousa Junior High School on the basis of race. The court would issue its decision two years later alongside the more famous Brown decision.

Portrait of Yarrow Mamout by Chales Wilson Peale, 1819.

Yarrow Mamout's Place in History

Yarrow Mamout was the most prominent African American in early Washington.  He was a Muslim, educated in West Africa to read and write in Arabic.  He and a sister arrived in America from on a slave ship in 1752. After forty-five years as a slave of the Beall family of Maryland, Yarrow (his last name) gained his freedom and settled in Georgetown. In 1800, he acquired the property at what is now 3324 Dent Place and lived there the rest of his life.

The house on Yarrow Mamout’s old lot in Georgetown was scheduled for demolition in 2012, but efforts were made to save any artifacts from his occupancy as well as his mortal remains from the bulldozer.

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