In 1867, newly emancipated African Americans created a first-of-its-kind community called Barry Farm. With help from the Freedmen’s Bureau, they had purchased 375 acres along the banks of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington and built homes, a market, a church and a school.
The settlement is long gone. What sits on the much-reduced site today is a public-housing complex that bears the same name. The District wants to raze it, put up “mixed income” housing and commemorate the historic Barry Farm through street signs and public art.
The concept, which the National Capital Planning Commission is scheduled to review at a public-hearing Thursday, looks good on paper. But the city has failed to implement similar plans at other public-housing sites. Promises that displaced residents would return to newly built housing developments have, for the overwhelming majority, amounted to a cruel joke.
Moreover, District officials have already started backtracking on promises that had been made to win the support of some Barry Farm residents.
If the city really wanted to honor the history of Barry Farm, it would scrap the mixed-income housing plan and start rebuilding the community in the same spirit as the first settlers. Get everyone involved in the rebirth.
Raze and rebuild the vacant properties, move residents into them and do the same with the ones they vacated. Maintain the public housing, but give residents a chance to own homes, too.
Let the children make the public art honoring their history. Pay the young adults to provide security. Give the elderly what they need to plant the gardens. Put the tradesmen to work.
Spare them all the indignity of displacement, the stress of seeing their social networks destroyed.
The city’s development plan does include a “human capital program.” It pledges to help the residents with “family literacy, educational programs, positive out-of-school time activities and services to help youth transition to adulthood through life skills, workforce development, college assistance, health education and other supports.”
And all the residents have to do is move out while their homes are razed and a “new community” built and wait until they receive a call to return — which could take more than five years, if at all.
But why put off until tomorrow what can be done today?
Barry Farm should be a real “promise neighborhood,” where promises that the District has been making to low-income residents for decades — better schools, better housing, more jobs — are actually kept.
The accomplishments of the original Barry Farm residents were amazing, worthy of honoring with far more than a street sign.
They were able to purchase quarter-acre lots for up to $300, which was paid in installments. The freed men and women walked to jobs as far away as Georgetown, then returned home to continue building their homes at night by bonfire and candlelight. All the while on alert for attacks from whites who couldn’t stomach the thought of black people owning land.
By 1890, that original settlement had become one of the most vibrant black communities in the city. The sons of abolitionist Frederick Douglass would call Barry Farm home. White- and blue-collar, living side-by-side. Some of the churches built there still stand.
There was a certain pride in their accomplishments, and what they felt in the 19th century can certainly be experienced by residents in the 21st.
The demise of the Barry Farm neighborhood was brought on by a relentless government assault on the land.
There was no stopping construction of the Suitland Parkway, which split the community in half. The construction of Interstate 295 cut off what had been easy access to the river. Tens of thousands of black residents were moved out of Georgetown and Southwest Washington and pushed into public-housing units in Southeast.
Property values in Barry Farm began to plummet. With the easing of laws that fostered residential segregation, those who could afford to move did.
Barry Farm was eventually razed and a public-housing complex built on the site.
In selling the new redevelopment plan, city officials don’t seem to know much about those past struggles and triumphs. They do not seem to know that it is impossible to honor the first black people who lived in Barry Farm by dishonoring the black people who live there now.
At a hearing before the D.C. Zoning Commission in June, there was a brief but illustrative exchange between a Barry Farm resident and a planning expert from the D.C. Office of Planning.
“Doesn’t the [District’s comprehensive plan] refer to Barry Farm as part of a large tract of land, ‘established in 1867 to provide freed slaves with an opportunity to become home owners?’ ” asked Detrice Belt, chairwoman of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association.
The planning expert agreed with that.
“Please tell us who lives at Barry Farm now,” Belt continued. “What are the demographics of the people who live at Barry Farm now?”
The planning expert replied: “I don’t know.”
At least the city planner was being honest.
Next: A look at EmpowerDC.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/courtlandmilloy.