Monday, March 24, 2008

My Town Monday

Alright, since I am currently in New York City, having enjoyed Easter Sunday with my folks, I have decided to be perverse and write My Town Monday post for Travis not on Brooklyn, but on Washington, DC. In fact today I am going to take you through Georgetown. Why would I pour salt in my own wound after my Hoyas humiliating defeat at the hands of upstart Davidson? Because I am just that kind of masochist.

So when I speak of Georgetown, I am not speaking of the University, although it is located here. What I am referring to is a neighborhood of Washington, DC which sits along the Potomac River.

Copyright mutbka from

Long before the white man came to its borders, Georgetown was known as Tahoga and was a peaceful Indian village. There are no real documented facts to what happened to the Indians. But let’s put it this way, once there was a thriving Indian village, insert white people, and then there wasn’t.

After killing off, I mean, relocating all the native Indians, the white settlers founded Georgetown in 1751. This predates the establishment of Washington as a city. In fact, Georgetown was originally part of Maryland and was a busy Maryland tobacco port. When the District of Columbia was created in 1791, Maryland lost Georgetown to the newly developed capital.

Tourists love to come to Georgetown. It is known as a shopping and eating mecca for the fashionable elite of Washington, DC. But a little known fact about Georgetown is that this chic, elegant, neighborhood that is almost exclusively white and ridiculously expensive to live in, was once the center of a thriving slave trade and an all black community.

In a Washington Post article by Andrew Stephen, dated July 16, 2006, he speaks about Georgetown’s hidden history and how a “combination of legislative, social and economic pressures gradually forced nearly all the black people out, turning the neighborhood into the wealthy, effectively all-white enclave it is today.”

“Between 1865 and 1870, its black population increased from 1,935 to 3,271. Over the next two or three decades, a skilled black working class started to emerge alongside a handful of black professionals. But countless laws and regulations that continued well into the 20th century prevented true economic and social emancipation: Only white passengers were allowed to ride on Georgetown's new electric streetcars, for example, enabling them to commute to Washington for well-paying jobs that were effectively denied to blacks. Then came a series of economic blows that began to seal the fate of Georgetown's blacks. The Potomac silted up, virtually ending the industrial effectiveness of Georgetown's harbor. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which flowed through Georgetown and was crucial to many businesses such as flour and paper mills, flooded disastrously in 1889. Blacks were the first to lose their jobs when countless firms went bust. By 1910, the black population of Georgetown had peaked, and when the Great Depression struck 19 years later, more and more blacks found themselves displaced by whites taking menial jobs.

C&O Canal copright by Bethany L. King from

"Perversely, FDR's New Deal then began to work against blacks in Georgetown. Thousands of well-paid white government workers poured into Washington, creating further demand for housing and pushing property prices ever higher in Georgetown. "The dispossession of the Negro resident [of Georgetown]," the Conference on Better Housing Among Negroes reported, "is jointly managed by the city's leading realtors and their allied banks and trust companies. Two pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century by none other than Congress itself, though, were the final straws for Georgetown's blacks. The ostensible purpose of the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 was to get rid of slums; but I suspect that to a House with only one black member and a Senate with none at all, slums and blacks were synonymous."

"Then, in 1950, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act "to preserve and protect places of historic interest," but it had the effect of making Georgetown's gentrification legally enforceable. It was pushed through despite fears from "Negro groups," The Washington Post reported at the time, that it "might drive them from the area." Less than a decade later, Georgetown's black population had dwindled to fewer than 3 percent, and in 1972 The Post noted that fewer than 250 remained, 'so few that some Georgetown residents are unaware they are there.'" (Stephens, Andrew. “Georgetown's Hidden History.” Washington Post. 16 July 2006.)

You don’t see any of this history in the wealthy Georgetown of today. The Georgetown business association claims that “Our village in the nation's capital is widely known for its historic charm and European feel.” The historic charm they refer to does not include the slave trade or the fact that at one point Georgetown had a reputation of being one of the worst slums of Washington. No mention of its sordid past is made. No discussion of the anomaly of several African-American churches, like the oldest Mount Zion United Methodist Church, filled with churchgoers who do not live in Georgetown.

Waterfront copyright by M.V. Jantzen from

The concept of putting the word “hidden” with “history” is always appalling to me. History must be an open book so that we can learn, understand and always remind ourselves of the good and bad of humanity. And so I share this post and this article with you today so that one day when you do come to Georgetown, you can look around you with a clear eye of what the fancy shops and restaurants of Georgetown really cover and how the richest real estate of Washington, DC was virtually stolen from the Native Indians and African American communities.

Next Monday, I will give you more of a walking tour of DC and less of a history lesson.


Anonymous said...

Don't mean to be flippant, but it seems Washington has more than its share of dirty little secrets. *sigh* Nevertheless, Georgetown is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for shedding more light on this history.

Anonymous said...

I am realy enjoy the My Town Monday series so much.

Geography was never this interesting in school!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Although very, very sad.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Silting up is often a first sign of economic collapse. That's part of what happened to the Mayans and the Angkor people of Southeast Asia. Rivers silted up as a result of poor land managament, which also illustrated a breakdown in the farming system.

Anonymous said...

when i was a kid we lived on the military bas and could see the potomac, which ran beside it, and the white house from our back yard.

the national art gallery was it for me though. i had never been out of west texas and then this! it was magnificent.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I still remember visiting DC in 1962 and taking a tour of the Kennedy White House. All you had to do was stand in line for tickets. No barriers or armed guards or anything.

Anonymous said...

A place on my 'to see' list. Interesting post!

Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic read. Thanks for pulling this together.
I love Georgetown, but I didn't know anything about its history.

It is beautiful though, and those photos are making me even more homesick....

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I've never been out that way but would love to visit someday.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. History ought to be an open book. We shouldn't close off the past as though by doing so we can forget all the pain, meannness and misunderstandings and 'move on;' we should study it and try to understand.

My mother lived in Washington DC during the war. When she first tried to find a boarding house, she called one and was arranging to visit it, when the man she was talking to suddenly asked "Are you colored, ma'am?" She said she wasn't, and the man told her he was. Hurried apologies and they both hung up. We kids could never figure out why she hadn't at least gone to see it or why the whole issue of race came up, and my mother always smiled and said that was progress.

Anonymous said...

Kudos Ello for this post, just as it is. I like your approach to history.

(And these pictures do have an European feel to them.)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Ello. Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately history tends to be written by those who win out in conquest, so history is never truly open & honest. As far as I'm concerned, if I didn't witness it personally, I don't KNOW how or even if it happened.
Still & all, a wonderful & insightful post here. Very nice photos, too!
Sorry for my recent absence, but I've been having back problems.

Anonymous said...

What a really great post. This reminds me a lot of how I felt when I read "A People's History of the United States", which I think everyone should read.

Anonymous said...

Posts like this is what I envisioned My Town Monday to be. Great stuff.

Thanks for helping to make it a success each week.

Anonymous said...

Great post Ell,

Enjoyable read as usual. However, you are looking at history through Twenty-first century eyes. Until relatively recently "displacement" of indigenous populations by invaders was the "natural" order. It wasn't just white folks who did this. Some of the white folks who settled here didn't do it voluntarily either. My Scottish and Irish ancestors were either "transported" to the colonies (as indentured servants after failed rebellions against the English) or "cleared" when the Highlands were cleared to make room for sheep, or in the mid-1800's evicted during the famine in Ireland because they couldn't pay the rents.

Most of the time they were given lands furthest from the English settlers and closest to the act as a buffer between the tribes and the "civilized" English settlers.

Still, gotta love the colonial "feel" to the architecture.


Anonymous said...

I thank you for the history lesson. The evils of the world never cease to amaze me. Wonderful history lesson, Ello! :*) Thanks for posting this...

Anonymous said...

Such stunning pictures. In a way, I'm saddened by the harshness of the history, and yet, as J.L. Krueger said, this is the way of history around the world. I can't help but find it fascinating, and wish that people didn't feel the need to "hush up" parts of their history that they don't like.

Anonymous said...

No, keep up the history lessons! Obviously they are needed. I've been to DC (& Georgetown) and never learned this.

Anonymous said...

Pretty picture. My town still has lots of Indian named streets and neighborhoods - I guess that's supposed to compensated the natives for the land the white settlers stole. Jeesh!

*eye rolling*

Great post, but this NYer prefers the Brooklyn My Town's.

PS: I stopped reading "Commoner" about halfway through. More on why later.

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