African-American Experience in Washington, DC.
The history of Black settlement in Washington, DC, since the early 17th century until the early 20th century, provides us with many in-depth insights into the African-American experience as a whole. Probably the most notable of them is that it was not only that throughout the specified historical period the city’s African-American residents have suffered from different types of social and racial oppression, but that they have also contributed rather heavily into making Washington what it is today. The author of this paper intends to explore the soundness of the above-stated at length.
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The earliest historical account of the Black people’s presence in the area dates back to 1619 when the first batch of 20 African slaves has arrived in Virginia as a part of the Atlantic slave trade (Horton 22). Such a development was predetermined to take place by the fact that at the time there used to be an acute shortage of labor in the colony’s tobacco plantations (Zeuske 110). Throughout the next century, the population of African-Americans (mostly slaves and indentured servants) in Virginia and Maryland continued to increase slowly but steadily.
The year 1720 is commonly regarded marking the establishment of the culturally distinctive Black community in the area, the enslaved representatives of which have overwhelmingly supported the cause of America’s liberation from the British colonial rule during the American Revolutionary War. As of 1800, the population of African-Americans in the District of Columbia accounted for 4027, of which 3244 were slaves (Horton 23). As it appears from the assigned reading materials, it was namely Washington’s endowment with the status of a capital city that can be seen as the first step in the history of its Black residents’ empowerment.
The reason for this is that the concerned development resulted in setting the city on the path of industrialization, which in turn created much demand in Black laborers. Even though at the time the number Blacks slaves, engaged in rebuilding Washington, exceeded the number of Black freed laborers, as time went on the concerned proportional rate continued to transform rapidly in favor of the latter. The practice of “hiring out” Black slaves to the third-party contractors, which added heavily towards ensuring the success of the government’s effort to renovate Washington in the early 19th century, also helped to delegitimize slavery as a whole (Lusane 111).
Moreover, it initiated the process of more and more Black Americans beginning to adopt the lifestyle of an urbanite, which strengthened even further the desire to attain complete freedom in these people. After all, as Horton noted: “In the urban environment (Black) slaves were sometimes allowed liberties even beyond those of selecting their own employers and living in their own quarters” (25). The intellectual climate in the city was also becoming increasingly pro-abolitionist. Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the fact that, following the 1850 Congressional banning of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, Washington became America’s first slavery-free city.
The nationwide abolition of slavery after the end of the American Civil War provided yet another powerful incentive for the population of African-Americans in Washington to continue expanding. This could not be otherwise: the concerned development corresponded with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the US. According to Horton: “In 1870 African Americans numbered more than 43,000, roughly one- third of the District’s nearly 132,000 residents” (71).
Nevertheless, throughout the 19th century second half, the city’s Black residents continued to endure the institutionalized forms of racial discrimination, especially when competing for the same jobs with the newly arrived European immigrants. Predictably enough, this created the objective precondition for these residents to be willing to adopt an active stance while defending their basic human rights.
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Hence, the emergence of a number of Black intellectuals during the 19th century’s last few decades, who strived to provide educational opportunities to as many African-Americans as possible, and also to improve their communal living. Among the most notable of the former can be named William Costin, John F. Cook, Nicholas Franklin, George Bell, and Moses Liverpool (Levy 50).
Nevertheless, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the city’s Blacks began to take practical advantage of being integrated socially to an ever-further extent. One of the commonly provided explanations, in this regard, is that the legacy of slavery continued to have a mentally incapacitating effect on African-Americans throughout the Reconstruction era. During the 20th century’s first two decades, however, this effect began to weaken: “The intelligent Negro of today… is trying to hold himself at par, neither inflated by sentimental allowances nor depreciated by current social discounts” (Locke 2).
Consequently, this created the objective precondition for triggering the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” in both Washington in New York: the cultural phenomenon that had a powerful influence on defining the cultural aspects of one’s American living in the twenties.
What has been said earlier brings up one important implication, with respect to the African-American experience: despite having been subjected to slavery/racial discrimination throughout the historical period in question, African-Americans actively participated in building the nation. Unfortunately, many conservatively minded Whites prefer to turn a blind eye on this fact. This particular suggestion correlates with the paper’s initial thesis as well.
Immigrant Experience in Washington, DC.
Being the capital of the US, Washington, DC, has been traditionally deemed extrapolative of the essentially Eurocentric nature of American statehood and also of the nation’s imperial aspirations. After all, most of the city’s federal buildings bear a striking resemblance with those of the Imperial Rome (Bert 81). Nevertheless, there is a good reason to believe that ethnic immigrants had contributed towards establishing the city’s character as much as Anglo-Saxons themselves. In this paper, it will be shown that such a suggestion is indeed logically sound.
When it comes to discussing immigrants’ contribution to the urban development of Washington, one can hardly omit mentioning the role that Italian-Americans have played in the process. As it is being revealed by Gillette and Kraut, unlike what it used to be the case with America’s large industrial centers (such as New York or Chicago), throughout the 1870-1920 period Washington did not experience the influx of largely unskilled Italian workers: there were only a few industries in the city at the time (157). Instead, Washington used to attract primarily the most educated of Italian immigrants, such as architects, sculptors, and artists.
They, in turn, contributed a great deal towards coining up the city’s architectural landscape as we know it today. Italian-Americans have also helped to expand the city’s social and trade infrastructure during the early 1900s. It must be noted that at the time, Italian immigrants to America were not considered quite European, which caused even the most industrious of them to face “nativist racism” on a continual basis (Meyer 181).
Essentially the same can be said about the daily experiences of Greek immigrants who moved to reside in Washington during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having consisted of overwhelmingly the undereducated young males with a little knowledge of English, these people did not have any other option but to apply to be hired as general laborers or railroad workers (Warnke 174).
Nevertheless, as the time went on, many of the city’s Greek-born residents were able to establish businesses of their own and consequently move up the “class ladder”. In particular, these individuals proved very successful in operating grocery stores/butcher shops, as well and in bringing restaurant business in Washington to a whole new level. The early Greek-born migrants to Washington should also be credited with having contributed towards the expansion of the city’s barbershop network, which even today is commonly regarded as one of its urban hallmarks.
The integration of Chinese immigrants into the city’s social life during the same historical period proceeded at a much slower pace: all due to the growing popularity of the anti-Asian public sentiment in America at the time. This, however, did not prevent them from being able to contribute to the making of the city in their own unique way. In particular, Chinese immigrants had established the city’s yet another hallmark: its Chinatown.
There can be very little doubt that this development had a strongly positive effect on the city’s economic development through the decades to come: “By 1903, Washington’s Chinatown was bustling with its own drugstores, restaurants, barbershops, tailor shops, mercantile establishments, and fraternal lodges” (Chow 101). One of the main reasons as to why it proved to be the case is that, since the time of its initial establishment, Washington’s Chinatown served as a powerful magnet for tourists. Thus, the arrival of Chinese immigrants to Washington in the late 19th century has undoubtedly helped turning the city into a truly multicultural place.
Latinos are considered to be the representatives of the city’s yet another long-established ethnic community. The reason for this is that the history of Hispanic settlement in Washington dates back to as early as the mid-19th century. Following the economic downturn of the late twenties and the announcement of the “New Deal” policy by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Latino residents of Washington showed much enthusiasm taking an active part in the government-funded expansion of the paved-road infrastructure around the city (Cadaval 234). Throughout the 1920s, Latinos have also contributed towards ensuring the economic sustainability of the region’s agricultural sector.
It will be appropriate to conclude this paper by confirming once again the validity of the paper’s initial thesis: the socioeconomic development of Washington during the late 19th and early 20th centuries cannot be discussed outside of what accounted for the role of ethnic immigrants in the process. This implies that the country’s adoption of the policy of multiculturalism in the late eighties was historically predetermined and that there has not been anything incidental about the occurrence. Apparently, by studying the history of Washington, DC, one will be likely to deepen even further its understanding of what the notions of racial tolerance and ethnic diversity stand for.
Bert, Ray. “Classical Architecture and Monuments of Washington, D.C.: A History & Guide.” Civil Engineering, vol. 88, no. 3, 2018, pp. 81–87.
Cadaval, Olivia. “The Latino Community: Creating an Identity in the Nation’s Capital.”
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Chow, Esther. “From Pennsylvania Avenue to H Street, NW: The Transformation of Washington’s Chinatown.”
Gillette, Howard, and Alan Kraut. “The Evolution of Washington’s Italian American Community.”
Horton, Lois. “The Days of Jubilee: Black Migration During the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
Horton, Oliver. “The Genesis of Washington’s African American Community.”
Levy, James. “Forging African American Minds: Black Pragmatism, ‘Intelligent Labor,’ and a New Look at Industrial Education, 1879-1900.” American Nineteenth Century History, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 43-73.
Locke, Alain. “Enter the New Negro.” Survey Graphic, 1925, pp. 1-6.
Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. City Lights Publishers, 2013.
Meyer, Gerald. “Italian Anarchism in America: Its Accomplishments, its Limitations.” Science & Society, vol. 79, no. 2, 2015, pp. 176-195.
Warnke, Christine. “Greek Immigrants in Washington, 1890-1945.”
Zeuske, Michael. “Out of the Americas: Slave Traders and the Hidden Atlantic in the Nineteenth Century.” Atlantic Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp. 103-135.