This week is the fourth column of a series on how African Americans have been a significant part of Washington, D.C.’s civic life and identity since the city was first declared the new national capital in 1791. In this series, I’m writing about where we are today in the District of Columbia and how African-American churches have fared for the most part, especially amid the gentrification taking place during the past two decades.
As developing shopping centers and art districts in cities attract young, mostly-white millennials, historically Black churches are struggling with congregants leaving due to the rising cost of living.
Statistics for the racial composition of the District of Columbia show that Black or African Americans are still the largest majority here at 45.39%, though it’s only a few percentage points higher than whites, who make up 41.07%. Let us take a look at how this all began for African Americans here in Washington, D.C.
First, back during the 1960s after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and riots in major cities, there was fear from the looting, burning and stealing, with folks walking down the streets carrying televisions, couches and anything they could. With that came “white flight,” or upper-middle-class families fleeing to the suburbs when minorities began integrating with white neighborhoods in the late 1960s. Now, the opposite pattern of movement is happening in big cities. As a result, historic Black churches are suffering.
“Now, it’s ‘white return,'” said Melissa Wilde, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. White millennials are flooding back into big-city neighborhoods, seeking to develop downtown areas as residents leave the city.
Today, “white returns” are mostly millennials, and they are moving all across the District of Columbia. As I drive through the city going various places, I find it hard to recognize many neighborhoods. Homes have been replaced with small apartment units. Along Georgia Avenue near Walter Reed — an area I’m so familiar with because my office was located in the 7300 block for nearly 10 years, when the Grant sisters were the coordinators of the Georgia Avenue Day Parade & Festival — I now can quickly see the various townhomes and several small apartment units that were once D.C.-type townhomes. I see whites pushing baby strollers, walking dogs and jogging throughout the city.
Whites are now living on the so-called “Gold Coast” of D.C., and in Northeast and all parts of Northwest. Southwest D.C. has been nearly rebuilt, and it looks amazing — new stadium, new exclusive condos and apartments priced at $3,000 a month. We find them even in southeast D.C., with areas that were once all African Americans becoming mostly white with newly renovated homes or older homes that have been demolished from within and made brand-new on the inside. It is really happening, folks.
What does that type of change do for the Black churches that have been here from the early 1900s until now? This transition has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years — quietly at first, like an underground railroad. At first, we saw only one white family on the block. Now, though, when you look around, you can see all of the evidence that the “underground” has been working: tearing down, rebuilding, offering money to move Blacks to suburbs.
Unlike some of the megachurches that have moved from Georgetown in D.C. to the suburbs, Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church moved due to the tremendous growth. The church’s website talks about how they outgrew their church then moved to a gymnasium to accommodate the growth and eventually moved to the new suburban location. The website also states how the church is rooted in faith.
Since moving from the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to Fort Washington, Maryland, in 1983, the church has taken many steps of faith, and God has blessed it exceedingly and abundantly. It is a tremendous story of hope. Some people call it “The Miracle on Allentown Road.” I’m glad they moved due to the overwhelming growth of membership.
More next week on the Black church and “white return.”
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.