A history of race relations in DC

The nation's capital has a complex history of racial tension. But is it improving?

Credit: Creative Commons
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Washington, D.C., was the first major city to have a majority black population, but more than five decades later the state of race relations continues to evolve.

A look back

Hundreds of slaves escaped to Washington during the Civil War in hopes of securing protection by Union troops during the time slavery was becoming unpopular in the district, making up only 3 percent of the population, according to the online history site Civil War Washington.

The pressure to end slavery was so intense that it was abolished in Washington nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862.

The 1920s marked a transitionary period for African Americans called “black aristocracy” according to Amanda Huron, assistant social science professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, was the mecca of this “black aristocracy,” attracting blacks into the district during the turn of the 20th century, Huron said.

Howard University–1860s Credit: Creative Commons

Yet, racial tensions quickly began to rise after President Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913. Kathleen Wolgemuth notes in the 44th volume of the “Journal of Negro History” that Wilson introduced segregation to several federal departments, sparking outrage among the black community as they had fostered an unprecedented level of support for Wilson, according to the news and research site African Americans and the Presidency.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that racial segregation was outlawed in Washington, U.S. court documents show. But the decade after proved that it would take more to change race relations not only in Washington but nationwide.

A decade of tension

The 1960s brought even more blacks to Washington, many of whom were lured by readily-available government jobs, according to a 1998 Washington Post article.

Aftermath of D.C. 1968 race riots that left 10 dead and resulted in thousands of arrests. Credit: Creative Commons

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, a series of riots erupted across most major U.S. cities including D.C. where 10 people died and more than 7,600 people were arrested, according to John Muller, an associate librarian, journalist and historian. King’s death sparked the outrage of a community of blacks who were also frustrated with oppression in education, housing, law enforcement, and unemployment, Huron said.

“Housing was much harder to attain than for whites, and the housing blacks could find within the city’s border was in severely worse condition than the housing of their white counterparts,” U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report.

Education, housing out of reach

Obtaining housing was more difficult for blacks compared to whites in the 1960s, according to a report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

“Housing was much harder to attain than for whites, and the housing blacks could find within the city’s border was in severely worse condition than the housing of their white counterparts,” the report stated.

This type of segregation also led to segregation in schools. Whites were beginning to pull their children out of schools in the city and into schools in the outer suburbs.

Ben Gilbert noted in his book “10 Blocks from the White House,” that inequity was so bad that although two-thirds of D.C.’s population was black, 92 percent of public school children were black.

Poor conditions in majority-black schools led the government to create a system to rate all schools. The lowest-rated schools, called Title I schools, were granted $5.5 million under the Title I of the Secondary and Elementary Schools Act by the federal government in 1965, but according to a 1967 Washington Post article (paywall), none of the money went to majority-black schools.

According to the Washington Post article, the grant didn’t benefit many low-income schools because the money couldn’t be widely spread.

Plagued by gentrification

As of this year, blacks make up 47 percent of the total population in Washington, according to the most recent U.S. Census Data.

That data shows between 2000 and 2010 the black population decreased in every ward with the exception of Ward 8, a predominantly black area and the poorest neighborhood in Washington.

Huron said housing affordability is the largest setback for black Americans here today and that many of the neighborhoods with affordable housing are in areas with no grocery stores and low-quality schools.

Because the city recovered from bankruptcy around the turn of the 20th century Washington is now in a position to invest in public services, including libraries and recreation centers, Huron said.

“But if you can’t afford to stay in the city, those services aren’t going to benefit you,” she said.

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