The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How White fears of ‘Negro domination’ kept D.C. disenfranchised for decades

Activists participate in a demonstration for D.C. statehood last month near the U.S. Capitol. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Rep. Pat Fallon came to the hearing armed with 150 years of census data, and when it was his turn to speak he turned to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

“Do you believe that Washington, D.C., has been historically denied statehood based on racial grounds?” the Texas Republican asked, hours into the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on March 22 over whether to make D.C. the 51st state.

Bowser (D) had said in her opening statement that the growth of the city’s Black population over time led to “racist efforts” to deny suffrage to the District — so she answered Fallon: “I think it certainly contributed.”

“Well, for 150 years, there was a White majority in the District,” Fallon said, just after pulling out his decades of Census Bureau data, “and it never became a state. … So it doesn’t seem like that is actually factually historically accurate at all.”

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Historians beg to differ — particularly the historians who released a report just two days before the hearing describing how race played a role in decisions to continue disenfranchising D.C. residents for decades.

The report, “Democracy Deferred: Race, Politics, and D.C.’s Two-Century Struggle for Full Voting Rights,” brings to the surface a trove of overtly racist ideas about D.C.’s incapability to govern itself dating from Reconstruction — when Black men gained the right to vote — through the civil rights movement, when the city finally won limited home rule. The report was commissioned by a new nonprofit organization, Statehood Research DC, which is an offshoot of the Federal City Council, D.C.’s nonprofit conglomerate of business and civic leaders.

“For a solid 100 years after 1871, we know for a fact that the reason the city lost the franchise was principally about race,” said George Derek Musgrove, co-author of the report, as well as “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.” “The justification for the city losing the franchise, and for maintaining it as a voteless capital of the democracy, was principally about race.”

At the heart of the resistance to granting suffrage to D.C. residents: a fear of Black political power.

It’s all in the record, Musgrove said. Look no further than the 1890 explanation from Sen. John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate Democrat and enslaver, about why D.C. residents lost the right to vote in even local elections years earlier:

“In the face of this influx of negro population from the surrounding States, [Congress] … found it necessary to disenfranchise every man in the District of Columbia … in order thereby to get rid of this load of negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them. That is the true statement. History cannot be reversed. No man can misunderstand it.”

He was the first Black man elected to Congress. But White lawmakers refused to seat him.

Proponents of D.C. statehood have long framed the cause as both a voting rights and racial justice issue, pointing to the lack of enfranchisement in the plurality-Black city as yet another way the Black vote has been suppressed. Republicans, meanwhile, have branded statehood as a “Democratic power grab” intended to solidify a Democratic majority in the Senate.

With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, activists say they are in their strongest position yet to make D.C. the 51st state. (Video: Drea Cornejo, Amber Ferguson, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

But the fight for D.C.’s self-determination wasn’t always about statehood. It began small, first with the fight for democracy at the most basic level: a local government.

D.C. residents lost their right to vote in federal elections in 1801, when Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act, which gave Congress full control of District affairs. And for nearly 100 years, beginning in the Reconstruction era, D.C. residents also lost their right to vote in local elections.

The full disenfranchisement followed a brief flourishing of biracial democracy, not just in D.C. but also across the country. Once they gained the right to vote, Black D.C. residents helped elect Black city councilmen. They helped elect more Republicans, as thousands of formerly enslaved people flocked to the city. And city leaders even passed anti-discrimination legislation, the report notes.

“Yet that very success triggered a backlash from white conservatives and business leaders who persuaded Congress to retreat from biracial democracy,” Musgrove and his co-author, Chris Myers Asch, who also co-wrote “Chocolate City,” said in their report.

Seeking to limit the power of Black voters, as well as poor White workers, Congress reduced the number of local elected positions in 1871 and expanded the number of presidential appointees. Three years later, facing a system rife with debt and corruption — which members of Congress blamed in any case on ill-educated voters — it eradicated D.C.’s local elected government altogether in favor of a presidentially appointed board.

As Morgan later described it, Congress had “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats … the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”

Black men and White labor leaders soon allied to fight to restore suffrage to D.C. residents, Musgrove said. But they found resistance from White D.C. elites — namely in the pages of racist newspapers, including this one. Some wealthier Whites simply preferred to have no voting rights rather than share a ballot box with large numbers of Black people, who made up one-third of the population by 1880.

The nascent Washington Post wore its racism plainly in an 1878 editorial: “The present form of alien government is about as bad as to be devised, but a system which gives the control of the District to ignorant and depraved negroes, is still worse.” The paper complained later that year of “surplus negroes” and urged them to go back to the plantations they came from, so that Washington could be “wealthier, healthier and happier.”

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One reader wrote to the Washington Evening Star, saying: “If you get rid of the 90,000 negroes residing in this city I am in favor of suffrage. As long as they are here I am opposed to it,” according to the report.

“There were some people who thought it was wrong for the White people of the District not to have the franchise,” said Musgrove, a history professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “But they couldn’t think of a way to get around the 14th and 15th amendments that would reenfranchise the White residents but not the Black.”

So White business and civic leaders turned to a different plan in the early 20th century: pushing for representation in Congress. That would avoid the potential for “Negro domination” in the local government, explained John P. Turner of the Sixteenth Street Highlands Citizens’ Association in 1928, according to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “National representation is the safest course to pursue with the mixed population in the District,” he said.

Congress, however, wasn’t buying it. “We have had a hard time getting this Congress to discriminate between national representation and the Negro dominating in local suffrage,” Theodore Noyes, editor of the Washington Evening Star, complained during a 1928 congressional hearing.

Part of the problem was that notorious racists often controlled Congress’s committees overseeing the D.C. government, managing to block any proposal to give D.C. home rule or congressional representation — all the way through the civil rights movement.

At the height of its popularity, the Ku Klux Klan brought more than 30,000 of its members to participate in a parade in D.C. on Aug. 8, 1925. (Video: British Pathé)

The chair of the Senate committee on D.C. government for several years in the 1940s was Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.), an avowed white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan who filibustered anti-lynching legislation, once proposed deporting 12 million African Americans to Liberia to relieve unemployment and wrote a pro-segregation book titled, “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”

In the House, segregationist Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.) led the D.C. committee for years between 1945 and 1973, where he built a reputation as the most infamous and fervent opponent of D.C. home rule.

With backing from Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Congress managed to push through the 23rd Amendment, giving D.C. residents a vote for president in 1960 — but congressional voting rights and home rule still floundered, largely because of McMillan. Seeing McMillan as a principal obstacle to D.C. self-determination, District residents even drove to South Carolina to campaign against him in the early 1970s.

When he lost reelection in 1972, he blamed Black voters: “The colored people were brought out,” he said.

Months after McMillan’s ouster, Congress finally passed the D.C. Home Rule Act of 1973 — restoring democracy at the local level for the first time in 99 years.

It was the result of a “bipartisan consensus,” Musgrove said — that had been “frustrated by this powerful minority [of Southern Democratic segregationists] in both chambers. I think that’s an important story to talk about, because I think there’s this assumption that Republicans never backed self-determination for D.C.” In fact, it was in their party platform as late as 1976.

The GOP support ended as the so-called New Right movement took hold in the late 1970s, led by groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. By then D.C. was known as “Chocolate City,” when Black residents made up the majority.

Pat Buchanan, for example — President Richard M. Nixon’s former communications director — led a push in the late 1970s opposing a constitutional amendment to give D.C. residents congressional representation. Buchanan described it as an “affirmative action program,” according to the report.

He and his allies wrote op-eds that insisted their opposition was “absolutely not about race” — an insistence that Musgrove said he still hears in the protestations from some Republicans today.

Read more Retropolis:

3,000 enslaved people in the nation’s capital cried and cheered when they learned they were freed

The interracial love story that stunned Washington — twice! — in 1867

The Black sorority that faced racism in the suffrage movement but refused to walk away