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The Guide to Black Washington

Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria R. Goodwin (1999) 

Take a tour of the homes, institutions, and landmarks of African American historical significance in the nation’s capital with The Guide to Black Washington. Two local Washington, D.C. authors take readers from neighborhood to neighborhood, telling stories, describing the locations of events, and providing maps and walking tour guides. There are tales of struggle as well as uplifting stories of success and achievement, from Duke Ellington’s Washington beginnings; to Frederick Douglass, who bought his own freedom with his own earnings; to the story of the La Savage Beauty Clinic, founded by a young North Carolina woman who had arrived in Washington with “two twins and two cans of milk.”  

The Guide to Black Washington explores locations that are largely ignored during standard tours of the city. There is no marker at 909 M Street, N.W., where a lovely Second Empire-style home stands. This was the residence of Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, who was the first black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Similarly, there is no plaque on the LeDroit Park childhood home of another noteworthy African American Senator: Edward Brooke.  Before being elected as a Senator from Massachusetts, Brooke went to public schools in Washington during the era of segregation, and attended Howard University, the oldest black college in America.

There is also history on landmarks that are now long gone. Duff Green’s Row, an imposing row of five brick townhouses across the street from the east front of the Capitol at the current site of the Library of Congress, was a refuge for runaway slaves newly arrived in D.C. “During the first months of the Civil War, Washington was in chaos, swelling with troops, refugees, and runaway slaves. At that time slavery had not yet been abolished in the District and bounty hunters scoured the streets looking for fugitive slaves. . . . The military governor of the District . . . gathered over 400 of these new arrivals, most of whom were ill, hungry, and desperate, and sheltered them in the houses of Duff Green’s Row.”

Washington’s black neighborhoods have been called a “secret city,” a city separated from “official Washington” by segregation and discrimination. But as the authors point out, there has been a silver lining: “Forced to overcome the barriers imposed by segregation and discrimination, black Washingtonians created a vital social and economic culture within their carefully delineated neighborhoods. . . . [I]t is this legacy, this cultural, entrepreneurial, and artistic heritage, that this book seeks to illuminate.”