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Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum: It Happened Here in Anacostia: One Century of History

1867 was a year of great stress for the Black community in the District of Columbia. As far as I know, there was no worldwide pandemic, but the community was suffering from a crushing lack of housing. At least 40,000 enslaved people had sought refuge in Washington DC during the Civil War. They had come from adjacent Virginia and Maryland and mostly had settled on the streets. Eventually, many built makeshift housing with discarded material and formed small settlements. One of these settlements was visited by General O.O. Howard, the superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He investigated how a group of Black refugees had come to create a small village in a prime downtown location. When asked what it would take to vacate the land, he was told, “Give us land!”

Cover of "Barry Farm-Hillsdale: A Historic African American Community" by Alcione Amos, Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum
Cover of “Barry Farm-Hillsdale: A Historic African American Community” by Alcione Amos, Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

And that is the beginning of the saga told in the just-published book that I have written. “Barry Farm-Hillsdale in Anacostia: A Historic African American Community” tells the history of a historic community established in 1867 on the east side of the Anacostia river adjacent to the White neighborhood of Anacostia. The Freedmen’s Bureau bought the land from the Barry family, thus the community’s name. The Bureau then plotted the land and sold the lots to Blacks interested in owning their own land. The large one-acre lots were ideal for these rural people who knew how to cultivate the land and raise small animals. The Bureau also sold the new settlers’ timber to build their new homes. Nothing was given for free. At first, the homes were tiny two-room houses, but they were a boon to people who had not even own their freedom shortly before.

The community prospered immediately. Shortly there was a school for the children, a church for worship and a group of residents respected for their civic demeanor established as leaders. Also, as their economic situation prospered, the settlers built larger houses.

One thing remained a point of discontent…the name of the community. The Barry family had owned enslaved persons, and the community did not feel it was appropriate to name this Black neighborhood after them. For awhile, Potomac City was considered for the new name and even appeared on a map. In 1873, the name of Hillsdale was approved by Washington, DC’s city council, but it never appeared in the maps, and to this date, when one buys a house in Anacostia within the footprint of the original Barry Farm, that is the name that appears in the deed. In acknowledgment of this complex naming history, we, at the museum, have adopted the hyphenated name Barry Farm-Hillsdale.

In the 20th century, the neighborhood was well established and very successful. Barry Farm-Hillsdale’s main commercial blocks, between Morris Road and Howard Road on Nichols Avenue, today Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. were thriving with various businesses from beauty parlors to food markets to funeral homes. The elementary school that served the community, Birney, also was located in this area, its building today occupied by Thurgood Marshall Academy.

Despite all its success in the 20th century, the community suffered from the lack of infrastructure, enough classrooms for its children and a profound feeling of isolation because it was located between two hostile white neighborhoods, Anacostia and Congress Heights.

After World War II, Barry Farm-Hillsdale became one of the centers of Civil Rights activism in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1949, the youth of Barry Farm-Hillsdale helped desegregate the Anacostia swimming pool, thus contributing to the eventual desegregation of all recreation facilities in the city. In the early 1950s, parents in Barry Farm-Hillsdale were at the forefront of the fight to desegregate schools. In the 1960s, residents of Barry Farm Dwellings — the public housing complex built on just ten percent of the original footprint of Barry Farm-Hillsdale during World War II — were at the forefront of the fight for welfare rights.

Nevertheless, by the1970s, the community’s identity had been subsumed under the general name of Anacostia. This book is a record of this stirring history. It honors the memory of all the well-known and anonymous residents of this neighborhood who made history through their actions over a century.

To acquire a copy, please access Arcadia Publishing (https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467147699) or Amazon.com, available in paperback and as an e-book (https://www.amazon.com/Barry-Farm-Hillsdale-Anacostia-Historic-Community/dp/1467147699/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=barry+farm-hillsdale&qid=1608574297&s=books&sr=1-1).

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