African Americans in Washington, D.C.
Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at African American history in Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1800, Washington, D.C., is a city of preserved memories, iconic because of its monuments, memorials, landmarks, architecture, and named streets. The city was designed in four sections by French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant. The free African American astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker created the street layout, working with Andrew Ellicott in surveying the area. A segregated city at its founding, Washington was home to 793 free blacks and 3,244 enslaved persons. The city's monuments, strategically placed in every quadrant, preserve the memories of individuals who changed the course of American history, from slavery to the abolitionist movement to education to the Civil Rights Act. As Jane Lusaka writes in her article "Seeking a Cultural Equality: The Visual Record of Robert H. McNeill":
Since colonial times, Washington, D.C. has been home to a strong and vibrant African American community. For decades after the Civil War, Washington's black leadership has been in the hands of an “elite group”, referred to as the “Four Hundred of Washington” by Archibald Grimke, [consisting] primarily of political appointees, intellectuals, and a number of ministers and professionals [who were] primarily concerned with restoring the civil and political rights of blacks; they valued above all, the opportunity for full integration.
Before and during World War I, large numbers of black Americans migrated from the rural South to the industrial and urban cities in the North, looking for better jobs and opportunities for improving their lives. Today, it is home to four generations of descendants of enslaved and free black Americans. Community life in Washington, D.C.'s black neighborhoods includes theaters, restaurants, townhouses or historical homes, businesses, churches, museums, monuments, and the campus of Howard University. Based in urban centers and on black college campuses like Howard, the new black intellectuals emerged at a time when photographers were actively depicting artistic and political leaders, creating images of people who were proud of their race, heritage, and those who demanded full citizenship rights.
This short essay by photographer Deborah Willis (Tisch School of the Arts, NYU) will focus on historic sites and other monuments of significance to the African American communities in Washington, D.C.
View photo essay
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to understand more about the African American experience in Washington, D.C..
Primary Source Documents