By Karida Green
Welcome to the house on the corner! Living Classrooms Foundation – National Capital Region, James C. Dent House Community Center in Southwest Washington is a District Landmark in Black history here in Washington, DC. The Dent House was designated a DC Landmark by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board in 2010.
More than a century ago, Reverend James C. Dent commissioned and built this two-story brick house on the corner of 2nd and Q Streets SW, where our community center is now located.
James Clinton Dent was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland in July 1855 and presumably gained his freedom when Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. In the 1870s, he came to Washington, one of tens of thousands of Blacks who migrated to the capital after the Civil War looking to create a new life. He found shelter in what they called “the Island” in Southwest Washington (it was cut off from the rest of the city by the Washington and James Creek canals) he married, and worked as a laborer. According to the 1880 census, he could read but not write.
In 1885 his wife Mary, a member of Southwest’s Rehoboth Baptist Church, was part of a group of twenty-six worshippers who broke away to establish a new congregation that they named Mt. Moriah. Ten months later, the founding pastor moved on and thirty-year-old James Dent stepped in as minister, a position he held until his death 22 years later. He successfully built up the church membership and took Mt. Moriah from meeting in someone’s home to constructing and paying off a substantial church building near 2nd and M Streets SW.
Reverend Dent secured a personal mortgage in 1906 and bought a large corner lot for himself four blocks south of his church, just across James Creek from the US Army War College. He commissioned a leading White architect, William James Palmer, to design a freestanding, two-story brick house. Most of Palmer’s work was in Northwest Washington, and that very year, the Washington Post praised his homes in Mt. Pleasant for their “architectural beauty, stability, and refinement of taste.” Although the Dent house was far from grand, it was the foremost brick home in the largely empty area scattered with shacks and small wood-frame houses.
Sadly, Reverend Dent did not get to enjoy his beautiful new home for long, as he passed away in 1908. With no children, his widow Mary took in boarders to stay in the house for several years after his death. Reverend Dent’s legacy lives on, however, in the still vibrant Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which moved to Capitol Hill when the federal government bought and razed the church building during the urban renewal of the Southwest neighborhood.
Today, what was formerly known as the Southwest Community House evolved into the James C. Dent House. It is the home for our College and Career Readiness, Workforce Development, STEAM Education, Art Education, Environmental Education and Kingman Island programs that service Southwest DC as well as Wards 5, 7, and 8. Here at the Dent House, we host community organizations for training and meeting space. We have a Dress for Success and Food Pantry program for DC residents. Our community center strives to preserve the legacy of Reverend James Dent, a man born into slavery who became a well-known minister.
The last thirty years of that important work were conducted from Reverend Dent’s home at 156 Q Street SW, after which Pepco bought and renovated the old building and offered a long-term lease to Living Classrooms to continue its long and honorable tradition of service. It is still remembered fondly by many neighborhood residents.
Living Classrooms Foundation is very proud to be walking in the footsteps of Reverend Dent and some of the nation’s most prominent Black Americans of the early 20th century. We are working hard every day to carry on their historic legacy in our Southwest Washington neighborhood. Our community partners are Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), United Planning Organization, Good Projects, Metropolitan Police Department, PEPCO, Southwest Business and Improvement District, Department of Employment Services, Department of Energy and Environment, to name a few.
For more information on Living Classrooms’ programs at the Dent House and elsewhere in the DC area, visit livingclassrooms.org or contact Karida Green at 202-488-0627 or kgreen@Livingclassroomsdc.org.