"But just as the past was not without its honor, so the present is not without bitterness." Sterling A. Brown, 1937.

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     The first half of the twentieth century was marked by the efforts of Black Americans everywhere to overcome the effects of legalized racism and discrimination and to share more fully in the American ideal of democracy and equality. While Washington’s Black elites coalesced around issues important to the uplift of the race, the city’s masses of poor, undereducated and more recent migrants attempted merely to survive. Washington continued as a magnet, attracting Blacks from elsewhere and, by 1920, had the largest percentage (25%) and third largest Black urban population (110,000) in the country. Throughout much of the twentieth century, and particularly in the early decades, Washington’s Black community was plagued by poverty, disease, crime and ignorance. Prevalent in the city after the Civil War, these conditions were continually aggravated by the increasing numbers of newcomers seeking better opportunities and by the general neglect and disdain of the white community. Health care and housing for most were atrocious. The Freedmen’s Hospital, established during the Civil War, served as the primary health care facility for the city’s Black population, shouldering an unfair burden, since the city’s better equipped facilities were closed to Blacks. At the very least, however, poor housing had an immediate and severely debilitating effect upon the health and crime problems experienced in the community.

     The ghettoes and poor living conditions which are prevalent today in many of our neighborhoods are the realization of circumstances long in the making. Blacks who migrated to the city during and after the Civil War lived in the squalor of contraband camps and the primitive communities which sprang up throughout the area. Many early migrant Blacks occupied space generally unfit for human habitation. In later years their descendants and new arrivals continued to find themselves relegated to mere excuses for shelter – the city’s alleys and vacant spaces in the city’s least desirable areas. Southwest Washington attracted a large Black population because of this. Along with Capitol Hill and northwestern parts of the city, its alleys provided living spaces which ultimately became a shameful aspect of the city’s residential development. Hundreds of alleys throughout the city housed thousands of poor, mostly Black residents and were for many years a common aspect of the city’s culture. LeDroit Park was one of the exceptions. Originally developed in the late nineteenth century as an exclusive, white enclave, it eventually became home to some of the city’s more well-to-do Blacks, such as Robert and Mary Church Terrell, Anna J. Cooper and Paul Laurence Dunbar. 


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November 2000