Good Hope Road is a time-honored slice of Southeast Washington, a path followed by generations of travelers, from early settlers to suburban commuters, not to mention President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, after he fled Ford’s Theatre.
Now a group of civic leaders and community organizers are campaigning to rename the route for Marion Barry, a star of contemporary Washington for whom the District already has erected an imposing bronze statue on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
If the campaign is successful, future generations of Washingtonians will be able to meet at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Marion S. Barry Jr. avenues, a geographic link that would no doubt delight the former mayor — a veteran of the civil rights movement — if not all his former constituents.
“That connects two icons who strove to serve people,” said Stuart Anderson, among those seeking to rebrand a main artery in Ward 8, the heart of Barry’s political base during his reign as mayor and his service on the D.C. Council. “It’s inspiring.”
The proposal, which requires council approval, is backed by Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry, and council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who plans to introduce the name-change legislation. After Barry’s death in 2014, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) touted the renaming of Good Hope Road as a way of “connecting” the former mayor “with Martin [Luther King] in the heart of Ward 8.”
But the proposal also has stirred opposition within the African American community, including from those who say they do not want to change a marker that has been part of their day-to-day vernacular for generations — not even for a mayor they revered.
One long-standing community group, the Fairlawn Citizens Association, recently voted against renaming the route for Barry.
“The name Good Hope Road is steeped in the history of this community,” said Oliver Johnson, 72, a Fairlawn member who voted against the name change even as he described himself as a Barry admirer. “The ships would dock in Anacostia and the horses would travel up Good Hope Road.
“Everything in this city that’s named for Marion Barry can’t be in Ward 8,” Johnson said. “You got socks and T-shirts and headbands with his name on it. If you want to market him, take the heavy lift — go to Wisconsin Avenue NW and rename that for him. Or Military Road. Or Chevy Chase Circle. He was the mayor of the whole city.”
Barry, who died at 78, served four terms as mayor, a tumultuous reign marked by soaring triumphs and embarrassing scandal, the most notorious of which was when the FBI videotaped him smoking crack cocaine during a 1990 sting operation and arrested him.
Despite his foibles, Barry was subsequently reelected as mayor and then served on the council, his success at the polls ensured by his populist touch and by initiatives such as a summer employment program for youngsters through which many of his supporters recall getting their first jobs.
Good Hope Road is the first left-hand turn motorists reach in Anacostia after crossing the 11th Street Bridge. The road extends southeast for nearly a mile and a half, a vista that is a mix of fast-food joints, art galleries, vacant storefronts, apartment buildings and single- family homes.
Lania Coleman, 41, a medical assistant who lives with her sister on the route, said residents refer to it as “Good Dope Road” because of its reputation as a corridor rife with illegal drug activity.
“There’s not much hope on Good Hope Road,” she said, sitting on her porch. “I’ve seen people overdose, I’ve seen people trickin’, I’ve seen everything.” Coleman said she supports renaming the street for Barry, who “has done so much. That would give people hope. His name gives me more hope than ‘Good Hope Road.’ ”
But Bruce Holmes, 60, sitting on his aunt’s porch a couple of blocks from Good Hope Road, described the corridor as too “drug-infested and trash-infested” to honor the former mayor.
“It’s not fair to attach his name to a street that’s so deplorable,” Holmes said. “I don’t want people to come over here and tramp through a hellhole. I want you to go on Marion Barry’s road and see beauty. The mayor’s name should not be associated with that.”
Holmes’s idea of an appropriate commemoration would be “a museum where you see his whole life, from Mississippi on up. If you’re going to go big, go big. A museum would be global. A street sign can’t tell me a damn thing.”
Over the years, District officials have found myriad ways to honor local dignitaries, including naming the convention center for the city’s first mayor, Walter E. Washington, and, more recently, creating “Chuck Brown Way” for the “Godfather of Go-Go.”
In the 1990s, Barry was behind an unsuccessful drive to rename Good Hope Road for Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, a change that the mayor believed would help boost the fortunes of businesses along the avenue.
Cora Masters Barry, when asked about the proposed name change, said she supported the effort but described it as a “community project” and said, “I’m not in the movement.” She cut off further questions, saying: “I have to go. Don’t call me back. I’m not going to talk about it.”
Last weekend, she attended and was among those scheduled to speak at a meeting hosted by the organizers of the renaming campaign at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia.
The organizers have launched a petition drive to collect signatures of support from business owners and residents along Good Hope Road, as required by law, said Barbara Jones, the chairwoman of the effort, who described herself as Barry’s “best friend.”
Good Hope Road, she said, is a suitable choice to honor Barry because its location at the entrance to Anacostia will help people “realize Marion Barry’s impact on us and for the younger generation to learn what he did for us.”
White, who attended the meeting and posted a video of it on his Facebook page, did not respond to text messages about the proposal. Wanda Lockridge, his chief of staff, said in an email that he would introduce the name-change legislation after the council returns from summer recess.
As Anacostia residents and business owners anticipate new development, proponents of honoring Barry say it is a way to secure the memory of the city’s most significant African American leader at a time when the complexion of once predominantly black neighborhoods across the District is changing.
“Black culture is being erased throughout the city,” said Ron Moten, a community organizer who is a partner in a business a few yards from Good Hope Road. “At some point, you have to preserve the history and legacy of people who have been there and done great things. This is a good start.”
Yet the history of Good Hope Road is rooted in Southeast Washington’s evolution, one that dates to the 19th century when Frederick Douglass lived in Anacostia and endured as the area’s demographics shifted from majority white to black.
John Muller, a local historian who has written a biography of Douglass, said the name of the street was probably inspired by a community known as Good Hope that, according to District records, existed along the route before the Civil War.
For many Anacostia residents, the street’s name is as significant a marker as Pennsylvania Avenue is for tourists looking for the White House.
“I had to cross Good Hope Road to get to school every day, and those kinds of things stick with you,” said Akelo Washington, 48, a carpenter who has lived in Southeast his whole life. “I love Marion Barry, but I don’t want him to take away what I know. And Good Hope Road is what I know.”
Godfrey Hewlett, 80, eating french fries as he stood on Good Hope Road, said the street has been an integral part of his daily routine.
But the name?
“Who is ‘Good Hope’ — is that a person?” he asked. “I don’t know nothing about Good Hope. There’s no hope here.”
Barry, he said, is a name he recognizes.
“He was for the people,” he said.
A few blocks away, Leeanne Jones, 61, a beautician, was waiting for a bus that would take her along Good Hope Road, a name to which she feels no particular attachment. Nor does she prefer Barry.
“As long as I can stay in my apartment, I don’t care what you call it,” she said. “I just wish they’d lower the rent.”