Thirteen of the District’s most veteran and committed neighborhood activists sat in the basement of a Woodley Park church Tuesday night and discussed some of the leading civic issues of the day — parking and traffic.
Twenty-four hours later, 26 of the District’s most veteran and committed neighborhood activists sat around a conference table in a city government office building downtown and discussed some of the leading civic issues of the day — energy conservation and the coming D.C. Council special election.
Both groups — the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations, respectively — aim to gather the voices of a diverse city’s neighborhoods to speak as one on important public issues.
The most striking difference between the two groups? Twelve of the 13 people at the Federation of Citizens Associations meeting were white; 24 of the 26 people at the Federation of Civic Associations attendees were black.
As the District has entered a new era of growth, prosperity and diversity, a century-old division between its umbrella citywide resident activist groups has endured. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has made “One City” his trademark, placing the phrase on D.C. documents and repeating it mantralike at his public appearances. But the two federations — one largely black, the other largely white — are at odds with the spirit of Gray’s motto.
“I’m very disappointed in the relationship of people, I would say, east of the [Anacostia River] with the other side,” said Barbara D. Morgan, president of the Federation of Civic Associations and a resident of the east-of-the-river Dupont Park neighborhood. “By golly, I think Vince has tried to breed ‘One City.’ But let’s face it. It’s not happening.”
There has been no explicit racism in the federations’ dealings for a generation. Whites-only language was removed from the citizens federation constitution in 1972, and for a time in the early 1980s, a white man led the historically black civic federation. Today, there is significant overlap between the two federations’ member organizations even as meetings remain homogenous.
“We have no bias whatsoever,” said Anne Mohnkern Renshaw, president of the Federation of Citizens Associations and a Chevy Chase resident.
Yet cooperation between the groups in recent years has been halting. Merger discussions have been intermittent and informal, at best. And, occasionally, there are tensions — such as in recent weeks, when the citizens group declined the civic organization’s invitation to host a candidates’ forum.
The 103-year-old division is an undeniable vestige of a segregationist era. In 1910, 20 of the District’s most prominent neighborhood civic groups met to organize as the Federation of Citizens Associations. Among its earliest business was this decision: Would the new, all-white organizations accept associations from black neighborhoods?
That May, the federation invited leaders of 10 African American neighborhood groups to attend one of its meetings. There, according to an editorial printed the next week in the black-oriented Washington Bee, the federation voted 12 to 8 to exclude the black groups “because of their color and nothing more.”
“These colored Americans did not attend this meeting of their own volition,” the Bee wrote. “They were invited to be present and be insulted. . . . A day of retribution will come soon.”
The editorial made a suggestion: “Organize a separate citizens’ organization and where this discriminating body presents measures to Congress inimical to, and not for the benefit of all the citizens let the colored body enter its protest.”
So they eventually did: Eleven years later, the presidents of nine black civic associations voted to form the Federation of Civic Associations.
The two federations went on to have influential roles in a city where residents had no direct say in its governance. The citizens federation, in particular, played an important role alongside the Board of Trade in making the people’s priorities — at least the white people’s priorities — the priorities of the congressionally appointed D.C. government.
A 1930 historical tome, “Washington: Past and Present,” called the citizens federation “the only organized opportunity [residents] have of stating their views on local matters.”
The civic federation, meanwhile, took its place in a parallel grass-roots infrastructure for black Washingtonians, playing a valuable, if less influential, role with the city’s congressional overseers.
But the influence of the federations waned dramatically when Congress granted the city limited home rule in the 1970s. Able to elect a mayor, lawmakers and advisory neighborhood commissions, residents relied less on the influence of their local civic associations or their umbrella federations.
The 1910 exclusion of the civic federation has yet to generate any “retribution” of any historical note, as the Bee predicted. But it is not forgotten — particularly by those now affiliated with the spurned black associations.
Gerri Adams-Simmons, a Brightwood resident who has been active in the civic federation, said that when she assumed the group’s top post, she was briefed by a predecessor on the history of the two federations.
Adams-Simmons said she felt snubbed by the citizens federation when she attended its Christmas luncheon several years ago to gather support for a petition in support of vocational education. She gave a presentation, noting high rates of incarceration among black youths. Afterward, she said, no one signed the petition.
“I articulated it very well,” she said. “I don’t know why they did not sign that petition. I did not spend an ounce of energy” trying to figure out why.
Another past president of the civic federation, Robert V. Brannum, said he had positive interactions with his counterparts, including broaching the possibility of a merger.
Brannum said the citizens federation “received it quite well.” Among the civic federation, he said, “a lot of the members had some historical issues about that.”
“A lot of our most seasoned members are still clutching to historical perspectives, not understanding we’re in 2013 and not 1913,” he said, “and to move forward, you have to make some steps. You can’t just say it. You have to do things to make one city.”
George R. Clark, a lawyer and past president of the citizens federation, said there has been no particular reason a merger hasn’t been pursued, other than a lack of “sense of urgency” to sit down and do it.
“If you asked me, would I be happier if there were one federation? I probably would be,” Clark said. “But it’s not because we’re at odds with each other that there isn’t.”
There are obvious reasons why the groups might merge — neither is particularly well financed, and a unified organization might be more influential than each federation is separately. Although both hold annual awards dinners, the groups have different cultures and different areas of interest. Where the citizens federation has traditionally spoken out on policy matters — land use, planning, public safety — the civic federation has focused on city services, civil rights and giving scholarships to graduates of the public high schools.
Renshaw identified another issue. “We have people who will not get into traffic at rush hour, when these meetings are held,” she said. “That is a huge wedge into our coming together. There are those who say you have to have a meeting on the other side of the city. We’d love to, but what time would we call it? It would probably be at the supper hour, when people are wanting to go home.”
The most recent attempt at cooperation left civic federation leaders feeling miffed.
In January, Morgan contacted Renshaw to ask about co-sponsoring a candidates’ forum this month for the coming D.C. Council special election. After some positive early discussions, the citizens federation decided last month to bow out.
Renshaw said “resources and timing,” plus the fact that many of the federation’s member associations were holding forums, played into the decision. “We felt we could not put our best effort into this,” she said. “We are stretched very thin.”
She said she hoped to propose another opportunity for cooperation this year.
But Morgan was left vexed. “As it stands right now, I will not make any more overtures — not with me sitting as president,” she said. “You only slap me once. And I don’t give you a second chance.”