The marble city begun by slave labor in the 1790s, is again in the news. As charges of campaign violations swirl around Mayor Vincent Gray, and the chairman of the city council and another member resign after admitting financial misdeeds, it is often forgotten that Washington once stood as a "city on a hill" to the nation's African-Americans. Just as the Puritan John Winthrop held the biblical image up as the ideal for Boston, so the District has long served as a beacon to blacks seeking freedom – from slavery, Jim Crow, and racism.
But for generations of blacks born and raised in D.C. and others who migrated to the city, the hill has become steeper to climb and easier to fall off. Corruption, crime, unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, and similar urban woes are just part of the problem. How we deal with them is another matter. Will Washington lose its identity in the process?
In 1957, Washington became the first major city in the country with a majority-black population. At the peak of this demographic trend, in 1970, 71 percent of Washingtonians were black, but 2010 census figures show that from 2000 to 2010, the non-Hispanic white population in the District grew by more than 50,000, to 209,000, while the black population declined by more than 39,000, to a little more than 300,000 – below 50 percent. Washington is not alone; during the past decade, Chicago lost more than 180,000 black residents, and other cities long known for their black populations, like Cleveland, Oakland, and St. Louis, suffered similar losses.
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the most authoritative studies of this reverse migration. Blacks, he told a reporter last year, are making a choice. "They are going to the Sun Belt and particularly the South. The ones who stay in the area want to move to the suburbs." The specifics of each city are different, but the effect may be the same.
At the turn of the 20th century, during the first Great Migration, more than a million and a half blacks migrated North to flee white violence and economic privation in the South. Blacks migrated to the District of Columbia in search of federal jobs. Female professionals like Mary Church Terrell, a teacher, the first black woman to be a member of the D.C. Board of Education, and a founder of the National Association of Colored Women, became tireless fighters for equality.
But blacks still suffered from Jim Crow laws and segregation in the early-20th-century Washington of President Woodrow Wilson, a cultural Southerner, who impeded black advancement in the federal government. Black employment in that sector declined, and black federal employees worked in an increasingly hostile and segregated atmosphere as they competed with whites for positions and housing. In the Red Summer riots of 1919, postwar ethnic and economic tensions after demobilization erupted in Washington and other American cities.
Yet blacks continued to migrate to the District, drawn by Howard University and, following World War II, employment in the newly desegregated military and in some federal jobs. U.S. Supreme Court decisions followed, ruling that racially restrictive housing covenants were legally unenforceable, and striking down segregation in restaurants and public facilities, and then in education.
In the late 1960s and 70s, after the second Great Migration (1940-70), D.C. became a center of the Black Arts Movement, with a new awareness of the culture, literature, and music of peoples of African descent. That led to black bookstores and dance and theater companies in Washington. The student movement in support of desegregation in the South had a strong base of support at Howard, and the university and the city led the nation in developing a growing sense of black pride.
Then came the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968, prompting widespread rioting. Underlying factors contributing to the seemingly spontaneous display of frustration included job and housing discrimination and police brutality. At least 12 people died in the District, 7,600 were arrested, 900 businesses were damaged, and $27 million in property was destroyed. Only the Watts (1965) and Detroit (1967) riots caused more destruction.
Despite the riots, the African-American population of Washington retained its optimism, and its first modern elected mayor, Walter Washington, a black man, took office in 1975. Marion Barry followed him in 1979, by which time black residents were affectionately calling D.C. "Chocolate City." But Congress still had veto power over the city budget and taxing authority, and help for blacks was not forthcoming. As Greek, Italian, and Jewish shopkeepers fled the city, few black businesses were able to fill the economic void. Today we see an abundance of Korean and Ethiopian shops, as many hard-working owners pool their funds. Some get aid from benefactors or investors. But no such financial backing traditionally exists for African-Americans.
On several occasions, black residents were forced to relocate within the city. As in most of the nation, the displacement of blacks had two historical precedents. In the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, racially restrictive housing coupled with job segregation had forced many blacks into alley dwellings. But as whites needed housing, the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 was passed condemning homes, primarily inhabited by blacks, and forcing entire neighborhoods to relocate. In response, many blacks moved to D.C.'s Southeast quadrant, across the Anacostia River. Such relocation happened again when houses were torn down in the 1960s during "urban renewal," aka "Negro removal," as well-to-do whites moved into the Southwest section, near the waterfront, not far from Capitol Hill. As in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Newark, when dilapidated homes and public housing were torn down, they were not replaced, as promised, by affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people. The stage was set for the third Great Migration, revealed in the 2010 census.
William Frey – and most of the news media that have written about his findings – tends to see the bright side of all this. The trend "reflects the South's economic growth and modernization, its improved race relations, and the longstanding cultural and kinship ties it holds for black families," Frey has argued. He also believes that, since blacks are fleeing areas that have recent gains in Hispanic and Asian immigrants, they may be reacting to immigration trends. It should be noted that many of the blacks who grew up in the District are going not to the South, but to Prince George's County, Md., often called Ward Nine (D.C. has eight wards).
Nationally, blacks migrating from the North are disproportionately young, with 40 percent between the ages of 21 and 40. Additionally, one in four migrants have a college degree, resulting in an overall "brain gain" for several popular destinations in the South, like Atlanta and Charlotte. The continuing economic downturn and deindustrialization of the North have also strengthened the attractiveness of the South. In addition, some observers have suggested that integration has lessened the connection to traditionally black neighborhoods in the North, making migration easier. So too have changing race relations in the South, they maintain.
Small wonder the dominant narrative is one of black people opting for a better life in an increasingly postracial society. "It's a new age for African-Americans. It's long overdue," Frey told The New York Times last year. The Manhattan Institute, drawing policy implications from its own analysis, recently declared, "The freedom to choose one's location has helped reduce segregation. Segregation has declined in part because African-Americans left older, more segregated, cities and moved to less segregated Sun Belt cities and suburbs. This process occurred despite some public attempts to keep people in these older areas."
But consider. First, a "brain gain" for the South is a "brain drain" for traditionally black cities. Reverse migration widens the income gap in Northern cities, increasing economic – and often racial – segregation in urban neighborhoods, even while it may lessen segregation in suburban areas.
And one key piece is missing in the narrative: the mounting cost of living in cities. By another name, it's known as gentrification, and it has little to do with black people making a choice to leave their homes. The average white family's income in D.C. is $101,000; the average black family's is $39,000. A report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in March reveals that the income gap continues to widen. The top 5 percent of D.C.'s households earn an average of $473,000 a year, highest among the largest 50 cities in the United States. The bottom 20 percent earn $9,100, near the national average. The gap between rich and poor is the third-highest among the nation's largest cities, behind only Boston and Atlanta. The poverty rate in the Washington suburbs is 7.1 percent, while in the District it is nearly three times as high, at 19.2 percent.
Many blacks can no longer afford the rising costs of renting or owning a home in the District. Too often, the closest public schools are not good, and many blacks cannot afford the District's private schools. In Ward 8, or Anacostia, long predominantly black and poor, the unemployment rate is more than 25 percent, highest in the nation. Recently residents took to the streets to protest the lack of jobs in unionized bridge projects in the area.
Increasingly, many blacks feel a sense of betrayal.
While the Federal Reserve just announced that the economic downturn has caused a huge across-the-board loss of wealth, due to the decline of housing prices, it notes that the slump has hit middle-income and poor families especially hard. It may be too early to tell how all this will influence relocation and housing choices of those families who have choices, but it is likely to make life all the harder for those who do not.
What is missing in today's discussion is a determined debate about how to provide educational and housing opportunities for blacks, so we can stem the tide of reverse migration. For starters, with a high-school-graduation rate under 50 percent among black youth in the District, business and labor need to work with the schools to develop a better GED program and to provide training and apprenticeship opportunities. The University of the District of Columbia and its community college need to work with D.C. businesses and the city government to provide young people who are not college bound with skills for high-tech jobs. With a waiting list of almost 60,000 for public housing, the city needs to work with developers to provide low- and moderate-income housing.
But first we need to admit that we are losing something. Washington is the city that Benjamin Banneker, the self-taught African-American scientist and mathematician, helped to survey. It is the birthplace of Duke Ellington. It is the city where Thurgood Marshall went to law school, at Howard University, after the University of Maryland turned him down on racial grounds. This is the city where Frederick Douglass paid personal visits to Abraham Lincoln to prod the Great Emancipator to give America a "new birth of freedom," as the president put it. Here, 150 years ago, in April 1862, enslaved African-Americans were emancipated nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
Although perhaps not a place of complete equality, the District of Columbia became in the African-American imagination a destination that was at least halfway to freedom. We should not celebrate that it risks losing its soul.
Maurice Jackson is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is working on a book about African-Americans and Washington, D.C.