“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.”