The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Working for more than two centuries to ease the racial sins of the nation’s capital

The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard SE and Good Hope Road, in Washington’s historically black Anacostia neighborhood. Gentrification and affordable-housing shortages have long been part of D.C. history. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Robert McCartney is senior regional correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post.

When census experts reported in 2011 that African Americans had lost their numerical majority in the District, commentators generally treated the event as a kind of setback for a city that prides itself as a center of black politics and culture. The response was understandable, but people needn’t have worried. Washington’s status as a capital of black America has never depended on having an African American majority. Blacks have been a minority for most of the city’s existence, since they labored as slaves on the tobacco plantations that dotted the land ceded by Maryland and Virginia to create the new nation’s capital. Nonetheless, the District’s African Americans have consistently been leaders in the nation’s unfinished efforts to tear down racial barriers to political, economic and social equality.

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Before the Civil War, Washington was the only Southern city with an active abolitionist movement. In the years following the war, Howard University and other intellectual centers offered unmatched educational opportunities. The city was half a decade ahead of the rest of the South in ending legally enforced segregation. While cities such as New Orleans had a black aristocracy, Washington’s African American community boasted both an elite and a middle class, the latter supported by jobs in the federal bureaucracy.

This distinguished legacy is an integral part of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital,” an ambitious, comprehensive chronicle of the civic experience of blacks, whites and other races over more than two centuries in Washington. The authors are Chris Myers Asch, editor of Washington History and a history teacher at Colby College, and George Derek Musgrove, a history professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. (Full disclosure: The reviewer has occasionally used Musgrove as a source.) Their work succeeds in being both scholarly and accessible to the general reader. It mixes academic analysis with lively examples of individuals who battled discrimination. They include Ann Williams, a slave whose leap from a third-story window to avoid being sold South in 1815 aroused outrage in the North, and Charles Hamilton Houston, a graduate of what is now Dunbar High School, whose work as a NAACP lawyer in the 1930s and 1940s earned him the sobriquet “the man who killed Jim Crow.”

Sadly, the uplifting stories of campaigns for progress are often outweighed by wince-provoking reminders of the extent and severity of racism and discrimination. The book provides abundant evidence of its thesis that race — more than class, politics or other factors — has “proven to be the most significant explanation for social, economic and political divisions in the city.”

Why did Alexandria, originally part of the District, reunite with Virginia in 1846? Because slave owners resented the accelerating, biracial agitation in the city for abolition. Why did city residents of all races lose the right to vote in local elections in the 1870s? Partly because whites preferred that nobody vote rather than that blacks — male ones, that is — exercise the suffrage they won briefly in Reconstruction.

The list goes on. In 1878, a Washington Post editorial said that the city’s economy would be better off with “an immediate exodus of 15,000 or 20,000 of her negro population.” As recently as the late 1940s, the Washington Real Estate Board’s code of ethics stated, “No property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people.”

It is also sobering to learn that many of the social and economic troubles besetting the city today also afflicted it in earlier eras — an ominous sign that such problems may continue to defy solution. Shortages of affordable housing pop up repeatedly as the city’s No. 1 challenge. For decades, working-class blacks lived in alley communities that “became a notorious feature of Washington’s urban landscape,” the authors write. The city experienced repeated waves of what we would call gentrification — and accompanying displacement — that transformed Georgetown in the 1920s, and Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill (for the first time) in the 1950s and 1960s. A journalist who investigated D.C. schools in 1954 reached a conclusion that would apply today: People were working hard to make integration succeed, but city leaders needed to improve housing, urban development and the economy if the District hoped to avoid becoming a place “where only the very poor and the very rich continue to live in the heart of the city.”

Blacks aren’t the only group to have fought prejudice. The city’s history includes battles for fair treatment for low-income whites — especially what was once a sizable Irish American community — as well as for Latinos and Asian Americans. But the book’s main focus remains on the dynamics between whites and blacks, and on differences between elites and the lower classes within the African American community.

The book offers a smorgasbord of historical tidbits. Segregation rules were uneven after World War I, when blacks could shop at Garfinckel’s and other downtown department stores but could not try on the clothes. The civil rights movement in the 1950s got an unexpected lift by reviving enforcement of the “forgotten laws” — anti-discrimination statutes passed during Reconstruction that were ignored for decades but never actually repealed. In the destructive 1968 riots, Giant grocery stores fared better than Safeway because the latter company had a worse reputation for treating blacks.

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The book feels authoritative, but one omission was surprising. It mentions only in passing the approval of the 23rd Amendment, which empowered District residents to vote in presidential elections. By contrast, the discussion of one of the city’s most controversial figures — four-time mayor Marion Barry — is thorough and evenhanded. On the plus side, he and other black activists who entered District government in the late 1970s made it more representative of the city’s diverse population. They redistributed wealth through public jobs and city contracts. But some of his aides and friends padded their wallets, public services deteriorated, and the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The authors conclude that “the man whom many District residents entrusted with their hopes ultimately let them down.”

“Chocolate City” aims to be constructive rather than despairing. It says its story is “not of blame and resignation, but of action and resilience.” The book seems likely to become an important reference for the city’s history. At nearly 500 pages of text, it is not a quick read. But it is a well-paced narrative portraying both how the capital city exemplified the nation’s racial sins and how citizens of good conscience worked to erase them.

Chocolate City

A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital

By Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove

North Carolina. 609 pp.