Here’s a question: Chocolate City is: A) An album by the funk band Parliament and the lead track on the record. B) A term used by comedian Chris Rock, Cornel West, the mayor of New Orleans, La., and others to refer to a city with a predominantly black population and/or political leadership. C) The title of a new book by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. The answer is D) all of the above, but the term is used most recently in the title of Asch and Musgrove’s new book, which covers the complex history of race and democracy in the nation’s capital,
Starting with the early Native American population on the Anacostia River encountering Captain John Smith in 1608, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital moves quickly to 1790, when the history of Washington, DC, as a city begins with its designation and construction as the new nation’s capital. The chronicles of the next two centuries cover the efforts, victories, and backslides of the residents through two major recurring themes.
National divisions over race relations make up one of the central topics. This included not only black (enslaved or free) and white, but also other groups such as Irish, Hispanic, and other immigrants. There were economic distinctions between laborers and landholders. There were also complexities of status such as free blacks who were seized as runaway slaves and class distinctions between the elite, the rising middle class, and the poor.
The other issue that would plague DC specifically was Congress as the city’s local legislature. Residents would lose their right to vote in national elections under the Organic Act of 1800. (Women, black citizens, and any man who did not have property were already excluded.) The fights for voting rights, representation, and home rule occur throughout DC’s history, something that Chocolate City connects to political and economic motives based on race.
These two themes of race and democracy will play out in all areas that affect the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Although social and economic problems in the housing, education, and transportation sectors were experienced throughout the country, in DC citizens did not have a democratic process to choose their decision-makers in these matters.
In almost 500 pages (plus 130 pages of substantial references, an index, and footnotes), Chocolate City is, in short, an ambitious effort to present individual stories within the broad context of these wide-reaching events in American history.
American conflicts from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and both world wars, as well as major economic depressions all had impact on how American views of race and democracy were formed. Reading about how that affected people who lived in DC is at times painful because of the human suffering endured, and at other times joyful thanks to the progress achieved.
Although Southwest might be the smallest of the four quadrants of the city, from the very beginning it figured into DC’s history. Starting in the 1700s, Notley Young owned a plantation here on land that was definitely nothing like a swamp at the time. Today, L’Enfant Plaza has a memorial to Benjamin Banneker.
From 1800 to 1850, the quadrant would be the site the “Yellow House,” which was one of the most notorious slave pens in the region, with close proximity to the Wharf. From here, blacks—both runaway slaves and seized freed blacks—were shipped off for slave labor in the South.
From events preceding the Civil War to the post–Civil Rights era, the Southwest quadrant has strong connections to both local and national history. History is literally under our feet here where today residents can walk along the Wharf. Here on April 15, 1848, the schooner The Pearl, with fugitive blacks aboard, was returned to DC. Here most recently was placed a plaque for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black person appointed to the Supreme Court and a Southwest resident.
Although attempts at urban development are not unique to either Southwest or the entire city, there is something that was different about this area from the start.
Three different communities clustered: “black residents generally to the east of Four-and-a Half Street, native-born white residents to the west, and Jewish immigrants in between … the Irish, German, and English … lived in tightly knit neighborhoods that resembled the small towns of the old country. … Jews built two synagogues … and a family and community—oriented life reminiscent of an Eastern European shtetl. African-Americans lived in communal culture of extended family and church that harkened back to their roots in the rural South.” Chocolate City notes that “there might have been little social interaction but there was no rigid segregation that was evident in other urban neighborhoods.”
From 1950 to recent time, something happens in the narrative that I think many people will share. Not only do we know some of these names from the news, but some of the people in this history book were friends and neighbors. We know many of the stories here of the complicated relationship with Congress, the struggles with the city’s finances, and the rise and fall of our mayors. Chocolate City presents them both in proper historical context as well as individuals.
But far from being a string of local vignettes, these stories are a key piece in the larger history of the core meaning of American citizenship. To know how we got to this point, and what it took, makes this book most relevant toward viewing our future shared history, and takes the Chocolate City to another level, of not being just about one city, but a city created by Americans of all races to be their capital.
Copies of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital are available at Politics and Prose at The Wharf in the Black History Month book display.
By: Sheila Wickouski