History’s close, and nothing’s too far


Historic Victorian homes and newer row houses are typical of the LeDroit Park neighborhood. (Amy Reinink / FTWP/AMY REININK / FTWP)
July 15, 2011

Donna Morris looked at her new home and saw generations of black history unfold before her.

Within a few blocks of her modest brick rowhouse in LeDroit Park, such black visionaries as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the founder of Howard University, Army Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, had blazed new paths in their respective fields. Anna J. Cooper had founded a night school nearby to teach working African American adults to read, and many former slaves had created new lives in what would become known as a bastion of black culture and history adjacent to Howard University.

“For me as an African American, to be surrounded by so much black history was really something special,” said Morris, 62, an office manager for a nonprofit group who moved to LeDroit Park in 1997. “These were the true trailblazers of their day, and this neighborhood was their home.”

LeDroit Park, in Northwest Washington just south of Howard University and just west of Bloomingdale, has long been known as a haven for African American intellectuals and professionals in Washington. It’s been an outpost for legendary Howard University professors such as Ralph Bunche, who founded the political science department and helped draft the United Nations charter, and Ernest E. Just, an internationally known genetic researcher, according to a historical booklet about the neighborhood produced by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

But its founders had very different ideas for the community when they built it in 1873, marketing it as a gated luxury community for white government clerks and merchants, according to the booklet. Architect James H. McGill designed the original 64 houses in the community so that no two were exactly alike, and a brick-and-iron fence protected the neighborhood from outsiders to the north — residents of the predominantly black Howard Town, according to the booklet.

Years of tension and dissent led to the fence being torn down, literally and figuratively. In 1893, a barber named Octavius Williams and his family became LeDroit Park’s first black residents, according to “Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital,” by Kathryn S. Smith. Their welcome was less than warm. They were greeted by a bullet through a window at dinner one night, but the family stayed put, according to the book.

A year later, they were followed by suffragette and educator Mary Church Terrell and her husband, Judge Robert H. Terrell. A host of Howard University professors and scholars came to the neighborhood by the turn of the century, according to the book.

Several grand Victorian houses designed by McGill still stand. They and the rowhouses built between them serve as a major attraction for residents today. Much of the neighborhood is in the LeDroit Park Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Suzanne Des Marais, principal broker for Urban Pace Real Estate in D.C. and president of the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors, said the Victorian architecture in LeDroit Park is “a hidden gem of D.C. that many longtime residents are unaware of.”

“You’ll have a block of traditional D.C. rowhouses, then a block of huge Victorian homes with their big porches and columns and chimneys,” said Marc D. Morgan, 38, president of the LeDroit Park Civic Association. “The architecture here is really inspiring.”

LeDroit Park residents now represent a wide variety of ethnic groups, and many residents said that diversity helped attract them to the neighborhood.

“Our neighborhood is racially diverse, but it’s also socioeconomically diverse, and is home to a number of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] residents,” said Morgan, director of development and strategic partnerships for the American Council on Renewable Energy. “It’s just a great mix of cultures and backgrounds.”

LeDroit Park’s proximity to Howard University, U Street and Metro’s Shaw-Howard University station draws residents.

“It’s a wonderful location in terms of getting pretty much everywhere,” said Robert Sullivan, 55, an information technology contractor who moved to the neighborhood six years ago and has researched its history for a new historical walking trail. “You’re only two Metro stops away from the Verizon Center, and it’s not much farther to the ballpark. You can get to 395 to go to Virginia pretty easily, and Maryland isn’t far, either.”

Downsides of living in LeDroit Park include scarce on-street parking and occasional break-ins and vandalism, residents said.

Residents also said they hope to see more new development along Georgia Avenue, including a major grocery store. A nearby Safeway closed years ago. The closest supermarket is now the Giant several blocks away on P Street NW.

“When the Safeway closed, it made it hard for a lot of seniors in the community,” said Morris, who is now the treasurer of the LeDroit Park Civic Association. “It’s safe to say everyone here would like to see a grocery store.”

The LeDroit Park Civic Association is highly active, working with Howard University on new development initiatives and with police on curbing crime.

When Gage-Eckington School Elementary School closed a few years ago, residents successfully lobbied the city to tear it down and convert it into a park, which now houses a large playground, a dog park and a community garden with 40 plots.

When the LeDroit Park Market suffered a series of break-ins a few years ago, the association bought the store a security camera.

Morris said she and other residents view such community engagement as a way to honor and build upon LeDroit Park’s history.

“Being able to make a difference in the community makes me feel like I’m carrying the banner forward for the trailblazers who came before me,” Morris said.

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.

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