When George Washington selected the site of the capital in 1791, there were already blacks--slaves and possibly a few free blacks--living on the land that was to become Washington, D.C.
Nearly two centuries later, blacks are a majority in the city's population and government.
But the passage from bondage to full civil and human rights for blacks in Washington has been far from smooth.
This is the second installment of a review of the landmark events and developments of Washington's two centuries of black history. This week: the early years of freedom. 1862--Three months after freeing slaves in the District, Congress passed a law to free "contrabands" who had escaped from Maryland and Virginia and were living in the District as the property of the Union Army. Most of them were concentrated along Duff Green's Row on East Capitol Street, where the Folger Shakespeare Library now stands. Prominent residents and northern philanthropists had set up the Freedmen's Relief Association to provide clothing, housing, jobs and rudimentary education to contrabands.
The federal Contraband Department, which became the Freedmen's Bureau, was created to register and provide rations for escaped or liberated slaves and help them resettle elsewhere. Four hundred contrabands in the city in April swelled to about 4,200 by October. A year later, they numbered in the tens of thousands. 1862--Congress passed a law requiring Washington City, Georgetown and Washington County (then separate jurisdictions within the District) to open schools for blacks and assigned 10 percent of black property taxes, about $3,600 a year, to support them. Because tax records were not kept by race, however, city officials merely estimated what they considered a just sum: $265 a year for Washington and nothing for Georgetown. 1864--The first black public elementary school opened in Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Six years later, the first black high school, Fifteenth Street School, opened, nine years before a comparable white institution was established. Located in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Colored Presbyterian Church, it was a predecessor of the renowned Dunbar High School, from which many of the nation's most prominent blacks graduated. 1867--Howard University, the first institution of higher education south of the Mason-Dixon Line created for biracial education, was chartered by Congress. Its founder, Gen. Oliver O. Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau, became its first president. He borrowed money to buy land for a large campus near what was then the outskirts of the city. The first students were five white girls who were daughters of trustees and faculty members. 1868--A short Golden Age began: The year before, blacks voted for the first time in a municipal election. The City Council passed a bill forbidding racial discrimination in places of public entertainment on pain of a $20 fine. Georgetown University had a black president, Patrick Healy. Dozens of blacks held low-level but steady-paying government clerical jobs. James Wormley, a black man, opened the city's finest hotel, Wormley's. A black newspaper, the New Era--later the New National Era--was begun, with Frederick Douglass as an editor. 1871--Congress enacted a law placing the District under its control and eliminating much of the city's limited self-government, with a presidentially appointed governor and 11-member upper house, leaving only a lower chamber and a nonvoting congressional delegate for popular election. Suspicion was widespread among blacks that white residents had encouraged this new form of government to curtail their role in the city's administration. 1875--Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which promised blacks in every state the kind of protection that the District's municipal laws afforded blacks. In late 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in the states but said it might still be binding in the District and U.S. territorities. This ruling contributed to a feeling among blacks that residence in the capital afforded them greater protection from discrimination. 1881--The Bethel Literary and Historical Association, whose members frequently debated the question of what course blacks should pursue to gain full civil rights, was founded by Bishop Daniel Payne of the Metropolitan AME Church. The association was the principal forum for debates over problems of the race, with some preaching an early version of black nationalism while others argued that racial solidarity was destructive because it separated blacks from other Americans. Along with federal jobs and Howard University, the organization helped to attract blacks to Washington. 1896--In keeping with a new mood in the country, the Supreme Court handed down the famous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, declaring constitutional separate but equal accommodations for blacks. The ruling remained the law of the land until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.