Interested in a little German history? Try Washington’s Chinatown. Tucked away in the neighborhood is the German-American Heritage Museum (719 Sixth St. NW), which, like other nearby buildings, carries a bilingual sign — in English and Chinese. Opened in 2010, the museum has one permanent exhibit on German immigration to the United States, hosts lectures and is a prime site for movie nights and watching soccer broadcasts.
The building’s story is one of development, displacement and shape-shifting communities. By the 1880s, many German immigrants had settled in the area around Sixth and H streets. In 1888, German merchant John Hockemeyer built the house that’s now home to the museum and its parent, the German-American Heritage Foundation.
In the 1880s, Chinese residents were living blocks away, concentrated near Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. But in the 1930s, federal construction projects pushed the community north to the Sixth and H area. By then, many German Americans, motivated partly by hostility during World War I, were successfully assimilating into the larger culture. “World War I put an end to a distinctive German American culture,” says J. Marc Wheat, president of the German-American Heritage Foundation.
Foundation Executive Director Erika Harms says she sees the museum and foundation as part of a “reviving pride” effort. The site gets about 1,000 visitors a year, in addition to those who attend special events.
In June, Dirk Geratz of Annapolis visited with his German-born mother, Ulla. Among other things, Dirk Geratz says, they learned the Declaration of Independence was also printed in German.
Chinatown is filled with other traces of German heritage. The Washington Sängerbund, a German singing society founded in 1851, used to rehearse at a hall on Eleventh Street. Greater New Hope Baptist Church (816 Eighth St. NW) was once a German Jewish congregation’s home. And at St. Mary Mother of God Church at 727 Fifth St. NW — where one Sunday Mass is in Cantonese — German names are on plaques and other memorials.