"They told me I was going where the Capitol was. But when they brought me out here, I ain't seeing no Capitol - just plenty of rabbits and rats."
- Alice Hicks on her move from North Carolina to Marshall Heights in 1935
Marshall Heights. For blacks fleeing the hard times in the South and elsewhere in the 1930s, it was a shanty-town haven.
There were few comforts. Roads, sewers and water mains weren't put in until the 1950s. Mostly, the settlers built shacks on the land. It took Eleanor Roosevelt to get hydrants so the residents wouldn't have to haul water from a spring. But even with the hardships, the "rabbits and rats" that greeted settlers like Alice Hicks, it was one place where a black man could own his own land.
In fact, in 1949, when President Harry S. Truman proposed a $2-million slum clearance project for the area, the residents opposed - and defeated - any plan that would deprive them of that land.
More than 100 persons, including original settlers, their childrens, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, got together Sunday to recall those early times at what one woman affectionately called "just a slum in the woods." The reunion of "pioneers of Marshall Heights" at Harris Elementary School, 53rd and C Sts. SE, was the beginning of what a committee of residents hopes will be a project to compile a formal history of the neighborhood. Residents, including Alice Hicks who still lives on the land at 5111 D St. SE she settled in 1935, taped their recollections, and the residents' committee plan to seek a federal grant for the formal history.
"I'm not so sure we have roots in Africa," said Ward 7 City Council member Willie Hardy, who arranged the meeting. "But we know about our roots in marshall Heights. Let's document it."
Although the big push to settle Marshall Heights came in the 1930s, blacks began moving into the neighborhood after World War I when the original owner began selling off lots. There were no restrictive covenants on the property, and many blacks bought land in the hilly area wedged between South and Central avenues from about 49th St. to the Maryland line.
Hardy's parents, the James Whites, came to Marshall Heights in late '20s or early '30s, when the area was a "wildreness. There were no streets, no lights, no water," she recalled. "We raised hogs and chickens and grew most of the food we ate."
Her father bought a 40-by 100-foot lot for $100. He planned to build a two-story brick house on the land, Hardy said, "but somebody stole the stuff so he built a bungalow." The bungalow at 5212 B St. SE, where Hardy and her 15 brothers and sisters were raised, is still home for Hardy's father.
For some residents, moving to Marshall Heights was almost by chance.
"I was walking out one day in February, 1932," recalled Nettie Littles who then was living on Clay St. SE. Littles and her husband were on a "rabbit path" when they met an agent selling lots.
"It was a pretty little spot," she said. The couple bought the lot paying for it in $2 monthly installments, and lived on there until after World War II. "We had to leave because of the Eastgate project, so the boys from the war could have a home," she said.
The Eastgate housing project, originally built to house veterans, is now run by the National Capital Housing Authority.
Vivian Thomas still lives on the lot at 5100 C St. SE where she and her husband built a three-room shack in 1935. The shack has been replaced by a modern house.
"We had no water until Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt came out to Rev. Jackson's church and promised to get us pumps," Thomas recalled. Unitl hydrants were placed on the streets shortly after Mrs. Roosevelt's visit in 1935, residents hauled water from a spring near Central Avenue.
"There were no toilet facilities either," Thomas added. Residents had "powder boxes" in the backyard which "a man used to come around once a month and empty."
The lack of comforts wasn't the only problem in Marshall Heights in the 1930s. Residents often had a hard time just getting out of the neighborhood.
Junius Heath said that when his family came to Marshall Heights in 1932, the nearest public transportation was about two miles away in Deanwood. "My mother worked at night," said Heath. "She finally found a community bus the people in Capitol View had and she used to ride it to Central Avenue.But the people on the bus used to sneer at her because we lived in Marshall Heights."
Heath said his mother fought with the transit company until they started running a bust to Marshall Heights.
Mildred Tomplins remembered the mud. "There were no streets, just paths. When it rained we'd wear boots until we got down to the DGS store (about half a mile down a hill). Then we'd change into our shoes before going to Grant Street to catch the street cars," she said. "We pioneers had a tough time, but we're enjoying the fruits of it now."
Hardy urged the residents to hold on to the pioneering spirit that has enabled Marshall Heights to survive as a neighborhood.
"Do not sell that house or shanty or anything else in Marshall Heights," she exhorted, urging people to keep their homes to pass on to their children. "All we need is for somebody to come along with money and offer $40,000 or $50,000. It seems like a lot of money, but how long can you live in a apartment on that? Besides, you'll never find a place like this."
Hardy said she plans to organize a drive to buy some vacant land in Marshall Heights for a park, where "we can put up a statue of anybody we want."
Hardy also announced that Marshall Heights would receive federal assistance through the Community Development black grant program. The Rev. Fred Porter, acting director for Wards 7 and 8 for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said rehabilitation loans at 3 per cent interest will be available to residents beginning in January.
No one has yet suggested that former City Council Chairman Gilbert Hahn Jr. is going to run for office in the future. But just in case he does, he'll probably have on hand a helpful mailing list, compliments of the D.C. government and a recent ruling by Superior Court Judge John Garrett Penn.
It was Hahn who brought the class action suit that eventually forced the rollback of assessments for half the properties in the city, saving taxpayers an estimated $9 million. Early last month, Penn awarded Hahn $232,832 in legal fees and ordered the city to try to get the money from the estimated 75,000 property owners who had saved money because of Hahn's suit. The city cannot require the property owners to pay, and those that do would be billed about $2 for every $100 saved, according to Hahn.
An additional provision of the order requires the city to furnish Hahn with a computer printout identifying all of those who saved money, how much was paid and what share of the bill they technically owe to Hahn. That could obviously help Hahn make sure that the city is doing its job. It could also provide a nice little mailing list for any future campaign activities.
Imagine the opening line: "Hi, this Gil Hahn, the man who saved you $173.49 on your recent property tax bill . . ."