The Shackleton Sliver: The Story of the 1980 Redistricting and the Whitening of Ward 2

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As noted by the great Old Time D.C., the even greater Polly Shackleton was born 106 years ago on Monday. Shackleton was a Georgetowner and long term councilmember from Ward Three.

If you don’t know DC political history, it might come as a surprise that Georgetown was in Ward Three. It was. Most of it was transferred to Ward Two after the 1980 census. But not all of it was transferred. And that’s the story of the “Shackleton Sliver”. But that geographic oddity came about with a background of dramatic change for Ward Two. Due to the rezoning, it became majority white, and hasn’t looked back since. 

Shackleton Goes to Washington

Polly Shackleton, a Brookline, Massachusetts native, got into politics during the FDR era, working on his third presidential campaign. Later she got involved in the leadership of the Democratic party. 

Maintaining that participation through to the late 60s, Shackleton was one of the appointees to the newly created unelected DC Council in 1967. The appointed position became an elected position with Home Rule in 1972, and she won the first election for Ward Three in 1974. She was reelected in 1978.

The Shackleton Sliver

When the 1980 Decennial Census was completed in 1980, it found that Ward Three (which was at that time essentially what it is today, plus Burleith and Georgetown) had grown the most since 1970. When a ward grows faster than the others, it generally has to geographically shrink after the next census. And that’s just what the legislators set out to do.

Ultimately the plan that was proposed moved the shaded part of the map above (i.e. most of Georgetown) from Ward Three to Ward Two. But one little part was left out. And that little part just happened to contain Polly Shackleton’s house on Reservoir St., between 32nd and Wisconsin Ave. This enabled Shackleton to continue representing Ward Three, even though most of the neighborhood around her house had been transferred to her colleague, John Wilson’s, ward.

This was obviously not a coincidence, and the press reports of the time don’t even pretend that it was anything but a naked favor to Shackleton from Council Chair Arrington Dixon. Yet it still faced opposition, by none other than Shackleton herself, but also many others.

The Politics Behind the Redistricting

It’s surprising today to read through the press reports of the redistricting debate. The discussion of race and the rise of the white voter was central to the discussion. Up to this point, Ward Two–which spread from Foggy Bottom all the way to Capitol Hill–was the most racially balanced ward in the city. By shifting Georgetown to it, the balance was thrown off and it became a white majority ward.

The Washington Post editorial page was lamenting this shift when it wrote:

There is, however, a deeper concern, one that arises from the racial composition of the city’s wards. At the heart of any change in ward lines in the apprehension felt by a good number of blacks that many white, upper-class professionals are someday going to return to the city in enough numbers to recapture political control.

There is little basis in the raw census data for this supposition. The ratio of blacks to whites in the District has remained essentially stable at 70 percent black and 27 percent white for the last 10 years. But undeniably something has changed. Blacks are leaving the city at a faster rate than whites, and whites are no longer confining themselves to the far Northwest. According to the 1980 census, the percentage of whites in mid-city is growing. In Ward 1, the number of whites increased by 5 percent to 20 percent and in Ward 6 by 3 percent to 23 percent.

As mentioned above, Shackleton was actually against the Shackleton Sliver. It’s not that she wanted her home to be moved to Ward Two as well, but rather that she didn’t want any part of Georgetown to be moved. (The sentiment in Georgetown, at least as expressed by the Citizens Association, agreed with that position). She proposed that a portion of Ward Three near Woodley Park be moved to Ward One, and that Adams Morgan and the area around Meridian Hill Park should be moved to Ward Two.

This angered Dave Clarke, who represented Ward One. His ward hadn’t grown out of balance and he didn’t see any reason why he should give up any land to satisfy other councilmembers.

This led to an amusing interaction during testimony. Some activists from Dupont Circle recommended moving from Ward One to Ward Two a large swath of land between 7th St. and 18th St. from S st. to Florida Ave. Clarke–who was white but who grew up in heavily black Shaw–always had large support from the black voters in this area. It was suspected that White voters in this area saw this as an opportunity to shift from heavily black Ward One to an increasingly white Ward Two (which was, ironically, represented by Wilson, who was black).

One of the proponents of the switch spoke to the council. Here is the Post’s retelling:

Clarke would have none of Dupont Circle Political Action Committee member Anne Sellin’s assertion that Florida Avenue, which had been the city’s boundary in Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, should be the ward boundary for “historical reasons.”

He cross-examined Margaret Tessier, who lives in the disputed area and spoke in favor of the switch. The issue of race intruded. Clarke, who is white, asked Tessier, who is white, if she had worked with any of the black civic groups in the area. She replied that she had many friends active in those groups.

“Some of your best friends I suppose,” Clarke muttered sarcastically. Tessier demanded an apology. Clarke said he would consider it.

The debate reached all the way across the city. One proposal called for Ward Two to be extended further into Capitol Hill. The specific area proposed, however, was the wedge between Pennsylvania Ave. and South Carolina Ave., SE. At the time, this was an increasingly white section of Capitol Hill. Moving this wedge out of Ward Six would keep the ward safely black.

At the time, Ward Six straddled the Anacostia. It was proposed at one point to move the ward’s boundaries entirely west of the river. The then councilmember Nadine Winter was not having any of that. According to the Post:

There was another stir when John L. Ray, an at-large member of the council who does not have to worry about ward boundaries, suggested that Nadine P Winter’s Ward 6–which now straddles the Anacostia River–be redrawn so that all of it lies west of the river.

Winter, who depends on the votes of blacks east of the Anacostia, remained silent–for the moment–but when Wihelmina J. Rolark, whose Ward 8 in far Southeast would stand to pick up those black neighborhoods, said she agreed with Ray, Winter called Rolark out into the hall for a quick conference.

When she returned, Rolard had given up the notion of taking over all of Winter’s territory east of the river. Rolark said she still has her eye on some of it.

Ultimately land was actually added to Ward Six, with Capitol Hill coming almost entirely into its ambit and even parts of Ward Eight east of the river were added.


In the end, the only really controversial change that remained was the infamous Shackleton Sliver. Although Shackleton had proposed alternatives, she ultimately accepted and defended the callous favor. She refused to join the Georgetowners objecting to the change (but she abstained on the final vote). At the time she would not commit to running again in 1982, but when it came time to decide she did run. She served Ward Three until 1986 when she decided not to run for a fourth term.

The sliver itself was wiped away after the 1990 census. All of Georgetown was from then on in Ward Two.

The most poignant objections to the addition of Georgetown to Ward Two came from activists in the ward’s poorer neighborhoods. They recognized that the political center of the ward was moving west and getting whiter.

The Post wrote:

But the most significant political impact of the changes would come in Ward 2. “I would really be concerned about the implication of the proposal,” said Sterling Green of ANC 2C in the mostly poor, mostly black Shaw area of Ward 2.

“The ultimate effect would be to lessen the concern focused on low- and moderate-income needs,” said Green. “I think there would tend to be more of a focus on the Georgetown end, because those are the people who tend to be more expressive, tend to get more involved in politics.”

Ward Two would continue to be represented by John Wilson until he ran for, and won, the Council Chair position in 1990. His Ward Two seat was won by a young ANC Commissioner from Dupont named Jack Evans.

As much change as has occurred throughout Ward Two since the Shackleton Sliver, its racial demographics have head steady. In 1990 it was 64% white. In 2000 it was 65% white. In 2010 it was 68% white. Had Ward Two expanded in a different direction in 1980, it would have likely been a much different story over those same 30 years.

When Ward Two finally started to grow population again after 2000 (and thus had to start shrinking) there was no talk of shifting the Shackleton Sliver, or any part of Georgetown, back to Ward Three. With Evans ensconced both on the Council, and in his rowhouse on P St., the only sections of Ward Two that he’d give up would be at the eastern end. And so portions of Shaw and Southwest were transferred from Ward Two to Ward Six (which itself had become much whiter since the days of Nadine Winter).

Sterling Green’s fear became reality. Ward Two is dominated by the overwhelmingly white and wealthy neighborhoods of Georgetown, Dupont and Foggy Bottom. If and when Evans ever steps down, it’s much more likely that his successor will come from these neighborhoods than the parts of Shaw that remain in Ward Two. (Of course, by then Shaw itself might be just as white and rich as Georgetown.)

Shackleton herself passed away in 1997. The Post noted at her passing that she “led by example and served as a bridge between her predominantly white, wealthy neighbors in Ward 3 and the rest of the city. Whether the issue was basic social services, a strong educational system or a disciplined judicial system, Polly spoke out.”



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4 responses to “The Shackleton Sliver: The Story of the 1980 Redistricting and the Whitening of Ward 2

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