The Mandate to Remember Black Georgetown

Most people with even just a passing knowledge of Georgetown history are aware that at some point in the neighborhood’s past there was once a significant African American population that is for the most part not around anymore. Those with a slightly deeper knowledge will attest to the fact that Georgetown was in the 1930s the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process that was later to be called gentrification. But what most people don’t realize is how much the current state of Georgetown was intentionally built upon that process.

Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it’s true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought. By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.

That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown.

A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change. The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy–one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation’s capital–the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.

Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out.

This duality is on view when you consider the story of Pomander Walk in Georgetown. This is a tiny street lined with tinier houses. While some claim that they once housed slaves, they certainly did not since they were all built in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, house African American domestics and other laborers who worked in the houses and factories of Georgetown. (It was also originally called Bell’s Court, after Alexander Graham Bell who lived nearby. At some point it was renamed Pomander Walk after a 1910 play of the same name by Louis Parker).

By 1940, the city had apparently used the Alley Dwelling Act to “improve” Bell’s Court. In that year the President of the Georgetown Citizens Association (a predecessor to the Citizens Association of Georgetown) wrote to the city sanitary commission:

With many thanks I wish to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th relating to Bell Court [sic]. Of course we noticed the wonderful change [cessation of wood cutting and regular seven to eight day cleanings] that had been wrought in that alley, and for the first time in many months we felt that we could drive through the alley with a feeling of security. It is a long time since it has been as clean as it is now. I am sure that some of the people who live there will contribute their full share in keeping up the sweeping.

Clearly the residents were not sawing wood daily for their own amusement. This was their livelihood. They would walk the streets of Georgetown selling firewood to the residents, cutting the wood’s length to fit the resident’s fireplaces. Despite it being the resident’s livelihood it didn’t fit in with the idealized picture of what Georgetown was supposed to be. There’s no room for grime in amber.

There are obvious racial dynamics to these changes. Reacting to the increased demand for housing, property owners of homes occupied by black residents hiked the rent or put it up for sale. Redlining prevented the black residents from being able to finance a purchase. In one case retold by a descendent, a family was kicked out of their flat at 1505 26th St. because they could not find a bank to provide a mortgage when it was put up for sale. When a grocer around the corner offered to lend him the money, the seller raised the price even more and eventually sold to an out-of-town buyer (who was presumably white).

This dynamic was put into overdrive by the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. It took the notion of preservation and improvement that had previously applied just to the alleys and applied it universally. This act is widely praised in Georgetown and serves as the heavy artillery for preservationists. You cannot even replace a window in Georgetown without the approval of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a body that spends most of its time evaluating the design of federal buildings and monuments or the nation’s coinage.

The pressure exerted by this new mandate was simply too much for the remnants of Georgetown’s African American community that still hung on in the 1950s. Even if they wanted to improve their home, the cost to do so consistent with historic preservation was too steep. Within a few decades the community–which was once more than 30% of the entire neighborhood and constituted the vast majority in smaller pockets like “Herring Hill” by Rock Creek–was gone.

This is the history of Georgetown.

This is not a subset of the history of Georgetown. It is not an isolated facet of the history of Georgetown. It is the history of Georgetown. In order to save buildings and convert our neighborhood into the jeweled birdcage it is today, we ejected people, thousands of people. Everything we celebrate about the beauty of Georgetown today was inextricably linked with this expulsion.

This is not meant to be a rejection of Georgetown or the fruits of this preservation and improvement. But it is a call to acknowledge the dire cost that came with that, and to acknowledge that the cost was born by those least able to bear them.

It is obviously too late to undue this, but nonetheless our community does far too little to acknowledge the dreadful bargain that was struck at the dawn of modern Georgetown. In exchange for the permanent fixation of our physical form in a federal amber, we carved out parts that didn’t fit the sanitized vision of a 19th century port town.

Remembrance is all we have left. And the remembrances of those who lived in Georgetown’s black community when it still thrived should be preserved and cherished as much as the grand estates of Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. And we are lucky that many of those memories have already been recorded in the 1991 publication Black Georgetown Remembered. (It’s from that book that GM pulled the story about the family being priced out of 105 26th St. above). It is being republished to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication. In addition, a reunion/panel discussion will take place at Gaston Hall at G.U. on February 24th at 7:00 pm. Original contributors to the book, including ANC Commissioner Monica Roaché will be on hand to recollect their community’s rich history. GM encourages all to come.

Preserving memories is significantly more difficult than preserving structures. But the mandate is all the same.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Mandate to Remember Black Georgetown

  1. Exceptional article, GM. Thank you.

  2. kerlin4321

    Well said, GM. The black community comprised about one-third of Georgetown’s population from the 18th century until fairly recently, for the reasons you described above; yet, sadly, few people are aware of their history. You can assume that virtually every house you pass by or have the privilege to call home was built by African Americans. Their hard work and sacrifice made Georgetown what it is and many still call it home, even if they live elsewhere. I urge your readers to attend this event and buy (and read!) the book.

  3. From Herring Hill’s Poplar Street, thank you for an outstanding article focusing on Georgetown’s history. The dedication of the Rose Park Tennis Courts is a beginning of celebrating “Black Georgetown”. Again, thank you.

  4. This article is magnificently written. Thank you for uncloaking the history and being very plain about it.

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