lincoln memorial reflecting pool with the washington monument under cloudy sky
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Historical documentation from the District of Columbia Office of Tourism and, in particular, Marya Annette McQuirter, Ph.D., shows that African Americans have been a significant part of Washington, D.C.’s civic life and identity since the city was first declared the new nation’s capital in 1791.  This is the first of a series that I’m writing about where we are today in the District of Columbia, as it relates to, for the most part,  African-American churches.  It is my intention to delve into other parts of our history, for example our largest job market, the federal government.  

According to the most recent U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey (ACS), the racial composition of the District of Columbia was: Black or African American: 45.39%; and White: 41.07%.  Let us take a look at how this all began for African Americans, here in Washington, D.C.

World Population View cites that the median age in Washington, D.C. is 33.8 years, with a slight gender gap of 52.5% female, and 47.5% male.

There are many religions and denominations represented in Washington, D.C., including Baptist (17%), Catholic (13%), Evangelical Protestant (6%), Methodist (4%), Episcopalian (3%), Jewish (2%), Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Buddhist, Adventist, Lutheran, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu and Presbyterian.  

Back in the year 1800, African Americans were 25% of the population, and the majority of them were enslaved. By 1830, however, most were free people. Yet slavery remained. African Americans, of course, resisted slavery and injustice by organizing churches, private schools, aid societies, and businesses; by amassing wealth and property; by leaving the city; and by demanding abolition.

In 1848, 77 free and enslaved adults and children unsuccessfully attempted the nation’s largest single escape aboard the schooner Pearl. On April 16, 1862, Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, making Black Washingtonians the first freed in the nation, nine months before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. Congress had the authority to pass the DC Emancipation Act because it was granted the power to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the federal district by the U.S. Constitution. This federal oversight has been a source of conflict throughout Washington’s history.

During the Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction (1865-1877), more than 25,000 African Americans moved to Washington. The fact that it was mostly pro-Union and the nation’s capital made it a popular destination. Through the passage of Congress’s Reconstruction Act of 1867, the city’s African American men gained the right to vote three years before the passage of the 15th amendment gave all men the right to vote.

(Women gained the right to vote in 1920.) The first Black municipal office holder was elected in 1868. When Washington briefly became a federal territory in 1871, African American men continued to make important decisions for the city. Lewis H. Douglass introduced the 1872 law making segregation in public accommodations illegal. But in 1874, in part because of growing Black political power, the territorial government was replaced by three presidentially appointed commissioners. This system survived until the civil rights movement of the 1960s brought a measure of self-government.

By 1900 Washington had the largest percentage of African Americans of any city in the nation. Many came because of opportunities for federal jobs. Others were attracted to the myriad educational institutions. Howard University, founded in 1867, was a magnet for professors and students and would become the “capstone of Negro education” by 1930. The Preparatory School for Colored Youth, the city’s first public high school, attracted college-bound students and teachers, many with advanced degrees. (Founded in 1870, the school became renowned as M Street High School, and later, Dunbar High School.) As far back as 1814, churches operated and supported schools and housed literary and historical societies that promoted critical thinking, reading, lecturing, and social justice. African Americans also created hundreds of Black-owned businesses and numerous business districts.

The Cultural Heritage Trail, cites that at the dawn of the 20th century, African Americans had created a cultural and intellectual capital. Washington had relatively few “Jim Crow” laws. However, segregation and racism were endemic. The few existing laws mandated segregation in the public schools and recreation facilities but not in the streetcars and public libraries. African Americans, therefore, reacted strongly to President Wilson’s (1913-1921) institution of segregation in all of the federal government agencies.

There were clashes between African Americans and European Americans, which reached a fever pitch during the July 1919 race riot.  During this time, women and men fought back against violent whites, giving another meaning to the term “New Negro,” a term usually associated with the cultural renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  

Read more next week for more information.

Lyndia Grant

A seasoned radio talk show host, national newspaper columnist, and major special events manager, Lyndia is a change agent. Those who experience hearing messages by this powerhouse speaker are changed forever!

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