Washington, D.C. is a city of wonder and one of contradictions. In the late 18th century, enslaved Africans were brought to this city—with force—to serve white owners. The marble federal city was built with the labor of enslaved Africans. Yet as the slave population in DC grew into the mid-nineteenth century, so did the number of DC free Blacks because many had obtained freedom in Virginia or Maryland, states that required all newly freed blacks to leave. Perhaps this is why DC has often stood as the political “City on a Hill” to the nation’s African Americans.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln freed the District’s 3,128 slaves. He signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation that only granted freedom to slaves in parts of the Confederacy still in rebellion. About the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, the great orator Frederick Douglass wrote, “I trust I am not dreaming, but the events taking place seem like a dream.” Later, as that spring moved to summer, Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave, seamstress and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote that “in the summer of 1862, freedmen began to flock into Washington from Maryland and Virginia . . . with great hope in their hearts and with all their world goods on their backs.”
In the early 20th century, during the great migration, African Americans continued to come to this city seeking relief from southern lynch mobs on the one hand and seeking jobs on the other. But many were met with the policies of President Woodrow Wilson when the proportion of African Americans who had obtained a GGJ (Good Government Job) fell and the federal workforce was re-segregated. In 1919, Washington witnessed severe race riots. Blacks were attacked because, as white veterans returned home from the Great War, many remained jobless and blamed their condition on Blacks. Racially restrictive housing coupled with the economic segregation continued to force many of the district’s poor blacks into slum-like alley dwellings. The alley dwellings were torn down in the 1930’s amid promises of better that never materialized. Similarly, in recent years in cities like Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and Newark, dilapidated homes and public housing have been torn down but public housing has not been replaced, as promised, by affordable housing for low and moderate-income people.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Recent figures from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute show that the average income of a white family in DC is $101,000 while the average Black family income stands at $39,000. In this city, the average white person makes $3.00 to every $1.00 made by the average Black person. The rise of poverty has occurred fully among Latinos and Blacks and the rise of affluence occurs fully among whites and some Blacks and Latinos. The number of DC school-aged children living in poverty continues to rise—among the highest in the nation at 30%. In Ward 8—Anacostia—the official unemployment rate is over 25%, also near the highest in the nation.
At the peak in 1970, Blacks represented 71% of the DC’s population; new census figures show that Blacks now make up less than 50% of the city’s population. Increasingly, many Blacks feel a sense of betrayal: even though many have grown up here, they can no longer afford to live in this city. Losing majority status is no small thing for Black Washingtonians. Why? Because many feel that they are being systematically pushed out.
Washington is a city that keenly reflects the historic struggles of Blacks in America. Frederick Douglass hailed the emancipation of slaves in Washington, DC but at that same time he said, “The Negro is not abolished as a degraded caste,” and urged the continued fight for social and economic equality and justice. African Americans have worked hard and struggled to achieve Douglass’s dream—still ever elusive—of climbing to the top of this city’s shining hill. Why can’t we find decent jobs and housing in the city? These are the central issues that this city faces and they must be faced by all of us.
Kipling once wrote that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” That once described Washington, DC as west of Rock Creek Park meaning “white” and east of the Park meant “Black.” All of that has changed, however, since across the city Blacks no longer are able to live in neighborhoods like Shaw, Columbia Heights and Brookland. Gentrification and the rapid loss of the African American population simply must be a topic of broad discussion across class and racial lines. First we must admit that all of us risk losing the very soul and beauty of the city if displacement continues. We must discuss income inequality and ask why many Black and Latino people are leaving the city. We must discuss the renewed call for Statehood in the District of Columbia. We must “end taxation without representation,” as the proposed new DC license plates will declare. These are questions that we all need to think about.
In just three short years, the nation will commemorate 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived on these shores. Nearly 400 years have passed since then, and more than 150 since President Lincoln emancipated the descendants of those slaves. It has been almost 100 years since the DC race riots of 1919, and almost 50 years since the 1968 riots erupted in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, in this city and elsewhere, racial tensions still exist.
The late Sterling Brown—internationally celebrated poet, Dunbar High School and Williams College graduate, long time professor at Howard University and first Poet Laureate of Washington, DC—once said, “And now I would like to quote the great Black poet, Shakespeare.” He meant that Shakespeare offered lessons to Blacks as well as whites because his plays feature characters who are the “other”—Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, and Antoine and Bassanio, African Americans in District Merchants, for example.
We can use these plays to help us discuss the state of race relations in this city and to explore meaningful ways for interracial understanding and cooperation. NOW IS THE TIME for all of us to begin the dialogue.