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Why Did African Americans Leave Georgetown?

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The Georgetown neighborhood was once home to many working class white and black families.
Library of Congress
The Georgetown neighborhood was once home to many working class white and black families.

The apartment building where Vernon Ricks grew up has long since been painted over — the brick covered with fresh layers of white paint.

“This is the apartment I was born in: 1404, apartment number 4,” he says, looking up to the top corner window. “That was the living room.”

Like many neighborhoods in D.C., this one was once mostly African American. Ricks says it was like a village: everyone knew everyone. If he got in trouble on a Sunday morning at church, he says before he got home his mother already knew about it.

“And we did not have texting. We did not have cell phones," he says.

Ricks was born in 1939, "on a windy January night.”

Back then these were rundown, working class apartments. Now, they're condos: one-bedrooms selling for more than half a million dollars. This is, after all, Georgetown. The building is at the corner of 26th and O Streets Northwest, just above Rock Creek, and as Ricks is looking up at the building, a younger man stops.

“I was just curious, what are you doing?” he asks Ricks, and the reporter holding a microphone.

“I was born in this building,” says Ricks.

“Were you really? I live in the complex,” says Hubbell Knapp, who moved in about a decade ago. He opens the gate to the courtyard. Ricks points out where the old coal bin used to be — each apartment was heated by its own coal stove. Knapp points out the improvements made over the years: now, the top unit where Ricks was born has central air conditioning.

“When did your family move out?” asks Knapp.

“I think it was around '48 or '49. 1948 or '49.”

A 'tsunami' of gentrification

Historian C.R. Gibbs, co-author of Black Georgetown Remembered, says by the end of the 1940s, many African Americans had moved out of the neighborhood. He pulls out a copy of Senate committee report from 1944 and flips to the appropriate page, and reads:

“In Georgetown, only remnants of a long-established negro population now remain, because so much of their property has been purchased and improved for white occupancy.”

That long-established population dated back to the very beginnings of the town, in 1745.

“From the time that George Gordon establishes a tobacco inspection station at the foot of what is now Wisconsin Avenue,” he says. In the town’s early years, most black residents were enslaved. By the end of the 1800s, about one-third of Georgetown residents were black. Many lived in the area where Vernon Ricks was born. It was called Herring Hill.

“About 900 families, primarily African American, who had shops, stores, houses, churches, three doctors, three pharmacists.”

A bird's-eye view of Georgetown waterfront sometime in the early 1900s. (Library of Congress)

By the 1920s and '30s, newcomers started moving into the neighborhood — they were flooding into the city to work for the booming federal government. Georgetown’s poorer residents moved out, pushed in part by market forces, in part by legislation aimed at cleaning up slums.

“This is like a tsunami that picks up steam, and I’m referring to gentrification, so that as the success was proven here, and black folk moved to other parts of the city, many would have to move a second time to avoid the gentrification in their neighborhood," he says.

Anthropologist Sabiyha Prince, author of the book African Americans and Gentrification in Washington D.C. Her family’s story, over the course of three generations, reflects the experience of many African Americans in D.C.

“My grandfather, my maternal grandfather was a sharecropper. He came here at the age of 17 from South Carolina. He moved in with his family members in Georgetown, they shared a house together, they pooled their resources.”

Her grandfather got married, had kids, and eventually moved to the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast D.C. They were able to buy a house, as many white families fled to the suburbs.

“Over time, it became a kind of quintessential ghettoized community, and by ghettoized, I don't mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that as an area that’s predominately black, that’s segregated, and that’s lacking in resources. And then we see that Trinidad is another area right now that is being gentrified.”

Gentrification before there was gentrification

The word gentrification wasn't coined until decades after Georgetown underwent the changes that, looking back, we now call gentrification. The word comes from a British sociologist, who came up with it in 1964, describing a changing London, where it had nothing to do with race. In the United States, and in D.C., Prince says it’s about class and race.

“The thing is, you have to put gentrification in the context of U.S. history. And when you do that, that’s when you start to see these racialized patterns, because at its foundation gentrification is about inequality.”

In the nation’s capital, gentrification has taken a different course than in other cities.

“D.C. has had a post-industrial economy for its entire history,”says George Derek Musgrove, a history professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has identified four waves of gentrification in D.C., each lining up with expansion of the federal government. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a burst of development in what had become very poor inner city neighborhoods.

“The rate of displacement in places like Adams Morgan, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, was astonishing. I mean absolutely astonishing. Developers would buy up in certain cases whole streets, and send out notices: “Please get out in the next month, we’re going to be fixing these places up.” And renters, by the year 1978 just revolted.”

They burned bonfires in the streets, they stopped paying their rent.

“And they appeal to the city council to do something about it.”

Council members, many of them former activists, responded with what Musgrove calls: “Some of the most impressive legislation for protecting renters and poor people, and allowing them to stay in their homes in a hot real estate market, in the country. On paper, that’s a wonderful thing.”

But by the time the legislation went into effect, the city didn't need to enforce it. When the crack epidemic hit the city in the mid-80s, the crime rate skyrocketed.

“So nobody’s moving into these neighborhoods. You don’t need to worry about an anti-flipping tax, for instance. So they let it all lapse.”

The pain of progress

But by the late '90s, those same neighborhoods were again becoming hot real estate markets.

“And the city does not revisit that legislation. This is where policymakers dropped the ball. This is where policymakers did not learn from lessons of the past.”

And in a changing city, not many people remember that past.

In Georgetown, Vernon Ricks, who moved out of the neighborhood more than 60 years ago, still comes back each Sunday for church at Mt. Zion United Methodist, where he’s been attending as for as long as he can remember.

Founded in 1816, it’s the oldest African American church in the city. But hardly any of its members still live in Georgetown, and Vernon says the community surrounding it no longer feels like home.

“It kinda hurts my heart to see all of our people being moved out in a sense. And I understand you can’t stop progress. It kind of hurts you to look and see that our people cannot really afford to be Washingtonians in all parts of Washington, and especially Georgetownians, living here in Georgetown.”

Music: "Truth Seeking" by Clutchy Hopkins from The Story Teller

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