DC history: 19th century post Civil War


Georgetown and the city of Washington hold referendum on “negro suffrage.” In Georgetown. Only one out 700 some voters approves in Georgetown and only 35 voters approve in the city.

Evening Star: “While willing to grant the negro every right due him before the law, [Washingtonians] are not prepared to make a farce of the right of suffrage, by giving it to an ignorant mass of negroes, who know no more how to exercise it than the cattle in the field they so lately herded with.”

Walt Whitman publishes Drum Taps. Many of its poems recall his years as a Civil War nurse in Washington.

90 years before the Montgomery bus boycott Sojourner Truth integrates the city’s horse cars by simply ignoring a conductor’s order to move from the white section. The city’s streetcars will remain exempt from segregation.


Congress votes black male emanicipation except for those who served the Confederacy, paupers, and those convicted of an “infamous crime or offense.”


Blacks vote for the first time in the District. DC police stationed at polling places. Evening Star writes that the election put “to flight the fears of those who apprehended serious disturbances on the occasion of the first exercise of the right of franchise by the colored people.” . . . .”It is the first American law granting African-American men the right to vote. The amendment of voting practices in the nation’s capital stipulates that every male citizen of the city who is 21 years of age or over has the right to vote, except welfare or charity recipients, those under guardianship, men convicted of major crimes, or men who voluntarily sheltered Confederate troops or spies during the Civil War.” [DAILY BLEED]

Whites boycott the election resulting in one half of registered voters being black.

John F. Cook, a black Washingtonian, is named chair of the Republican Party.

The Freedman’s Bureau is helping to reshape the city, providing temporary housing for freed slaves, acquiring land and selling it to blacks, AND raising money for Hoawrd University and other educational institutions.

The Washington Nationals baseball team goes on a tour of the midwest that helps to increase the national popularity of the game. Spalding’s Baseball Guide credits the Nationals with ‘opening the eyes of the people’ to the game and their tour with intensifying “the passion for the game by stimulating the formation of clubs that wanted to achieve similar renown.’ During the tour the Nationals won “nine of ten games and outscored their opponents and outscored their opponents 735 to 146” according to a 2003 article in Washington History.

Len Spencer is born. He will later write Arkansas Traveler, the first song to sell a million recordws.


Two blacks are elected to the Common Council

Sayles J. Bowen, a Radical Republican, was elected mayor. He advocated the integration of white and colored school system, alarming even Republicans.

The first chairman of the board of trustees of the Colored Public Schools, William Syphax uses his office to organize the “Preparatory High School for Colored Youth,” the first secondary school in the city for blacks, in the basement of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church.


City passes a law against racial discrimination in places of entertainment expanding it the following year to include restaurants, bars, and hotels.

John Esputa forms the Colored American Opera Company, the city’sfirst professional opera troupe,


Seven blacks elected to the council.

Financial condition of the city is so bad that Mayor Bowen’s furniture is seized in a judgment against the municipality. Opposition Republicans united with Democrats to beat Bowen.


Alexander Shepherd and friends convince Congress to pass a territorial bill, merging all jurisdictions under a presidentially appointed governor and upper house, and an elected lower house. The new entity is called the District of Colombia. The Georgetown Courier complains about Grant’s appointments: “Not one old resident, nor a Democrat, nor a Catholic nor an Irishman, yet we have three darkies, Douglass, Gray and Hall, a German, two natives of Maine and one of Massachusetts.”

The post of non-voting delegate to Congress is created.

The city’s motto, “Justitia Omnibus” (Justice for All), is adopted.

Peak year for the C&O Canal. 850,000 tons of coal are moved by some of the over 500 boats plying the waterway. The canal has 74 lift locks to accommodate a rise of 605 feet, and 11 stone aqueducts spanning the major Potomac tributaries, 7 dams supplying water to the canal, hundreds of culverts carrying roads and streams beneath the canal, and a 3,117-foot tunnel carrying the canal through a large shale rock formation.

Black high school moves to the Stevens School

A free black, James Wormley, opens the Wormley Hotel at the corner of 15th & H NW, which quickly becomes popular among the city’s movers and shakers, especially for its turtle soup and Chesapeake Bay seafood. It has the first hotel elevator and the first hotel telephone in the city. In 1876 it will be where the disputed election of 1876 was resolved in what became known as the Wormley Agreement. Ironically, it is this agreement, which leads to the removal of federal troops from the south and the election of Rutherford Hayes marked the end of Reconstruction, but Wormley, in his defense, only provides the hall.


Boss Shepherd, who is engaged in massive public works projects, has a demolition crew destroy the Northern Liberties Market on Mt. Vernon Square in the middle of the night. Shepherd is entertaining the judge who might have halted the demolition at his home while the work is going on. The next day the corpse of a young boy and a butcher are found in the rubble.

Talent scout and Washington native Fred Gainsberg disocvers and records Enrico Caruso.


THE GERMAN LANGUAGE WASHINGTON JOURNAL, 1873 – From the point of view of principles, there’s nothing to be said against the demands of the colored population. The colored people are citizens, have the same political rights, can hold office, and travel in the same railroad cars and omnibusses with the whites, therefore their children should have the right to use the [same] public schools.

Eastern Market opens


The power of the Republican Party is broken and Democrats recover the South. Congress abolishes the territorial government replacing it with a temporary three-commissioner system.

NATIONAL VIEWS OF DCIn the early years, President Monroe called upon Congress to devise ways “to better adapt to the general principles of our system” without “infring[ing] the Constitution.” President Jackson urged Congress to treat the District like a Territory (“It was doubtless wise in the framers of our Constitution to place the people of this District under the jurisdiction of the general government, but to accomplish the objects they had in view it is not necessary that this people should be deprived of all the privileges of self-government.”)

By 1843, President Tyler articulated the view that District citizens were dependents who required “parental care” by “their legislature” (Congress). Over the next three decades, this view evolved to the District as “the grounds of the National Capital” (President Grant, 1874). At last, after local self-government had been withdrawn completely, President Hayes announced in 1877, “The capital of the United States belongs to the nation, and it is natural that the American people should take pride in the seat of their national government and desire it to be an ornament to the country.”

President Theodore Roosevelt added a new point (1902) — the District as a place to pass experimental laws, which might serve as a model for the states. And in 1910, President Taft articulated the idea that citizens who moved to the District lose their political rights: “The truth is this is a city governed by a popular body, to wit, the Congress of the United States, selected from the people of the United States who own Washington. The people who come here to live do so with the knowledge of the origin of the city and the restrictions, and therefore voluntarily give up the privilege of living in a city governed by popular vote . . . and must be content to subject themselves to the control of a body selected by all the people of all the nation.” Mark Richards


“The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens. Being in the latter condition when the Constitution was formed, no words used in that instrument could have been intended to deprive them of that character. If there is anything in the great principle of unalienable rights so emphatically insisted upon in our Declaration of Independence, they could neither make nor the United States accept a surrender of their liberties and become the subjects–in other words, the slaves–of their former fellow-citizens. If this be true–and it will scarcely be denied by anyone who has a correct idea of his own rights as an American citizen–the grant to Congress of exclusive jurisdiction in the District of Columbia can be interpreted, so far as respects the aggregate people of the United States, as meaning nothing more than to allow to Congress the controlling power necessary to afford a free and safe exercise of the functions assigned to the General Government by the Constitution. In all other respects the legislation of Congress should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests.” — Inaugural address of William Henry Harrison


“The negroes came into this District from Virginia and from other places; I know dozens of them here now who flocked in from Alabama. They came in here and they took possession of a certain part of this District . . . and there was but one way to get out . . . and that was to deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District and have every office here controlled by appointment instead of by election . . . in order to get rid off this load of negro suffrage that was flooded upon them.” — Senator John Tyler Morgan, D-AL, 1890.


Washington’s first big-league baseball club completes 28 games, losing all but five of them, ending the season more than 40 games out of first place. – WP

In the wake of the financial panic of 1873, Uniontown founder John van Hook loses a large house he has built. The purchaser, breaking the all-white covenant, is Frederick Douglass.

The Washington Training School for Nurses, later the Capital City School of Nursing, the first such school in the District and one of the first ten professional nursing schools in the U.S is opened. It will operated until 1972.

The Organic Act of 1878 makes the three commissioner system permanent. It will last until 1967.

The C&P Company introduces telephone service to the city.

Edison secures patent for cylinder and disc records, founds Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. His original prototype and commercial production focuses on cylinder format. – Washington Area Music Assn

The first public high school – M Street High School – is opened, funded by the black community.


Boston Dry goods opens. Later becomes Woodward & Lothrop


Washington’s Chinese community numbers about 100

An American Association baseball team is formed but quits the league mid season after a 12-51 record.


There are about 15 black owned businesses in the U Street area

The city’s first department store – Woodward & Lothrop – is opened.

Six black Washingtonians are listed in the Social Register.

Emile Berliner, who moved to Washington from Germany in 1870, invents the gramophone and begins manufacturing flat records to replace the Edison cylinder. He also uses a listening dog as his trademark, eventually made famous by RCA. In 1901 he forms Victor Records.

DC gets its first electric streetcar just one year after the improvement had been introduced. It runs betweent 7th & NY Ave NW and 4th & T NE

Tolls are lifted on the Aqueduct Bridge, providing easier access to the disreputable pleasures of Rosslyn which included saloons, prostitution, gambling, chicken and bulldog fights, and two race tracks. Eventually, a reform movement will force these establishments out of Rosslyn, some of them moving to Georgetown. Jimmy LeFontaine, who ran a gambling house in Rosslyn becomes a prominent Georgetown citizen. Another waterfront merchant is said to control the local numbers.

The Washington Monument, designed by Robert Mills, opens to the public.

The city is completely blacked out by the Blizzard of ’88 or White Hurricane. Temperatures hit a record low of 10 degrees on March 6. A heavy wind blew the water out of the river leaving the low tide five feet less than normal.

Swampoodle Grounds, Washington, D.C., c. 1888. The Washington Nationals playing the Chicago White Stockings at the old Swampoodle Grounds (where part of Washington’s Union Station presently sits). The thin fellow behind the plate is said to be Connie Mack a.k.a Cornelious McGillicuddy who caught for the Nationals from 1886 through 1890. The pitcher hurling the ball to Mack is Hank O’Day.


The Columbia Phonograph Company, 709 G Street, NW, is started. In1893, Columbia will release the first dance records.

DC is hit by a massive flood. The C&O Canal, badly damaged, goes into receivership.


Black Washingtonians now own two steamboat companies, grocery stores, heat fuel companies, and the Adams Oil and Gas Development Company looking for oil in Oklahoma.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is badly damaged by floods and the canal company goes into bankruptcy.

A Pennsylvania Avenue bridge connects Anacostia with the rest of the city. The Washington Star publishes a poem to celebrate the event: “Now we’re married. . .Never to part. . .Little Anacostia . . .Is my sweet heart.”

Rock Creek Park is formed.

Cable car service commences.


Lillian Evanti (Lillian Evans) is born. She will become a world famous opera star who debuts in France with the Paris Opera and performs in the US and 11 countries on three continents. A founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

The M Street High School is created.

There are now only 25 African-Americans on the city payroll.


Ford’s Theatre collapses, killing 22.

Al Jolson, son of an immigrants, moves to Washington with his family at age seven. He will grow up in DC.

Kate Smith is born. Grows up in Southwest.

Congress bans the use of overhead streetcar wires. Streetcars have to switch to third rail operation upon entering the central city.


More than 3,000 black familes own their homes in the city. Total assets of black Washingtonians is estimated at $17 million.

In July more than a thousand jobless workers, led by Charles “Hobo” Kelly camp in Washington. Among those in Kelley’s Hobo Army are Jack London and William “Big Bill” Haywood. On Aug 10 they are driven across the Potomac River by federal troops.

Jacob Coxey’s protest army of the poor reaches D.C.Coxey led a group of 500 unemployed workers from the midwest; he is arrested for trespassing on Capitol grounds

By 1894 more than 3,000 black families owned their own homes in the District. The total value of assets owned by black Washingtonians that year was estimated to be about $17 million. Some members of the city’s black upper classes maintained country houses in Virginia, employed servants, and held debutante balls for their daughters. Others sent their children to predominantly white boarding schools and colleges in New England. . . . In 1899, students at Washington’s one black high school scored higher than their white counterparts on citywide academic achievement tests. – City Journal

Congress orders that downtown Washington have no overhead wires. Law requires redesign of streetcars to use third rail when in the center city.


[Library of Congress]

Mary Church Terrell , Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Margaret Murray Washington, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, & former slave Harriet Tubman meet in Washington to form the National Association of Colored Women.


Last horsecar service

Students at the black high school score higher than the city’s white students on citywide test.

Last cable car service

Duke Ellington is born.

Winter temerature falls to -15 degrees to a cold snap known as the “Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899”

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