Approximately 50,000 African American refugees came to Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, fleeing enslavement in Maryland and Virginia. After the end of the war, they lived in makeshift housing in the downtown area. The white owners of the areas occupied by African Americans wanted their property back and appealed to the Freedmen’s Bureau to have them evicted. In trying to solve this problem, General O.O. Howard, the Superindent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, decided to buy land on the east side of the Anacostia River at a rural location to create an African American community where those living in the city could buy a lot and build a house. Thus began the settlement of Barry Farm-Hillsdale.
The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum’s new online exhibition, titled “We Shall Not Be Moved: Stories of Struggle from Barry Farm-Hillsdale,” explores the history of this community and is available at: anacostia.si.edu/barryfarm. This highly interactive exhibition uses historical maps, photographs, and excerpts from oral history interviews with community members. The exhibition is based on a book I recently authored, Barry Farm-Hillsdale in Anacostia: A Historic African American Community (available at bookstores and your local library).
In addition to being a source of historical information about Barry Farm-Hillsdale, this new exhibition can also be used as a case study for teaching social studies and urban history to high school and college students. Some of the themes covered in the exhibition include urban development, eminent domain (when the government seizes private property for public use), segregation, and gentrification.
In the first section of the online exhibition, “Explore the Neighborhood,” visitors are able to walk through the history of the community and learn about its leaders, teachers, schools, entertainment venues, and more. The next section, “Community Activism,” details the rich history of organizing in which residents valiantly confronted the challenges they faced over many decades. For instance, the youth of Barry Farm-Hillsdale forcefully integrated the all-white Anacostia swimming pool in 1949, leading to the eventual integration of all swimming pools in Washington, D.C. In the 1950s, the community parents were at the forefront of the fight to desegregate schools in Washington, D.C.
The “Investigate” section of the exhibition invites visitors to uncover how the community was negatively impacted by government seizure of land over the course of its existence. Photographs and maps vividly show the physical impact of this land loss. The last part of this section, titled “Stories of Struggle Across the U.S.,” reveals that what happened to Barry Farm-Hillsdale—which went from a thriving African American community at the turn of the twentieth century to the destruction of some of its last remnants in recent years—is an unfortunate but not uncommon fate of historic African American communities across the country. The section includes the stories of eleven different historic African American communities which have suffered a similar demise in recent years.
The final section allows visitors to share what they learned from the exhibition. Titled “What do You Think?,” the section asks visitors to vote on what they believe was the most significant turning point in the history of Barry Farm-Hillsdale. Visitors are also encouraged to share their own stories and memories related to the community and others like it. The exhibition ends by asking visitors two crucial questions: “Do you think people should have the right to remain in their neighborhoods?” and “Who should have the right to decide?” In reflecting on the story of Barry Farm-Hillsdale to answer these questions, we hope visitors will be inspired by the same value that drove the creation of this online exhibition: that we need to understand the past and act in the present to protect the future of our communities.