A fond look back through Brookland’s history


Looking down 12th Street NE, from Monroe Street, with the Newton Theater on the left and Brookland Hardware, in the old Masonic lodge, in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington. (The Washington Post file)
John Kelly
Columnist September 28, 2011

You know somebody’s not from around these parts if, when you tell them your family’s from Brookland, they go, “Yo,Brooklyn.”

No, dummy: BrookLAND, the neighborhood in Northeast D.C., not the borough in New York City.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Brookland is the subject of a new book by John F. Feeley Jr. and Rosie Dempsey, part of Arcadia Publishing’s ubiquitous Images of America series. John and Rosie live in Brookland — she on Monroe Street, he on Sigsbee Place — and they spent months going through archives in search of historic images. Along the way, they found some gems, such as an 1890 photo of 12th and Monroe streets. It’s mostly vacant lots, with girls in pinafores and boys in breeches standing on a wooden sidewalk next to a dirt road. A sign behind them proclaims land for sale.

“That was in a church file at the D.C. Public Library,” Rosie said. “I cried when I found it. I saw that photograph and I felt like I had discovered gold. It was so exciting.”

The 130-page book traces the history of the neighborhood from its royal land-grant days through the arrival of its famous institutions, such as Catholic University, the Franciscan Monastery, the Masonic Lodge, the Newton Theater. . . .


A distinctive house at 1001 Irving St. NE, designed by Edward Nolze, in the Brookland section of Washington. (1980 file photo/The Washington Post)

It also mentions the residents who called the place home. Brookland was never Washington’s most fashionable address, but it attracted a steady stream of middle-class families eager for its shady streets and single-family houses. Smithsonian scientists hunted for specimens after they got home from work. Professors from Catholic University lived there. Quite a number of Howard University faculty lived there, too, including Ralph Bunche, who chaired Howard’s political science department and later became the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Dwight Eisenhower reportedly once asked Bunche how he liked living in Washington. Bunche said he liked it just fine, except for the fact that he had to send his kids across town for school, there being no “black” schools in Brookland at the time.

Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first dean of women at Howard and a founder of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, was a Brookland resident, too.

I was pleased to see the connections Brookland has had with the worlds of journalism and letters. Brookland resident John Preston Davis published Our World, a precursor to Ebony and Jet. The Noyes School was named after the publisher of the Evening Star. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a contributor to The Post’s children’s section and author of “The Yearling,” grew up on Newton Street.

And even I can make some claims on Brookland. It’s not every day I thumb through a book and come across photos of my grandmother, but I did with this one. Mary Stock Kelly — “Momsie” to me — was the great-granddaughter of Col. Jehiel Brooks, the man who gave the area its name.

Brooks was a lawyer and Indian agent. He was a bit of a crank, but he married well — into the Queen family — and as developers laid out lots, they gave the neighborhood his name. I’m his great-great-great-grandson.

(No photos in the book, as far as I could tell, of my mother’s family, who also lived in Brookland. But the Spillanes were relatively recent émigrés, moving to Washington before World War II to escape the coalfields of Pennsylvania.)

Part of the fun of a book like this is staring at the pictures and trying to place them mentally into today’s streetscape. For Rosie, such books are reminders that photographs are nice, but people’s memories are just as important.

“You have that greatest generation dying off,” she said. “Our housing stock is opening up, but our elderly are dying. What they’re taking is our understanding of our neighborhood. We experience this personally when our older relatives die and we realize the questions we wished we had asked them. I think a neighborhood’s the same way.”

So, if you’re interested in Brookland, get this book. And if you’re interested in your neighborhood, find some old people and make them talk.

Rosie and John will be signing copies of their book from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 9 in the cafeteria of St. Anthony’s, 12th and Lawrence streets NE.

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