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Human Rights Week of Action Blog Series: Post 5

Photo: Dr. Sabiyha Prince

December 10th will mark DC's 10th anniversary as a Human Rights City. In honor of this important milestone, AFSC DC is planning a Human Rights Week of Action December 10-14. This week will begin on International Human Rights Day (December 10) and conclude with a community open house at ONE DC's Black Workers and Wellness Center on Friday, December 14. This blog series is a part of AFSC DC's Human Rights Week of Action. 

The Chasm Between Principles and Daily Practice:  African Americans and Human Rights in Washington, DC

Author: Dr. Sabiyha Prince is coordinator of membership and political education for Empower DC

The African American struggle for self-determination and justice in the District of Columbia has been as arduous as it has been long.  Echoes of this history are hidden in plain sight in a city bearing the name of the nation’s first president; a man who also accumulated wealth exploiting Black laborers who were owned by generations of the Washington family.  Indeed, the city‘s proudly emblazoned red and white flag is linked to plantations of the first family thus constituting a salient reminder of their oppressive, chattel-owning practices.

The past lives alongside the present as historians document the ways African American residents have shaped DC life and culture, not only through their mathematical ingenuity, contributions to the culinary arts, skilled craftsmanship, forms of musical expression, and work carried out in domestic spheres, among other influences.  African Americans have also left their mark through their suffering as well as their collective efforts to achieve equality for their communities. Auction blocks and “slave pens” were prevalent in downtown DC – albeit generally unacknowledged among the upscale condominiums, shopping centers and eateries patronized by well off residents. During the 1700 and 1800s, Black-led battles for human rights and economic opportunity in DC turned toward the courts where captive laborers used lawsuits to petition for freedom and engaged in self purchase to escape enslavement.

The dire need for safe accommodations, as well as the ability to provide for their families during the post-civil war period, produced waves of Black activism that are still tangible in D.C. today.  During the mid-19th century, Freedman’s Bureau policies allowed Black Washingtonians to purchase land and build homes in Barry Farm – a sprawling parcel of land located in SE that became a public housing complex in 1954 and remains a highly contested site today.  

As African Americans moved into the 20th century, the fight for housing would only intensify with large numbers of Black residents being crowded into alley dwellings and disadvantaged by a segmented labor force that limited the majority to low paying work.  Subsequent decades would unleash the damaging forces of gentrification and urban renewal - displacing them from Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and, eventually, Southwest Washington.  Coupled with the triple threats of restricted covenants, redlining, and blockbusting, ghettoization would foster untenable conditions for African Americans thus setting the stage for, both, the massive uprisings of the 1960s and the heightened forms of gentrification that would go on to make the sustained presence of working class residents living in DC so tenuous today.

Despite the host of elected officials collaborating with private developers and displacing the poor and people of color, African Americans have not responded passively to these machinations.  As the city is making good on its decades long plan to demolish and redevelop Barry Farm, organizers are coalescing in the spirit of James Banks, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee and Etta Mae Horn.  These activists helped found the Barry Farm Band of Angels and Washington Welfare Alliance in the shadows of the civil rights movement. The work of present-day organizers, such as members of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, highlight the connections between 21st century struggles and those of the past. 

The fight to achieve housing and a sustained sense of belonging in DC during the post-slavery moment is thrown into stark relief by the contemporary efforts of African American activists to achieve the same aims.  The struggle continues as the historical record documents how the vulnerabilities of the present are inextricably linked to those of the of the past.  The battle to achieve access to truly affordable housing and economic opportunity today is rooted in centuries long acts of resistance, advocacy, and organizing designed to achieve equality for Black people in DC and, by extension, all Washingtonians.  As social justice activist Mary Church Terrell so rightfully observed, it is only when these goals are reached that the gaps between notions and praxis will be repaired vis-à-vis the image of America, as symbolized by its capital, as the global ideal of liberty and human rights.

The research of Chris Asch, James Borchert, C. R. Gibbs, Stanley Harrold, Kate Masur, George D. Musgrove, and The Reclamation Project were central to the completion of this essay.