By Brianna Rhodes, Special to the AFRO
The District of Columbia Office of Planning and Historic Preservation Office (HPO) launched a web-based heritage trail last month to recognize and honor the history of the African American Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C.
The 100-site trail details the heritage of civil rights in D.C., during the 20th century through historical photos and details that encapsulates the District’s involvement during that time.
The virtual trail, created under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Administration, took close to two years to curate, and was developed under the African American Civil Rights Grant program by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, according to DC Historic Sites. Kim Prothro Williams, the architectural historian at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and the Office of Planning managed the grant project for HPO and the research and writing was conducted by a historical research consulting firm, Prologue DC, a historical research consulting firm hired under the grant.
Since D.C. became the first large city in the country to become mostly Black by 1957, the trail highlights many historical moments that took place in the nation’s capital during the civil rights era that not only made an impact across the country, but also locally.
“As the federal city, D.C. was the site of significant events associated with the national Civil Rights Movement,” Williams said. “While these events, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, were seminal events nationally, we thought it was important to highlight the people and activities that were taking place at the local level, as well.”
“These events, such as the picketing of ‘Sanitary Grocery (Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work)’ and the sit-ins at Thompson’s Restaurant, to name a couple, were a direct response to infringements of the rights of D.C. residents,” she added.
Many people, events and institutions played a pivotal role in the battle for civil rights, and the 100 historic sites chosen for the virtual tour tell the important stories that took place at local campaigns, courtrooms, churches, schools and protests in the District in order to fight for issues such as political representation, adequate housing, employment, health care and more.
Williams said about 60 sites were chosen from the D.C. African American Heritage Trail, while the other forty were chosen by historians. Every site will continue to be updated with new information and details overtime, according to the site.
There a few photographs featured in the trail that stand out to Williams in particular. Some include a photo taken at the Anacostia pool that shows terrifying racial violence when it was opened up for Black people. She also said the the photo of 10,000 people at the CORE protesting the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham portrays a s sense of hope. In addition, Williams said she loves the photo of activist, Mary Church Terrell picketing in front of Murphy’s Five and Dime store because it didn’t serve African Americans.
“One aspect of the Civil Rights Movement in D.C. that struck me is how powerful a force women were in the movement. From educators and activists to businesswomen and journalists, women were front and center in the battle for racial equality,” Williams said. “I was also struck by the invaluable role that Howard University professors and students played in the Civil Rights Movement (such as Howard University, Howard University Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit).”
Williams said that she hopes that readers and viewers will be uplifted and inspired by stories about city residents, parents, activists and others who persevered for equality.
“We hope that people realize what an important center for civil rights activism D.C. has been, not only because it’s the nation’s capital, but also because it was, starting in 1957, a majority African-American city and entirely disenfranchised,” Williams said. “D.C. residents couldn’t even vote for president until 1964, and we weren’t allowed to elect our mayor and city council until 1974. The fight for Home was an important civil rights battle that was unique to D.C.”
Williams also thanked those that helped make the project possible.
“We’d like to give a shout-out to Washington Area Spark for the enormous amount of work they have already done to document some of this history and to Patsy Fletcher at HPO who passed away earlier this year, for her deep knowledge and vision that were critical in the development of this tour,” Williams added.