Stories from people of all races, classes and genders, and from all eight wards are waiting to be uncovered at the D.C. Archives. When pieced together, the mundane but universal paperwork filed in city agencies — marriage licenses, pothole complaints and commission reports — tells vivid stories about the District. When a historian or family genealogist wants to reconstruct the lives of ordinary residents and fact-check the stories newsmakers tell us, they turn to these documents.
If this untapped wealth of history is news to you, it was also news to us until we each found a way to access it. Over a series of limited visits to the D.C. Archives, we were able to pull together a more detailed picture than we believed existed of subjects we had long researched:
The residents of Reno, an erased community of African Americans in Tenleytown, never saw their names in the society pages or reporters at their community meetings. But they petitioned the government, set up businesses and got married. Papers unseen for most of a century allowed us to patch together a sense of the community’s wishes, needs and social structure — long after its white neighbors sought to eliminate it.
Letters written by Amelia Keyser Heurich, whose husband operated the District’s largest historic brewery, had likely not been read since they were originally filed away in 1906. Her attempt to combat the storm-water flooding on her Dupont Circle street was too mundane to make the news, but details contained in those letters revealed the quiet power held by women such as her at the turn of the 20th century.
And, when we accidentally called up the wrong file number, we found an extensive record of Works Progress Administration construction projects, charting the labor, management and politics it took to implement the New Deal in Washington.
These examples hint at a whole city that has been forgotten. The dire state of the D.C. Archives means some files are physically unavailable, while others have never been catalogued and more might fall apart before anyone can see them. How much is hidden in the decaying building in a Shaw alley?
As part of D.C.’s most recent budget, Bowser and the D.C. Council committed funds for a new D.C. Archives facility at the University of the District of Columbia. That is a good first step, but a new building alone will not bring D.C.’s archives to the level of those in states or even midsize municipalities. And though the storage of old paper on new shelves in a climate-controlled environment will help preserve them physically, it will not make them accessible.
The mayor and the council need to provide the D.C. Archives with the same baseline support that all other professional archives receive across the country and around the world: proper operational funding. This money would pay archivists to do the painstaking work of organizing and protecting physical documents so the information they convey will survive long into the future.
The D.C. Archives should also be made independent for the same reasons Congress gave the D.C. Public Library autonomy: to insulate it from politics and ensure that experts in the field will keep it well run and relevant to the public. This method of organization has proved successful for state archives from Alabama to Pennsylvania.
It was clear from our brief experience with the D.C. Archives that it is one of the most important resources we have for understanding the District. These documents will allow us to revisit the narratives of our past and understand how the present came to be. The council and mayor have a responsibility to preserve this legacy for our citizens.