George Derek Musgrove, along with Chris Myers Asch, is co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. Musgrove is also an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and the author of Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America.
Q: Did you interview any Southwest residents for this project?
A: Although we did not interview many current residents, Southwest plays a central role in Chocolate City. From slavery on Notley Young’s plantation in the late 1700s to the interracial politics at Island Hall during Reconstruction to catastrophic urban renewal in the 1950s, Southwest has been the site of the most important developments in the city’s history.
Q: In Chocolate City, you discuss how the communities in the Southwest quadrant were different from the rest of the city.
A: Because of Southwest’s relative isolation from the rest of the city and its relative poverty compared to other quadrants, it developed its own culture and community. Racial segregation, for example, struggled to take root in the area even as it spread elsewhere in the city in the 20th century. United by class, Southwest residents shared many common experiences and developed interracial relationships that were rare in the more prosperous areas in the north of the city.
Q: As you know, The Wharf opened this past October. This was the site of The Pearl, a significant event in DC’s slave history. Now there is a plaque at The Wharf to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (who also lived in Southwest and whose wife is still a resident). Would you like to comment on this?
A: The city government and developers have rightly commemorated Southwest’s history in the new Wharf development, and many residents, old and new, have applauded these efforts.
As historians, we, too, applaud these efforts. We are concerned, however, that this same development often displaces the descendants of the historical actors it celebrates.
We have discussed this specific issue in The Washington Post blog post “Not gone, not forgotten: Struggling over history in a gentrifying D.C.”
Q: Because this area is growing with new apartments, is there anything you would like to point out to our most recent residents about the history that is literally here underneath their feet?
A: New residents should take time to learn the history of the area. The history of Southwest offers a cautionary tale about the supposed wisdom of “experts,” the power of developers, and the devastating impact that unrestrained development can have on communities. The Southwest we see in the early 21st century did not develop organically through two centuries of urban growth. Instead, it emerged suddenly in the decades after World War II as urban planners, developers, and politicians destroyed an entire community in order to “save” it.
By: Sheila Wickouski