Anacostia is always talked about in terms of poverty and crime as if those two things, like Topay, "just growed" from nowhere.
It leaves the impression that the people who live there like those things, haven't done anything to correct them, and, therefore, deserve their conditions. Indeed, it gives the notion that there are no pretty lawns, well-kept homes, quiet streets or good neighbors.
And it's unfortunate that despite "The Anacostia Story," an exhibition opening Sunday at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, most people who think that way will never be wiser. And why should they? They can zip right through the area on Suitland Parkway, the highway which began to disrupt the community in the 1940s.
Anacostia is struggling to be a vigorous and vital area, but it's been an uphill battle since the black community settled in the region first as free blacks and then as newly-freed slaves in the 19th century.
An example in the exhibit, which chronicles the area's history from 1608 to 1930, is the story of Tobias Henson.
Henson bought first himself, his wife and family out of servitude in 1813. When he was buying freedom for one of his daughters, the daughter had to be used as collateral. Her former owner kept her as a slave four days a week. If Henson had failed to pay the debt back in full, the girl would have remained in slavery for the rest of her life. But she didn't and the family propered, so that by 1870, they were the principle landowners in the community of Stantontown, presently in the area of Stanton Road and Alabama Avenue SE.
There was a reversal of good fortune in the 1940s. The family had their land taken and their houses razed by the National Capital Planning Commission. But the setback didn't uproot the family and there are still Henson descendants living in Anacostia today.
Anacostia, which derives its name from the 80 or so Nacotchtanke Indians who lived in the area when it was scouted in the early 1600s by Capt. John Smith of Jamestown, Va., was originally laid out in lots. It developed, however, as a group of separate communities, kept apart by distance and by economic and racial lines.
Orignially, the area had been selected by plantation owners who worked the land with slave labor. When tobacco lost ground as the major crop, the plantations were broken up into smaller farming plots. Barry's Farm, a community of free blacks established in the early 1800s, was built on land acquired from Anacostia planter James Barry, a friend of George Washington. Good Hope, another early settlement, was also an area where free blacks lived.
By the 1850s, the area was such an attractive place to live that a group of men decided to develop a suburban community there for workers in the nearby Navy Yard. It was not an area for blacks, however. Advertisements for the new development made a point of noting that neither blacks, mulattoes, or those of African descent, nor pigs nor shop boiling would be allowed in the area.
The housing shortage for blacks in the 1850s prompted the Freedman's Bureau to buy and expand Barry's Farm, giving local blacks and refugees to the city the chance to gain two important goals: ownership of land and the opportunity to obtain education. Hillsdale, the first public school for blacks in Anacostia, opened in 1871 on land owned by Peter Wilkinson, a black carpenter who also helped build the school. He had donated the land because Anacostia whites refused to sell or lease land for a school for blacks.
The Anacostia Citizens Assn., founded after the Civil War, won a fair proportion of public services such as street paving and installation of sewer and water lines. But the black residents of Hillsdale (Barry's Farm) and Good Hope received the barest of municipal services, though there were prosperous black businesses in the Hillsdale community such as Len Peyton's General Store, Henry Sayles's coal, wood and ice establishment, Epp's Restaurant, and Samuel Lucas' nursery and hot house. In the absence of city assistance, black church groups and civic groups tried to provide what was lacking.
Even so eminent a man as Frederick Douglas, who is cited in the exhibition and was called "The Sage of Anacostia" because of his career as a noted orator, abolitionist and government servant, had cause for complaint.
In an 1894 letter to the District of Columbia, Douglas chided city administrators for failing to repair the retaining wall and driveway to his property at Cedar Hill. He argued that since his taxes went for municipal upkeep, the wall should be fixed. It was 82 years later, in 1976, that the repair was finally accomplished.
As the exhibition makes clear, Anacostia has struggled and continues to struggle to make Far Southeast part of the Federal City.