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by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Ph.D.

     Washington, D.C. was established by Congress, following a compromise between northern and southern politicians, on a ten-mile square area that included segments of the state of Maryland, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, and the town of Georgetown. African Americans were central to the region's development, solid economic foundation, and vibrant social life for more than a hundred years before the new national capital was established or the first President moved into the White House. Throughout its early years, most especially during the War of 1812 (when the capital city was burned by the British) and the War with Mexico, the city increased statutory regulations which forced its large African American population to move in separate circles while maintaining families, community institutions, and businesses on meager funds. Historians have concluded that deep prejudices largely originated with the fear of this large number of African Americans. As the national debate over slavery grew more intense in the 1850's, the harassment of free persons, their African American schools, churches, and reform societies increased dramatically. One man surveyed and summarized the legal system of regulations and noted, "the only privilege allowed free Negroes was the priceless boon of the right to keep dogs."1


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November 2000