As with many cities, Washington, D.C.’s past is written in its landscape. Behold the lustrous Potomac River, whose discovery by Captain John Smith in 1608 led to European settlement of this area. Take note of the city’s layout: the 160-foot-wide avenues radiating from squares and circles, the sweeping vistas, the abundant parkland, all very much as Pierre Charles L’Enfant intended when he envisioned the “Federal District” in 1791. Look around and you will see the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and other landmarks, their very prominence in the flat, central cityscape attesting to their significance in the formation of the nation’s capital.

But Washington’s history is very much a tale of two cities. Beyond the National Mall, the memorials, and the federal government buildings lies “D.C.,” the municipality. Righteous politicians and others speak critically of “Washington”—shorthand, we understand, for all that is wrong with government. They should be more precise. With that snide dismissal, critics dismiss, as well, the particular locale in which the capital resides. It is a place of vibrant neighborhoods and vivid personalities, a vaunted arts-and-culture scene, international diversity, rich African-American heritage, uniquely Washingtonian attractions and people—the very citizens who built the capital in the first place and have kept it running ever since.

Early Days

The settlers who arrived in 1608 weren’t the region’s first inhabitants, of course. Captain John Smith may have been the first European to discover this waterfront property of lush greenery and woodlands, but the Nacotchtank and Piscataway tribes were way ahead of him. As Smith and company settled the area, they disrupted the American Indians’ way of life and introduced European diseases. The Native Americans gradually were driven away.

By 1751, Irish and Scottish immigrants had founded “George Town,” named for the king of England and soon established as an important tobacco-shipping port. Several houses from those days still exist in modern-day Georgetown: The Old Stone House (on M St. NW), a woodworker’s home built around the 1760s, is now operated by the National Park Service and open to the public, and a few magnificent ship merchants’ mansions still stand on N and Prospect streets, though these are privately owned and not open to the public. (Their properties once directly overlooked the Potomac River, but no longer: The Potomac River has receded quite a bit, as you’ll see.) For a walking tour of Georgetown, see:

Birth of the Capital

After colonists in George Town and elsewhere in America rebelled against British rule, defeating the British in the American Revolution (1775–1783), Congress, in quick succession, unanimously elected General George Washington as the first president of the United States, ratified a U.S. Constitution, and proposed that a city be designed and built to house the seat of government for the new nation and to function fully in commercial and cultural capacities. Much squabbling ensued. The North wanted the capital; the South wanted the capital. President Washington huddled with his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and devised a solution that Congress approved in 1790: The nation’s capital would be “a site not exceeding 10 miles square” located on the Potomac. The South was happy, for this area was nominally in their region; Northern states were appeased by the stipulation that the South pay off the North’s Revolutionary War debt, and by the city’s location on the North–South border. Washington, District of Columbia, made its debut.

The only problem was that the city was not exactly presentable. The brave new country’s capital proved to be a tract of undeveloped wilderness, where pigs, goats, and cows roamed free, and habitable houses were few and far between. Thankfully, the city was granted the masterful 1791 plan of the gifted but temperamental French-born engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Slaves, free blacks, and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other countries worked to fulfill L’Enfant’s remarkable vision, erecting first the White House (the city’s oldest federal structure), then the Capitol and other buildings. (Read The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, by Cliff Sloan and David McKean [PublicAffairs Books], for excellent descriptions of the early days of the capital, its institutions, and the strong personalities that helped forge them.) Gradually, the nation’s capital began to take shape, though too slowly perhaps for some. The writer Anthony Trollope, visiting in 1860, declared Washington “as melancholy and miserable a town as the mind of man can conceive.”

The Civil War & Reconstruction

During the Civil War, the capital became an armed camp and headquarters for the Union Army, overflowing with thousands of followers. Parks became campgrounds; churches, schools, and federal buildings, including the Capitol and the Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery), became hospitals; and forts ringed the town. The population grew from 60,000 to 200,000, as soldiers, former slaves, merchants, and laborers converged on the scene. The streets were filled with the wounded, nursed by the likes of Walt Whitman, one of many making the rounds to aid ailing soldiers. In spite of everything, President Lincoln insisted that work on the Capitol continue. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” he said.

Lincoln himself kept on, sustained perhaps by his visits to St. John’s Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House. Lincoln attended evening services when he could, arriving alone after other churchgoers had entered and slipping out before the service was over. And then on the night of April 14, 1865, just as the days of war were dwindling down and Lincoln’s vision for unity was being realized, the president was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre while attending a play.

In the wake of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination, Congress took stock of the capital and saw a town worn out by years of war—awash with people but still lacking the most fundamental facilities. Indeed, the city was a mess. There was talk of moving the capital city elsewhere, perhaps to St. Louis or some other more centrally located city. A rescue of sorts arrived in the person of public works leader Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, who initiated a “comprehensive plan of improvement” that at last incorporated the infrastructure so necessary to a functioning metropolis, including a streetcar system that allowed the District’s overflowing population to move beyond city limits. Shepherd also established parks, constructed streets and bridges, and installed water and sewer systems and gas lighting, gradually nudging the nation’s capital closer to showplace design. Notable accomplishments included the completion of the Washington Monument in 1884 (after 36 years) and the opening of the first Smithsonian museum in 1881.

Washington Blossoms

With the streets paved and illuminated, the water running, streetcars and rail transportation operating, and other practical matters well in place, Washington, D.C. was ready to address its appearance. In 1900, as if on cue, a senator from Michigan, James McMillan, persuaded his colleagues to appoint an advisory committee to develop designs for a more beautiful and graceful city. This retired railroad mogul was determined to use his architectural and engineering knowledge to complete the job that L’Enfant had started a century earlier. With his own money, McMillan sent a committee that included landscapist Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York’s Central Park), sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and noted architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim to Europe for 7 weeks to study the landscaping and architecture of that continent’s great capitals.

“Make no little plans,” Burnham counseled fellow members. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble and logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistency.”

The committee implemented a beautification program that continued well into the 20th century. Other projects added further enhancements: A presidential Commission of Fine Arts, established in 1910, positioned monuments and fountains throughout the city; FDR’s Works Progress Administration erected public buildings embellished by artists. The legacy of these programs is on view today, in the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall, the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Library of Congress, Union Station, the Corcoran Gallery, and many other sights, each situated in its perfect spot in the city.

The American capital was coming into its own on the world stage, as well, emerging from the Great Depression, two world wars, and technological advancements in air and automobile travel as a strong, respected global power. More and more countries established embassies here, and the city’s international population increased exponentially.

Black Broadway Sets the Stage

As the capital city blossomed, so did African-American culture. The many blacks who had arrived in the city as slaves to help build the Capitol, the White House, and other fundamental structures of America’s capital stayed on, later joined by those who came to fight during the Civil War, or to begin new lives after the war.

From 1900 to 1960, Washington, D.C. became known as a hub of black culture, education, and identity, centered on a stretch of U Street NW, called “Black Broadway,” where Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Pearl Bailey often performed in speakeasies and theaters. Many of these stars performed at the Howard Theatre, which was the first full-size theater devoted to black audiences and entertainers when it opened in 1910. Nearby Howard University, created in 1867, distinguished itself as the nation’s most comprehensive center for higher education for blacks. (The reincarnated “U&14th Street Corridors,” or “New U,” is now a diverse neighborhood of blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos, and a major restaurant and nightlife destination.) The fact remained, however, that the city was a divided society, in which segregation and discrimination prevented blacks from achieving parity with whites.

The Civil Rights Era Ushers in a New Age

By the late 1950s, African Americans made up more than half of Washington’s total population of 805,000, and their numbers continued to grow, reaching a peak of 70% in 1970, before beginning a steady decline that continues to this day. One hundred years or so after the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (abolishing slavery) and the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (outlawing the denial of voting rights based on race or color), African Americans generally remained unequal members of society. Despite the best efforts and contributions of individuals—from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a major force in the human rights movement in the 19th century, to educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, who served as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s—the country, and this city, had a long way to go in terms of equal rights. (Consider reading works by Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author whose short-story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, will take you beyond D.C.’s political and tourist attractions into the neighborhoods and everyday lives of African Americans during the mid-20th century.)

The tipping point may have come in 1954, when Thurgood Marshall (appointed the country’s first black Supreme Court justice in 1967) argued and won the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which denied the legality of segregation in America. This decision, amid a groundswell of frustration and anger over racial discrimination, helped spark the civil rights movement of the 1960s. On August 28, 1963, black and white Washingtonians were among the 250,000 who marched on Washington for jobs and freedom and listened to an impassioned Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where 41 years earlier, during the memorial’s dedication ceremony, black officials were required to sit separately from the white attendees.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, added to a general sense of despair and tumult. On the day before his funeral, hundreds of thousands of mourners stood in line for blocks outside the Capitol all day and night to pay their respects to the president, who lay in state inside the Rotunda of the Capitol.

Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and all hell broke loose. For three days, angry, frustrated, and heartsick blacks rioted, setting fire to and looting businesses and homes. Three neighborhoods in particular were decimated: Shaw’s Seventh Street NW, the H Street corridor in northeast D.C. (now known as the Atlas District), and the U&14th Street Corridors. The corner of 14th and U streets served as the flashpoint. Ben’s Chili Bowl was ground zero and remained open throughout the riots to provide food and shelter to activists, firefighters, and public servants. Rehabilitation of these neighborhoods has been decades in the making.

As the 20th century progressed, civil rights demonstrations led to Vietnam War protests led to revelations about scandals, from President Nixon’s Watergate political debacle (Ever seen All the President’s Men? You have to.), to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s drug and corruption problems, to President Clinton’s sexual shenanigans. It was an era of speaking out to expose corruption and scandal. A president who authorizes illegal activity? Not acceptable. A mayor with a drug problem? Not acceptable. A president who dallies with a White House intern his daughter’s age, then lies about it? Nope, not acceptable.

Beyond the sordid headlines, the city itself was flourishing. A world-class subway system opened, the Capital One Arena (originally the MCI Center, then the Verizon Center) sports and concert venue debuted and transformed its aged downtown neighborhood into the immensely popular Penn Quarter, and arts-and-culture venues like the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare theaters came to worldwide attention, receiving much acclaim.

Twenty-First Century Times

Having begun the 20th century as a backwater, Washington finished the century a sophisticated city, profoundly shaken but not paralyzed by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Barack Obama’s landmark win as the first African-American president, in 2008, lifted the country at a critical time, conveying an “all things are possible” perspective.

But nearly two full decades into the 21st century, the sense of American unity and fellowship that prevailed after the tragedy of 9/11, and the hopefulness that attended the election of President Obama, now lie in tatters, done in by pervasive differences of political opinion coupled with an unwillingness to compromise. We can thank the divisive 2016 presidential campaign for laying bare these deep differences—and the subsequent election of Donald Trump for amplifying and provoking them. 

What this means for Washington, D.C., in its dual role as the nation’s capital and as a culturally, historically, and socially integral city in its own right, is that the District has become even more of a focal point for the worries and dreams of the nation. Always a place for protests, the city continues to serve in that regard, but now the demonstrations are often huge, starting with the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the day after the presidential inauguration, and continuing in spring 2018 with the inaugural March for Our Lives demonstration to end gun violence.

As the seat of the federal government, the city is a natural venue for demonstrations and celebrations of American values. But it helps that in this very Democratic District (where only 4.1% of voters turned out for Trump), the city’s own leaders embrace the idea that this is what democracy looks like. Women rule: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton won her 15th term in office, representing residents of the District of Columbia, and Mayor Muriel Bowser is a strong champion for the city, tackling education, housing, transportation, and crime issues.

History informs one’s outlook, but so does the present. Look again at the Potomac River and think of Captain John Smith, but observe the Georgetown University crew teams rowing in unison across the surface of the water and tour boats traveling between Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria. As you traverse the city, admire L’Enfant’s inspired design, but also enjoy the sight of office workers, artists and students, and people of every possible ethnic and national background making their way around town. Tour the impressive landmarks and remember their namesakes, but make time for D.C.’s homegrown attractions, whether a meal at a sidewalk cafe in Dupont Circle, jazz along U Street, a walking tour past Capitol Hill’s old town houses, or a visit to a church where slaves or those original immigrants once worshiped.


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