D.C. Professors’ New Book Examines City’s Racial Past

by: Christina Sturdivant Special to the AFRO
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As one of a few 30-something professors at the University of the District of the Columbia in 2009, George Derek Musgrove and Chris Myers Asch instantly connected when they met on campus.

The two bonded over being husbands, fathers and D.C. history professors who thought the courses they taught needed an update.

“As we went in search of new and interesting ways to present the material, we kept saying we wished we had a really good, exciting, comprehensive book that really teased out some of the themes that our students are interested in,” Musgrove told the AFRO.

In 2011, Asch drew up a proposal, suggesting they co-write that dream D.C. history book. The professors released the six-year project “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital” in November 2017.

The book is a four-century tale of race and politics in D.C. that focuses on issues such as slavery, segregation, civil rights, the drug war and gentrification, while highlighting residents and activists of all races in the city’s history.

While teaching at UDC, Musgrove found that students were excited to research the history of streets and how they changed over time. The authors framed “Chocolate City” so that each chapter begins with a place as it is today compared to an earlier time period. “That’s a direct outgrowth our students’ eyes lighting up when we did that assignment,” Musgrove said.

Also important to how they tell the story is “our racial background and where we grew up,” he said.

Asch is a native Washingtonian who grew up in the Chevy Chase area of D.C. As a White kid in the 1980s D.C., he was a racial minority in many of his D.C. public school classrooms. While Lafayette Elementary school was predominately White, he found himself among more students of color at Alice Deal Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest D.C.

“It was a tremendous experience,” Asch told the AFRO. “In some ways, it was a crucible that turned me into who I am today and opened my eyes to some of the racial realities of this country—many White people have never been the only White person in a room or seen as a representative of their race. I think that was really important for me to experience at a young age—what it felt like to be a minority, what it felt like to sometimes be a powerless minority.”

Musgrove’s earliest D.C. memories took place at a downtown nightclub. A Black Baltimore native, he frequented the Ritz as a teenager. “It’s easily one of the best clubs in the history of D.C.,” he says.

Around 18 years old, Musgrove began going to a barber shop near Seaton Street in the Northwest quadrant of the city. It was a one block strip at the cusp of Adams Morgan and the U Street Corridor.

“I always felt the street was odd, cute, and sort of out of place—the houses looked like two story doll houses, they’re very neatly kept,” he said. When researching for the book, he discovered it was also the site of  “probably one of the most important anti-gentrification struggles of the 1970s.”

The street became a focus of activists “who were pushing back against developers who were snatching up huge chunks of housing in the city and pushing poor people out so they can switch them for young professionals,” said Musgrove, who tells the residents’ triumphant story in “Chocolate City.”

The authors’ longtime love of history and work in freedom schools is also prevalent in the book’s comprehensive narrative of D.C.

As a child, Musgrove lived next door to the famed Mitchell family of Baltimore. Parren James Mitchell became Maryland’s first Black congressman. His brother, Clarence Mitchell Jr., was a civil rights activist with nearly three decades of work for the NAACP.

“They set forth the idea that studying and using what you’ve learned from those studies to benefit disadvantaged people was noble and important,” said Musgrove, who received his bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and his PhD in U.S. history from New York University. From 1994-1996, he trained interns in D.C. to work at freedom schools across the country for the Children’s Defense Fund. He’s currently an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Even with so many similarities, co-writing a book together wasn’t easy, Asch said. “Not a lot of people try it because it can be really difficult—you start out as friends and you end up never talking to each other again.”

Asch and Musgrove’s journey to creating “Chocolate City” had its “bumps in the road,” Asch continues, “but we came out stronger in the end. For me, keeping that friendship strong through six years of hard work is just as important to me as writing a good book.”

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