Pauline Gaskins Mitchell, a lifelong resident of Georgetown, is historian of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown. She is also a member of the Century Club of the Columbia Historical Society and the Afro-American Genealogical Society. She recalls the transformation of Georgetown. The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscences.
I remember Georgetown when it was not considered a fun place, a sightseers' must, a mecca for shoppers and reputedly the home of the affluent, the chic and the powerful.
Having been born in Georgetown more than 75 years ago into a family that resided there for more than 100 years, I have lived through the area's complete transformation.
As a child, I recall it as a sleepy, little, almost self-contained area on the western bank of Rock Creek, now referred to by our Georgetown newspaper, The Georgetowner, as "The Village."
The P Street entrance to Georgetown did not present a pretty sight in the '20s. At the foot of a steep slope from P Street to where Rock Creek today curves under the bridge were several dilapidated little clapboard houses and a quite attractive brick house with a white picket fence. Goats were tied on a grassy area in front of them.
The Q Street Bridge entrance to Georgetown was even less attractive. A short distance from the bridge, sometimes referred to as the Buffalo Bridge, was a row of run-down frame houses diagonally across from a wide open field, currently the site of the Kew Garden apartments. Dumbarton House, now the National Headquarters of the Colonial Dames of America, had stood on this site.
In those days M Street and Wisconsin Avenue were where families did their shopping in such stores as the Piggly Wiggly, Kidwell's and the Dutch Market; the Connecticut Pie Company, Beck's Bakery, Stohlman's Ice Cream and Pastry Shop, J.C. Kenny's Tea Store, the Candy Kitchen, Nordlinger's Shoe Store, Levy's Clothing Store, and Freeman's, the Beehive and Cogswell's, small department stores.
Farmers from Virginia and Maryland and teamsters in the District came to Lee's Feed Store, a thriving black business at 29th and M streets, to buy feed and small equipment. Meenehan's and other hardware stores did business on a large scale.
Georgetown in the '20s was primarily a working-class community, but had scatterings of wealthy people principally along N, Q and R streets. Their estates or expensive homes were never more than a block or two from the less pretentious homes of the middle class or the substandard houses of the poor.
In the '30s, when Joseph Alsop, a renowned journalist, moved into his first home in Georgetown at 2711 Dumbarton Ave., his block was predominantly black. On the southeast corner from Alsop's home, I remember a large building with an auditorium where the Black Muslims, the followers of Elijah Muhammad, met on Friday nights. Their singing and preaching attracted neighbors who listened from the outside. When not used for religious services, the auditorium served as a meeting place for black fraternal organizations or as a dance hall. Other rooms in the building were rented as living quarters. Now modern brick town houses are there.
Although Georgetown did not have ghettos as we know them today, it did have a large poor white and black population. Blacks lived on almost every street, some south of M Street and many west of Wisconsin Avenue right up to the Georgetown University wall on 37th Street. Many of these homes were rented for $10 to $20 a month. They lacked inside plumbing, necessitating outhouses and yard pumps. Pot-bellied stoves and latrobes were used for heating; oil lamps and a few gas lights, for lighting.
Unhampered by zoning regulations, some residents opened little stores. Some were located in rooms that ordinarily would have served as parlors. On Herring Hill, the section east of Wisconsin Avenue, there was a concentration of blacks, whose businesses outnumbered the white ones. A theater presenting movies and vaudeville owned by a black man was at 26th and M streets.
Georgetown over the years has had five black doctors, three morticians and four pharmacists. One of the pharmacies was located for more than 20 years on the corner of 28th and P streets, now the site of the Griffin Market.
We black kids of Georgetown were fortunate in having interested black neighbors and friends who encouraged us to make the most of our talents. One of the many was Violet McKinney, the director of Rose Park Playground, known earlier as Patterson's Park or the Winship Lot, used primarily for picnics.
On the present site of the tennis courts there was a huge frame pavilion where band concerts and dances were held and the May Queen crowned.
Very clear also in my memory is a ramshackle little house at 2906 O St. built before 1811 and purchased by Mount Zion Church in 1920 for about $2,500. It was named the Community House and served as a center for the religious, educational and cultural development of Georgetown youth of various denominations.
Recently Mount Zion had the history of the Community House researched and restored it as an attractive, historic and unique English-type cottage standing alone among the Georgian and federal houses of the area. It will be used as a meeting place and a museum open from noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Sports played a very important role in the lives of some young black males in Georgetown. Baseball was a popular sport for successive generations from the 1800s to World War II.
The teams I remember composed of my contemporaries were competitive with any in the city and deserved the ardent support of all Georgetowners. The black Georgetown Athletic Club fielded a football as well as a baseball team. Georgetown merchants and fans contributed for their equipment and uniforms.
Several of these athletes and two Georgetown boxers were good enough to move into professional ranks. All helped to provide good, wholesome recreation for the black community.
As the restoration of Georgetown began in the '30s and continued into the '40s, the tenants, mostly black, were the first to be ousted. Property values increased, and some owners, attracted by the very generous offers, sold and moved to what they considered more desirable sections of the city.
Others elected to stay and improve their property. Today there are about 15 black families of about 30 people still in Georgetown. Asked why they remain, all agree that Georgetown is their home. Their roots are here. They love the place and the life it offers.