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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: Celebrating Women’s History Month at Barry Farm/Hillsdale

As a curator at the Anacostia Community Museum, I have written a history of the African American settlement once known as Barry Farm/Hillsdale which was created by the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867, east of the Anacostia River. This settlement was unique because it afforded newly freed African Americans the ownership of the land where they could build homes and raise their families.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are the histories of a few of the women who distinguished themselves in the early decades of the settlement. Elizabeth Chase bought a corner lot facing both Elvans and Stanton Roads. By 1873, she established a restaurant on the neighborhood’s main avenue. Besides being an entrepreneur, Chase was also a very early suffragette. In 1877, she signed a petition to Congress requesting voting rights for women. The petition was part of a countrywide movement spearheaded by the National Woman’s Suffrage Association led by Susan B. Anthony.

1877 "Petition for Woman Suffrage" signed by Elizabeth Chase, a Barry Farm/Hillsdale early settler (14th signature in "Colored" Women column) (National Archives and Records Administration)
1877 “Petition for Woman Suffrage” signed by Elizabeth Chase, a Barry Farm/Hillsdale early settler (14th signature in “Colored” Women column) (National Archives and Records Administration)

Frances Eliza Hall was a white missionary teacher who moved from New York state to Barry Farm/Hillsdale in 1869 to teach in the settlement’s first school. She built her house on Elvans Road and stayed for the next 42 years. Her impact in the community was such that she was still remembered well into the 20th century for her contributions.

Emma V. Smith was one of the most admired female leaders of the settlement. Born into slavery around 1858 in Maryland, she was the daughter of Frederick and Harriet Smith who most likely fled from slavery and came to Washington as part of the mass migration of African American refugees who came during the Civil War. Her father was a carpenter and bought a lot on Howard Road, fronting the Anacostia River, where the family lived well into the 20th century. Emma attended the local Barry Farm/Hillsdale schools (Mt. Zion and Hillsdale). She then attended Howard University’s “Preparatory and Normal Course.” She started her teaching career in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland, but by 1876 she was teaching at Hillsdale School along with Frances Hall, her former teacher. She would remain a teacher in Barry Farm/Hillsdale until her retirement in 1928. She left such a positive impression that in the early 1970s, she was still remembered as “an exceptional woman … a very strong force in the community.”

Georgiana Rose Simpson was born in Washington, DC, around 1865. After completing the 8th grade at Hillsdale School, where she also was a student of Frances Hall, Simpson transferred to the M Street High School. From there, she went to study at Miner Normal School, where Dr. Lucy E. Moten was her mentor. Simpson’s career in teaching began in the DC school system in 1885. First, she taught elementary school at Hillsdale School, her alma mater. Later, she went to teach at Dunbar High School, the prestigious school for African Americans. By 1911, she had received a bachelor’s degree, and in 1921, when the University of Chicago awarded her a Ph.D., she was the second African American woman to receive a doctorate. Later, Howard University hired her as a professor of German language and literature, and she had a distinguished academic career.
An entrepreneur and suffragette, a dedicated white teacher, a leader of the community, and the second African American woman to receive a Ph.D. were all the products of the nurturing environment created by the community of Barry Farm/Hillsdale. We honor their memory.

Join Alcione Amos at her Twilight Tuesdays talk about Georgiana Rose Simpson on March 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the museum at 1901 Fort Pl SE. Weekly on Twilight Tuesdays, the museum is open until 8 p.m. and feature 30-60 minutes of relaxed, no reservations-needed programming.

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