Where The Enslaved Lived Next To The Free: Washington, DC

Georgetown 1861/George Barnard /Wikimedia/Public Domain

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Georgetown is home to one of the nation’s most expensive universities, and is all but ethnically diverse. But what now is a beacon for whiteness within the Nation’s capital, at one point  - in 1880 -  was home to around 5,000 African Americans - both enslaved and free.

Black Georgetown set the foundation for the wealth and notoriety for one of DC’s most prominent neighborhoods, but those who settled here only did so through hard work and sacrifice.

Georgetown was once a shipping port - harnessing tobacco and other goods from foreign lands. Even when slave trading was federally banned, the independent district of Georgetown continued to buy and sell human beings.

For this reason, Georgetown operated at both ends of American ideology -- while some African Americans owned their own businesses -- doctor’s offices, theaters, and general stores, others were still enslaved and unable to capitalize on their freedom.

Black Georgetown was home to famous venues like Mount Zion Church, the oldest African American church in DC. The church also holds the city’s oldest Black burial ground, dating back to 1808. The Blue Mouse Theater, later called the “Mott” was a Black-owned arts venue that could seat 400 and was known for its popular vaudeville shows. Black Georgetown was also home to Black doctors, homemakers, market owners and various businessmen (and women).

Black-owned businesses remained in Georgetown even when rising housing costs drew lower-earning African Americans to other parts of the District. On 33rd and M St. NW - near where the infamous Georgetown Cupcake now stands - used to be a popular spot for Black social events, held frequently at the Monticello House.

Additionally, the Rock Creek Citizens Association was founded by Black residents of Georgetown who sought to improve their neighborhood through increased safety, politics and community revitalization.

Black civic and social groups mobilized against segregationist and racist policies as they crept into their daily lives. Their efforts organized boycotts of city events that left out Black voices, opposed segregation of public places, and prevented developers from attempting to rezone Black cemeteries. They worked to preserve Black Georgetown as they knew it.

Black Georgetown was a true community. Families banded together to collectively raise children and take care of the sick and shut-in. Children would play in Rose Park and the lack of zoning restrictions allowed residents to operate businesses out of their home. Generations lived there -- and some remain today.

Even though life wasn’t easy -- segregation would eventually relegate Black residents to dilapidated housing, and soon the income differential expelled many African Americans from the area. There has also been a struggle to maintain the historical Mount Zion Cemetery. But Black Georgetown was still a beacon for Black success and collective development. Today it has changed drastically - and is now one of the most visible depictions of whiteness and wealth within the District of Columbia.

But we can’t let this history be erased.

Do you want to know more? You won’t find this history everywhere. Authors of Black Georgetown Remembered uncovered truths dating back to the colonial period by drawing from oral interviews, extensive research from churches and historical archives. You can also view this short documentary, or read this article that discusses more on the neighborhood’s decline.  

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