Washington, DC: Farewell to Chocolate City

June 26, 2012

Did you know?

Farewell to Chocolate City
The New York Times

“NOW, I’m not proud of what I did,” my friend Donna said the other day, her voice dropping to a low, confessional register.

Donna is black, in her late 40s and a graphic designer. Three generations of her family owned a Victorian row house in Washington until a probate dispute a while back forced them to rent in the Maryland suburbs. Driving home from work in the city recently, she took a shortcut through the alley where she frolicked in her youth, but which she now barely recognized, with its three-story decks and Zen gardens that led onto sidewalks freshly paved in red brick.

Donna tooted the horn at a parked car blocking her path. The car’s owner, a white woman, dawdled away in her garden nearby. With a blithe wave, the woman suggested a detour. Donna refused. She intended to wait her out, but then the words just tumbled out: “If you didn’t want to follow the rules, you shouldn’t have moved your white” — and here she used an expletive — “into D.C.!”

This is the rage, long simmering just beneath the surface, that is bubbling over now that Washington, the once-majority-black city immortalized in George Clinton’s 1975 funk classic “Chocolate City,” has lost its black majority. But even before the data corroborated that demographic milestone last year, Washington’s makeover had created something of an identity crisis.

Ever since Washington was carved from two slaveholding states in 1791, it has been a special place for black Americans. Lincoln freed the slaves in Washington about nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting blacks from the region to flock here. It was the birthplace of Duke Ellington and home to other artists like Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Allen Brown, who later fueled the Harlem Renaissance. By 1957, blacks had become the majority of the city’s residents, exceeding numbers in any major city in the United States. Ever since Walter E. Washington was appointed mayor by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the city has been led by black politicians and shaped by black institutions. This has fostered a sense of black privilege, swagger and, yes, the hubris that comes with leadership.

For the past half-century, the city’s black majority has also yielded a distinct culture. But in the midst of gentrification that is now fading fast. Last month, hundreds of mourners streamed into the Howard Theater to say goodbye to the late guitarist Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go music, perhaps the city’s only indigenous art form. The music that Mr. Brown created was once ubiquitous here, but most newcomers today have never heard it.

The political landscape is changing, too: recent federal investigations have led to the downfall of several members of the city’s black leadership, from the City Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown, and the Ward 5 councilman Harry Thomas Jr., to two campaign aides for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

During the decades that Washington had a black majority, national policy makers and investors left the city’s aging infrastructure for dead. So it is astonishing to witness the about-face that has accompanied the influx of white professionals in the past decade. Now there are urban-friendly transportation policies, lavish corporate spending on education and billions in private real estate investment and development. As residents finally get the city they have always deserved, many black Washingtonians are feeling the rage of the loyal first wife, kicked to the curb as soon as things started looking up.

Move out of the way!

Black privilege has always been relative. The city’s median black household income is $36,948; for whites it is $99,401. This demographic reality creates a crude, ethically charged math, and everyone who owns a stake in Washington calculates with it. The presence of white faces is the most reliable sign of the quality of a school. The more white people move in, the higher the property values go. The city’s population is growing, but each black family that leaves a school or neighborhood makes it richer.

IT was Donna who was in the way. “When you hear people say, ‘the good news is the neighborhood is being gentrified,’ it just makes you feel worthless,” Donna told me.

My own initiation in the ways of Chocolate City came nearly 20 years ago when, after growing up black in nearly all-white environments, I arrived in Washington as a freshman at historically black Howard University. The Washington I encountered then was a strange, alternate universe: I saw black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendents. Black restaurants. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff members. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. And of course a black-owned music industry, go-go.

In Washington, we were not “minorities,” with the whiff of inferiority that label carries; we were “normal.” For the first time in my life, I felt at home.

Of course, Chocolate Cities aren’t perfect. I do not accept responsibility for Mr. Thomas, who represented me on the City Council and went to jail for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from youth programs. He does not represent black people any more than the disgraced Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich represents white people.

But that’s what segregation does. It allows problems like corruption, dysfunction and poverty that are really historic, social and economic (and just plain old individual bad behavior) to be cast as a “black thing.” Segregated communities effectively quarantine all the American hurt, all the pain, all the history, and give it a “chocolate” label. Today, as the quality of life improves, there is a subtext to change, that in order to make progress, black people must be pushed out of the way. They had it for 50 years!

Some days, walking the streets of Washington, a seemingly colder place where people don’t always exchange greetings, I feel nostalgic for the days of black privilege that George Clinton crooned about. But given the warmth of many of my new neighbors of many races, I would like to see the transformation around me as racial progress. The change in attitudes that caused a generation of whites to release their fears and return to the urban centers their parents fled a generation ago is the same change in attitudes that allowed millions of white Americans, in the quiet sanctity of the voting booth, to vote for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama.

Change happens. Where this change ultimately leads I have no idea. As we do move it along, though, we would all do well to remember: Donna planted flowers, too.

Natalie Hopkinson is the author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.”


Video: George Clinton/Parliament-Chocolate City


Washington, DC’s African American population declined below 50 percent in early 2011, about 51 years after it gained a majority.

1800: 8,144
African American 2,472
White 5,672

1860: 75,080
African American 14,316
White 60,763

1880: 177,624
African American 59,596
White 118,006

1950: 802,178
African American 280 803
White 517 865

1960: 763,956
African American 411,737
White 345,263

1970: 756,510
African American  537,712
White 209,272

1980: 638,333 
African American  448,906
White 171,768

1990: 606,900 
African American  399,604
White 179,667

2000: 572,059
African American 343,312
White 176,101

2010: 601,723
African American 305,125
White 231,471
Asian 21,056
American Indian and Alaska Native 2,079
Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander 302
Other 24,374
Identified by two or more 17,316

Hispanic or Latino (of any race or any ethnicity) 54,749

Hispanic means place of origin only and is not a race or a single ethnic group and is included by race in the race category listed above.


Video: Washington, D.C., was once a major trading hub for enslaved Africans


Capitol 1861

Video: Role of enslaved Africans constructed the U.S. Capitol and The White House


Video: HBO’s ‘John Adams.’ The 2nd president enters the newly constructed executive mansion and is alarmed by the hypocrisy of enslaved Africans forced to work on the construction of The White House.


From its founding of the District of Columbia and Washington enslaved Africans lived in the area until April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation ending the District’s slave code and freeing the enslaved Africans.

This manuscript slave code for the District of Columbia, commonly referred to as a practice book, was probably produced by a Washington law firm for the use of its attorneys and clerks. By Southern standards, the codes were lenient. Slaves living within the city could hire out their services and live apart from their masters, while free blacks could own and operate private schools. The slave trade (buying and selling slaves) was abolished in the District in 1850. Lincoln’s signing of An Act for the release of certain persons held to service, or labor in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862, abolished slavery (the owning of slaves) in the capital city, rendering the code obsolete.

Source: Law Library, Library of Congress


Videos: Segregation in Washington, DC



Video: Washington DC 1968 Riots



Is Washington, DC a northern or southern city?

David Brinkley, the great newscaster for NBC and ABC, moved to Washington in the 1940s and watched World War II reshape the city. “The war transformed not just the government,” wrote Brinkley in Washington Goes to War. “It transformed Washington itself. A languid Southern town with a pace so slow that much of it simply closed down for the summer grew almost overnight into a crowded, harried, almost frantic metropolis struggling desperately to assume the mantle of global power, moving haltingly and haphazardly and only partially successfully to change itself into the capital of the free world.”

In Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., historian Lois E. Horton wrote “The Days of Jubilee: Black Migration During the Civil War and Reconstruction,” …”The Civil War and its aftermath transformed Washington from a small town into a city,” …. “The southern city now faced north.”

A press release from Mayor Marion Barry stated the following: “Among his achievements in the District of Columbia, he can count the following: Brought Washington from a sleepy Southern town to a thriving metropolis and a cosmopolitan city.”

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton stated in the following answer to a question in the Bar Report, June/July 1997

What was Washington like when you were growing up?
“It was a narrow, Southern, segregated small town—segregated in every sense of the word. As a child in the city I went to segregated schools. They were integrated only in ’54, and I was sitting in a segregated school when the decision came down. I remember the public address system coming on and the principal who is still living, Mr. Charles Lofton, announcing that the Supreme Court [in Brown v. Board of Education] had just declared that schools such as ours were unconstitutional, that “separate but equal” was no longer the law of the land. It was a moving moment at Dunbar High School because some our teachers had Ph.D.s but had limited places in which to use them, so they had spent a lifetime teaching children in segregated schools.

This was a very unsophisticated town—for whites, blacks, and everybody else. The federal government was not the juggernaut it was to become, creating a whole region with prosperous jobs that came out of the federal government. The experience in Washington made me want to fly and see what the real world was like. I regarded Washington as small town, a hick town, a city without restaurants, a city without theater, without culture. That’s not the Washington of today, a cosmopolitan city at the forefront of art and culture, a city with many problems—but that’s not one of them.”


Mayors of Washington, DC

The District of Columbia Home Rule Act is a U.S. federal law that passed on December 24, 1973 which devolved certain congressional powers of the District of Columbia to local government, furthering District of Columbia home rule. In particular, it includes the District Charter (also called the Home Rule Charter), which provides for an elected mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia.
District has been administered by a popularly elected mayor and city council since 1975.
Walter Nathan Tobriner 1961-1967 Democratic
Walter Nathan Tobriner was of the last appointed commissioners of the city of Washington and the last white President of the Board of Commissioners, of what later became the “mayor” of the District of Columbia. In 1961 President Kennedy appointed him to the Board of Commissioners for Washington D.C. where he served from 1961 to 1967. From 1966 to 1967 he was also the chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, when the first contracts for the new subway system contracts were awarded.
Walter E. Washington January 2, 1975 – January 2, 1979 Democratic

Walter Washington sworn in as Mayor of Washington D.C., 1967

Walter Edward Washington, attorney and politician, was born in Dawson, Georgia, on April 15, 1915 to Willie Mae and William L. Washington.  After his mother’s death in 1921, Washington moved with his father to Jamestown, New York.  Washington excelled academically and athletically in the public school. His trumpeting skills in school also earned him the nickname Duke II.   In 1934, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  Washington earned his B.A. degree in 1938 and his law degree from the same institution in 1948.  While attending law school, Washington met and married Benetta Bullock. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Washington as the first African American mayor-commissioner of a major city, Washington, D.C.  Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Washington’s leadership lessened severity of the riots that ensued.

Walter Washington also integrated the higher ranks of the D.C. police department.  This initiative led to the hiring of the District’s first African American police chief.  Washington also advocated and received home rule for the District.  This political achievement gave residents the right to vote for their leadership in 1973 and following year residents elected him to the office of mayor.

Source: BlackPast.org

Marion S. Barry January 2, 1979 – January 2, 1991 Democratic
 Marion Barry was born in Leflore County, Mississippi in 1936. Barry graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College in 1958. Barry earned a Masters of Science in Organic Chemistry from Fisk University in 1960. He was elected the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry began a doctoral program at the University of Kansas, but he quit the program when white parents opposed him tutoring their children. In 1965, Barry moved to Washington, D.C. to open a local chapter of SNCC.
Marion Berry was elected mayor of Washington, D.C. 4 terms. He has worked actively toward advances in civil rights and for statehood for the District of Columbia.
Sharon Pratt Kelly January 2, 1991 – January 2, 1995 Democratic

Sharon Pratt Dixon was born on January 30, 1944 in Washington, D.C. to parents Carlisle Pratt and Mildred (Petticord) Pratt.  Although she initially wanting to pursue an acting career, her father persuaded Pratt to attend Howard University where in 1965 she received a B.A. degree in Political Science.  She then enrolled in Howard University’s School of Law.  While in law school, she married Arrington Dixon in 1966 who later became a Washington, D.C. city councilmember.  In 1968 Dixon earned her law degree and gave birth to their first daughter, Aimee Arrington Dixon.  A second daughter, Drew Arrington Dixon, was born in 1970.

After she completed law school Dixon initially worked in private practice from 1971- 1976 where she was an associate in her father’s law firm, Pratt and Queen. In 1990, in her first bid for public office, Sharon Pratt Dixon was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., following Marion S. Berry, Jr.

Source: BlackPast.org

Marion Barry January 2, 1995 – January 2, 1999 Democratic
Anthony A. Williams January 2, 1999 – January 2, 2007 Democratic

Anthony A. Williams was born in 1951 in Los Angeles. Williams served in the 354th Tactical Fighter wing during his service in the U.S. Air Force. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Yale University where he graduated magna cum laude; a juris doctorate from Harvard Law and a master‘s degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Prior to joining the District government, Anthony A. Williams was the first Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, appointed by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Williams provided financial management and oversight for 29 federal agencies, 75 foreign country operations and approximately 2,500 county–based offices in the United States.

Anthony A. Williams served as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the District of Columbia from October 1995 to June 1998. Appointed by Mayor Marion Barry to lead the District to financial recovery.

During his first term, as mayor, he restored the city to the financial black, running budget surpluses every year and allowing the control board to terminate itself two years ahead of schedule. He brought some $40 billion dollars of investment to the city.

Adrian Fenty January 2, 2007 – January 2, 2011 Democratic

Adrian Fenty was born in Washington D.C.. He earned a B.A. in English and economics at Oberlin College, and a J.D. from the Howard University School of Law. Education reform was a major focus of Fenty’s mayoral tenure.
Vincent C. Gray January 2, 2011 – present Democratic 

A native Washingtonian, Mayor Gray attended Logan Elementary and Langley Junior High Schools, and graduated at the age of 16 from Dunbar High School. He studied psychology at George Washington University at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels. In 1991, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly appointed Gray to the post of Director of the Department of Human Services. As Director, he oversaw the functions of a 7,000 person department and directed activities related to Public Health, Social Services, Mental Health Services and Health Care Finance. In this role, the Mayor spearheaded the implementation of several initiatives to address the developmental needs of children.


Video: District of Columbia statehood- New Columbia


District of Columbia Public Schools Demographics
School Year 2009-2010 and 2010-2011

African immigrants
•African immigrants make up 17 percent of the foreign born population of the District of Columbia.

•The top countries of origin of African immigrants in the District of Columbia are Ethiopia (17%), Nigeria (12%), Ghana (10%), Cameroon (9%), Egypt (4%), Liberia (4%), Somalia (3%), Guinea (3%), Sudan (2%), and Eritrea (2%).

•The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than two-thirds of African immigrants in the Washington metro area arrived since 1990, more than one-third arrived just between 2000 and 2005, and less than 6 percent arrived before 1980.

•For the 2010-2011 School Year, 45,631 students were enrolled in the District of Columbia Public School System (DCPS).  Enrollment data by country of birth indicate that thirty African countries are represented among DCPS students, making it one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse in the nation.

•African countries represented in DCPS are: Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan (before split into two separate countries), Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

•Thirty African languages-excluding French and Arabic are listed as spoken at home among African students. These languages include: Akan, Amharic, Bangolan, Basaa, Bwamu-Cwi, Criolo, Dinka, Ebira, Ga, Ibibio, Igbo, Kayibe, Klao, Kpelle, Krio, Mandigo, Oromo, Saho, Sango, Sangu, Shona, Somali, Susu, Swahili, Swati, Themne, Tigrigna, Wolof, Yeyi, and Yoruba.
Source: District of Columbia -Office on African Affairs

DC residents seek Statehood because it is the most appropriate mechanism to grant the US citizens who reside in the District of Columbia the full rights privilege of American citizenship. These rights would include not only full voting rights in the US House of Representatives and US Senate, but also full control over its own local affairs.

The United States is the only nation in the world with a representative, democratic constitution that denies voting representation in the national legislature to the citizens of the capital.

DC elects a Delegate to the House of Representatives who can vote in committee and draft legislation, but does not have full voting rights. However, Congress is considering legislation that will grant DC’s Delegate full voting rights. The current Delegate is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

DC residents also elect two shadow senators and a shadow representative as non-voting representatives. This shadow delegation lobbies Congress on District issues and concerns.

Howard University

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