The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1902, a remarkable and charitable house opened in a part of Southwest D.C. known as Bloodfield

On a September day in 1904, a Washington Post reporter accompanied Sarah Collins Fernandis as she made her rounds through Southwest Washington. This impoverished area around South Capitol and M streets SW — near today’s Nationals Park — was known then as Bloodfield, for the violence and despair that bedeviled the community.

Many African American residents knew Fernandis as the “bank lady.” She regularly went door to door with an account book and a tin box, inviting them to entrust her with their nickels, dimes and quarters. Fernandis explained that if they saved their money with her, it would be safe when they needed it in an emergency.

Wrote The Post: “As a receipt and guarantee of future return, she gives each contributor a stamp for her stamp book, which states the amount of the deposit.”

Fernandis was a rarity then: a Black social worker. And she didn’t just visit the neighborhood. She lived in the neighborhood in a building at 116 M St. SW that was home to a groundbreaking organization she helped found: the Colored Social Settlement.

“She was amazing,” said Ida Jones, a D.C. historian and the university archivist at Morgan State University.

And so was the Colored Social Settlement. Among those who served on its advisory board were Anna Julia Cooper, Roscoe Conkling Bruce, Francis Grimke and Mary Church Terrell — “rather stalwart names in Black Washington’s elite,” Jones said.

Fernandis was born in 1863 in Port Deposit, Md., and received an undergraduate degree from Hampton Institute and a master’s from New York University. She embraced a new way to help the urban poor: the settlement house, pioneered by Jane Addams.

Settlement supporters didn’t think charity should be paternalistic — “Like, ‘Oh we’ll help you out of pity,’ ” said Elisabeth D. Lasch-Quinn, professor of history at Syracuse University. “Instead, they wanted it to be ‘We’re actually going to roll up our sleeves, go in the toughest neighborhoods and listen to our neighbors.’ That’s what they called them: neighbors, not members, clients, customers or patients.”

Settlement houses such as Friendship House on Capitol Hill — the subject of last week’s column — were a response to increased White immigration from Europe. A similar migration was happening within the United States, as African Americans left the rural South to seek opportunity in cities such as Washington.

The Colored Social Settlement is thought to be the first in the country for African Americans. Its offerings ran the gamut. There was physical training for boys on Thursday nights and Campfire Girls on Fridays. Music classes — voice and instrumental — were offered. Two days a week, a branch of the public library operated at the house.

The house offered “hot soup, wholesome baked beans, good coffee and digestible bread” at affordable prices, noted a 1913 pamphlet. For women, there were “Practical talks on the care of the home and the family, as well as lessons in sewing and millinery.”

Daycare was offered “for the neglected children of women who have to go out all day to service or to do washing to support their families.”

The letterhead of the Colored Social Settlement featured not just the name of the organization and a list of its trustees, but a map showing the area it served. The map was highlighted to show blocks with alley dwellings — notoriously unhealthy areas — and included the death rate: 17 per thousand for White residents, 33 per thousand for Black residents.

A doctor and nurse provided free health care. Milk was dispensed for babies.

There were more than 400 settlement houses in the U.S. They were a pinnacle of the progressive movement, run by socially conscious people. And yet, in Washington and many other cities, they were segregated.

“We like to balkanize in America,” Jones said.

Syracuse professor Lasch-Quinn, author of “Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement House Movement, 1890-1945,” said that some White settlement houses closed rather than integrate. Some staggered their programming, with different days for Whites and Blacks. Some reestablished themselves outside of the inner city, following their original White clients as they became more socially mobile.

Said Lasch-Quinn: “If the formal settlement movement had made common cause at a deeper level at the time, I truly believe we would have had a civil rights movement earlier. We had all the makings of it — places to gather, a desire for social change. That didn’t happen, partly because of a blindness in the mainstream settlement movement.”

In 1909, the Colored Social Settlement had outgrown its space and moved to a building at 16 L St. SW. Fernandis had left a year earlier to organize a similar house in Rhode Island. Later, she was the first Black social worker hired by Baltimore. She died in 1951.

During her time in the District, Fernandis said, “I am trying in my humble and limited sphere to scatter a little sunshine in the gloom which has pervaded some of the homes in this part of Washington.”