The Civil War changed Washington, D.C. tremendously, but one of the biggest impacts came from the thousands of former slaves who fled from the South and journeyed northward to seek refuge in the nation's capital. By early 1863, an estimated 10,000 of the refugees had arrived in the city, doubling the city's African-American population. The new residents were impoverished and in desperate need of basic wants, and often had no idea how to survive in a city.
During the morning commute on Metro, trains are packed. A lot of riders are commuters coming in from Maryland or Northern Virginia. The Metro wasn’t the initial plan; back in the 1950s, the plan was to set up a freeway system to make it easier for people in the suburbs to access D.C. But due to the persistence of citizen groups, this was not to be.
We’ve written before on this blog about the exploits of Julius Hobson. A D.C. civil rights activist in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, his campaigns against segregation and injustice were based on equal parts audacity and bluff, ranging from staging a “lie-in” at a D.C. hospital, to encouraging people to paste pro-integration stickers over the punchcards on their power bills, to threatening massive protests and boycotts that had no chance of materializing. He combated police brutality by following policemen around with a long-range microphone, and, most famously, promised to release cages full of rats on Georgetown if the city didn’t deal with the rat problem elsewhere. His antics effected genuine social change, in large part because everyone was too nervous to call him on his bluffs, for fear that he might be able to back them up. His acts were already so outlandish, anything seemed plausible, except for one rumor that seemed to be too uncharacteristic to be true. Yet, it was the truth: for years, Julius Hobson passed information to the FBI.
The price of public transportation in D.C. is rising and people are angry. Although this statement could accurately describe the present time, let’s turn back the clock to 1965.
D.C. Transit had just announced plans to raise bus fares and one man wasn’t having it. This man was Marion Barry, who would go on to become mayor of D.C., serving four terms. But Barry wasn’t mayor yet. He was a relatively new resident in D.C., having moved here to open up a local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry saw the bus company’s raised rates as a direct hit to low income people in the District, who were mostly African American.
If you lived in DC in August 1964, you might have seen Julius Hobson driving through downtown with a cage full of enormous rats strapped to the roof of his station wagon. Frustrated by the city government’s refusal to do anything about the rat problem in Northeast and Southeast DC, and about the District’s more affluent citizens’ apathy about the issue, he said that if Southeast was having this problem, then Georgetown should share it too. Hobson caught “possum-sized rats” in Shaw and Northeast, and transported them up to Georgetown, promising to release the cage full of rats in the middle of the wealthy district unless the city government acted to curb the epidemic. Since he was, as a piece in The Washingtonian put it, “[a]ware that a DC problem usually is not a problem until it is a white problem,” he decided to go ahead and make it a white problem.
In the early morning hours of June 23, 1968, thick clouds of tear gas rolled through a multitude of shacks on the National Mall. This shantytown was Resurrection City, and its residents were the nation’s poor. As many ran from their shelters, they saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final dream of economic equality withering in the gas. They had been citizens of the city for six weeks, all the while campaigning for rights for the poor around D.C. Now their work seemed all for naught. After an increase in violence and with an expiring living permit, the police had come to chase them out. Children were crying, adults screaming, and some were even vomiting. But amid the chaos, a song rang out: “we shall overcome.”
You might not immediately associate roller coasters with racial equality, but more than three years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, Maryland’s Glen Echo Park was a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement. It made sense: since its opening in 1899, Glen Echo had been the premier amusement park for white Washingtonians. The park featured a number of modern roller coasters, a miniature railway, a Ferris wheel, an amphitheater, a pool: everything and more that other parks provided.
Lost Civil War History: Northern Virginia Contraband Camps
Civil War blogger Ron Baumgarten discusses a often-forgotten aspect of Civil War history.
It's easy to remember the battles — First Manassas, Second Manassas, Antietam and more — but the Washington, D.C. area was also home to many other significant Civil War events, too. After all, it was here that Col. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and followed his home state of Virginia to the Confederacy; it was here that President Lincoln directed the Union's war effort; it was here that the President was assassinated in 1865.
And, it was also here that thousands of African Americans first experienced freedom after generations in bondage through the "contraband" camps, which the federal government created on the abandoned lands of secessionists during the war.
In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.
Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.
In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves. From her autobiography:
With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.
In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.
Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.
Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.
In the early 1960s, Malcolm X traveled widely preaching black separatism on behalf of the Nation of Islam and – after splitting from the group in 1964 – promoting a more moderate vision for American race relations. So, it's no surprise that he came to the nation's capital on a number of occasions.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, we look back on two rather unusual connections Malcolm made in Washington.
In 1964, D.C. was the site of the only known in-person meeting between Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was significant considering the two leaders' very public differences on approaches to the civil rights movement. Malcolm once called King "Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing" in a not-so-subtle critique of non-violent civil disobedience.
The two staged a made-for-the-cameras meeting in the U.S. Capitol. But, as strange as the photo-op with King seemed at the time, Malcolm made headlines with an even more unlikely connection in Washington a few years earlier.