So when I speak of Georgetown, I am not speaking of the University, although it is located here. What I am referring to is a neighborhood of Washington, DC which sits along the Potomac River.
Copyright mutbka from Flickr.com
Long before the white man came to its borders, Georgetown was known as Tahoga and was a peaceful Indian village. There are no real documented facts to what happened to the Indians. But let’s put it this way, once there was a thriving Indian village, insert white people, and then there wasn’t.
After killing off, I mean, relocating all the native Indians, the white settlers founded Georgetown in 1751. This predates the establishment of Washington as a city. In fact, Georgetown was originally part of Maryland and was a busy Maryland tobacco port. When the District of Columbia was created in 1791, Maryland lost Georgetown to the newly developed capital.
Tourists love to come to Georgetown. It is known as a shopping and eating mecca for the fashionable elite of Washington, DC. But a little known fact about Georgetown is that this chic, elegant, neighborhood that is almost exclusively white and ridiculously expensive to live in, was once the center of a thriving slave trade and an all black community.
In a Washington Post article by Andrew Stephen, dated July 16, 2006, he speaks about Georgetown’s hidden history and how a “combination of legislative, social and economic pressures gradually forced nearly all the black people out, turning the neighborhood into the wealthy, effectively all-white enclave it is today.”
“Between 1865 and 1870, its black population increased from 1,935 to 3,271. Over the next two or three decades, a skilled black working class started to emerge alongside a handful of black professionals. But countless laws and regulations that continued well into the 20th century prevented true economic and social emancipation: Only white passengers were allowed to ride on Georgetown's new electric streetcars, for example, enabling them to commute to Washington for well-paying jobs that were effectively denied to blacks. Then came a series of economic blows that began to seal the fate of Georgetown's blacks. The Potomac silted up, virtually ending the industrial effectiveness of Georgetown's harbor. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which flowed through Georgetown and was crucial to many businesses such as flour and paper mills, flooded disastrously in 1889. Blacks were the first to lose their jobs when countless firms went bust. By 1910, the black population of Georgetown had peaked, and when the Great Depression struck 19 years later, more and more blacks found themselves displaced by whites taking menial jobs.
C&O Canal copright by Bethany L. King from Flickr.com
"Perversely, FDR's New Deal then began to work against blacks in Georgetown. Thousands of well-paid white government workers poured into Washington, creating further demand for housing and pushing property prices ever higher in Georgetown. "The dispossession of the Negro resident [of Georgetown]," the Conference on Better Housing Among Negroes reported, "is jointly managed by the city's leading realtors and their allied banks and trust companies. Two pieces of legislation passed in the 20th century by none other than Congress itself, though, were the final straws for Georgetown's blacks. The ostensible purpose of the District of Columbia Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 was to get rid of slums; but I suspect that to a House with only one black member and a Senate with none at all, slums and blacks were synonymous."
"Then, in 1950, Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act "to preserve and protect places of historic interest," but it had the effect of making Georgetown's gentrification legally enforceable. It was pushed through despite fears from "Negro groups," The Washington Post reported at the time, that it "might drive them from the area." Less than a decade later, Georgetown's black population had dwindled to fewer than 3 percent, and in 1972 The Post noted that fewer than 250 remained, 'so few that some Georgetown residents are unaware they are there.'" (Stephens, Andrew. “Georgetown's Hidden History.” Washington Post. 16 July 2006.)
You don’t see any of this history in the wealthy Georgetown of today. The Georgetown business association claims that “Our village in the nation's capital is widely known for its historic charm and European feel.” The historic charm they refer to does not include the slave trade or the fact that at one point Georgetown had a reputation of being one of the worst slums of Washington. No mention of its sordid past is made. No discussion of the anomaly of several African-American churches, like the oldest Mount Zion United Methodist Church, filled with churchgoers who do not live in Georgetown.
Next Monday, I will give you more of a walking tour of DC and less of a history lesson.