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43 years ago today, DC stopped burning

April 8, 1968 marked the end of the riots in DC which began after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These riots changed many of the city's commercial corridors and neighborhoods forever.

Image from the Library of Congress.

On the last day of February 1968, a leap year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner released its report on the causes and implications of the riots that had previously touched sections of Los Angeles (1965), Chicago (1966), Newark, Detroit and even Anacostia in the summer of 1967.

"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal," was the famous edict of the Kerner Commission.

"I don't like to predict violence," Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. The mostly white crowd of 4,000 packed the cathedral and spilled onto the lawn, according to an article in The Washingtonian Magazine.

"But if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope," King continued, "I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year."

King was killed days later in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, April 4. Word spread quickly via radio and with Walter Cronkite's evening broadcast on the CBS Evening News.

By this time, Stokely Carmichael, in town working with Howard University students who had seized academic buildings in protest of the curriculum and other grievances, was walking along the U Street corridor asking businesses to close early in respect for Dr. King's death. Reportedly, a large crowd quickly gathered and a brick or a rock, an object that is still consequential today in the ramifications of its historical and residual impact on the city, was thrown through the window of the People's Drug Store at 14th & U Streets NW.

The city ignited with riots consuming 14th Street NW, U Street NW, H Street NE, 7th Street NW, downtown areas, and parts of what is now Historic Anacostia. The National Guard was called up by President Johnson to control the city and enforce the curfew. Browning .50 caliber machine guns were mounted on the steps of the US Capitol.

Mr. Henry's during the riots. Image from Sam Smith & ProRev.
In some of the first incarnations of DC graffiti, black owned business owners painted "Soul Brother" and other tags on their doors letting looters know that their business identified with the rage felt in the city streets.

They were reportedly 10 deaths, seven directly related to the violence, with more than 7,600 arrests mostly for looting. The city's 2,800 member police was mobilized along with more than 13,000 federal troops.

More than 1,200 fires burned during the four days of rioting resulting in estimated damages of more than $13 million according to the DC Redevelopment Land Agency.

With the romanticism that is sometimes expressed over the riots and the resulting demographic shift that branded DC "Chocolate City" in the 1970's it is intellectually and sociologically dishonest to not connect the changes that DC is still undergoing today as a major metropolis with the devastation that the city inflicted upon itself in April of 1968.

Decades later the memories of those fateful days have not faded for one 14th Street merchant whose mission is to not be forgotten and have his story heard by anyone who will listen.

With a city press corps and community members that often erroneously and shamelessly equate gentrification as a pestilence monolithically associated with race it must not be forgotten that DC is still recovering economically from the destruction of the 1968 riots. The roundabout blame game scenario many play for the city's changing ethnic composition, reflected in the latest Census figures, must take into account a major causality; the 1968 riots.

"When the smog lifted—especially, it seemed, on Sundays when automobile traffic was light—you could rediscover Washington the beautiful," wrote legendary DC activist and journalist Sam Smith.

On April 8th, 1968, the city's fires and rioting came under control. Today, the city continues to develop and become a desirable place to live for young professionals and families of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and walks of life who are indigenous to the city, now less inclined to move to Mitchellville or Gaithersburg, and newcomers who want to live within the city limits instead of Silver Spring or Vienna.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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John- I suspect that the economic decline of DC was at best accelerated by the riots. But more likely, the riots were just another symptom of what was already underway and what would continue for decades following the riots. DC's African-American urban decline was almost certainly the result of changes within the American economic system that made it harder for blacks to get jobs that kept them in the middle class, and incentivized not only white flight but the flight of anyone who could afford to leave the urban core. I have a hard time with you saying that DC's decline was self-inflicted not just because it sounds an awful lot like "DC was poor because of the black people rioting [which was understandable, but it means that they don't really deserve not to be pushed out by gentrification]", but also because it probably just isn't correct.

by almondwine on Apr 8, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

Great post.

That Mr. Henry's picture is a powerful image....

There are still a few burned-out shells in my neighborhood.

by andrew on Apr 8, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

A great post . . . until the last paragraph. Why does this have to be a city-vs-suburb issue? Even if the riots were only in the city limits, the ensuing middle-class flight hammered the inner suburbs (Silver Spring, Arlington, PG inside the Beltway, etc.) as well. And the region as a whole suffers when the core isn't doing well. A revived DC doesn't just mean people are living in DC rather than Silver Spring. (Arguably, rising housing prices mean lots of people who'd like to live in the city have to move elsewhere.) A revived DC means people select the DC region over other regions, whether they settle in the city or the suburbs. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say.

The name of this blog is Greater Greater Washington. That means recognizing that there isn't a big wall at Eastern Avenue and that rebirth (and decline) is not a zero-sum game.

by dan reed! on Apr 8, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

"""the riots and the resulting demographic shift that branded DC "Chocolate City" in the 1970's"""

This is a total myth that for some reason newcomers have conjured up and keep repeating.

DC white flight occurred immediately after the 1954 integration of DC schools. By 1955 most of the population of what is now the Gold Coast had moved to Montgomery County en masse and well before 1968 that process had completed through Columbia Heights, Northeast, and Hillcrest. The only exception was Georgetown which was headed the other way since the late '40's.

By 1968 DC was at it's worst and it was right after the riots that people started moving back in and renovating.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 8, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

I agree with almondwine.

Even here on GGW there was a link to a few stories about DC's changing demographics.

This graphic on NPR's site shows that whites were leaving DC starting in 1050s, 20 years before the riots:

Red-lining and discrimination were among the variety of tools used to undermine African Americans. Something I read recently discussed how DC's lack of home rule was also attributable to racism on the hill for fear of DC evolving into a black-run city state.

Great piece, but yes please, let's make sure we have our facts straight.

by MDE on Apr 8, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

newcomers newcomers newcomers. Can't get anything right (dang you Georgetown and your lack of metro).

by greent on Apr 8, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

Population loss continued for more than two decades. That fire did not stop burning until the Control Board put it out 27 years later.

by Read Scott Martin on Apr 8, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

I must have missed where this piece argued the riots were solely responsible for white flight. Clearly, this was not the case, and this article does not argue that at all.

There's more to it than just residency, too - there were plenty of small businesses in DC that closed up shop and/or decamped for the 'burbs after the riots. Even if the store owner left in the 50s, they still were part of the community in the 60s. Not so much after 1968. To the extent that we talk about remnants of the riots as a physical scar on the city (which is how I read the focus of this piece), the departure of stores to occupy the storefronts is far more important than the demographic shifts.

by Alex B. on Apr 8, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

@ Tom

I wasn't around in the 60's or 70's so I can only go off what I have heard and read and know. According to Census stats, and personal anecdotes, the late 60's/early 70's was when DC became officially a "majority" black city. OK, many whites left the city turning Central HS all white one year and all black the next, but according to strictly facts the late 1960's and 1970's is when city demographics empirically changed. There is a myth in here somewhere.

@ dan reed!

You're right. The revitilization of "Silver Sprung" over the past two decades is not mutally exclusive from the redevelopement of DC's core over the same period. This is not a Ride-On-Bus versus a Metro Bus issue. There is fluid movement back and forth and it benefits the entire 202-703-301-240-571 area.


DC was a very segregated city from what I have heard and read and know. Control of the city by Southern Democrats notwithstanding DC had a well established black middle class and intelligentsia which was layered on top of a lower class, much as it is today. An older friend of mine who is very much from the DC black middle class (attended a private school in Maryland and a private university in the city – not Howard) told me many years ago that people rioted because a loaf of bread at the corner store was a quarter more than what it cost at the grocery store. So there was a lot of hostility and resentment on the ground, which is recognized and understood, but hard to justify destroying your own city. I have heard many say that and I agree. Similar to when Union troops during the Civil War where approaching Richmond and the Confederates burned the city in advance of their arrival. That destruction was also self-inflicted, right or wrong.

by John Muller on Apr 8, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

@Tom C:

...DC white flight occurred immediately after the 1954 integration of DC schools. By 1955 most of the population of what is now the Gold Coast had moved to Montgomery County en masse...

This is a point that doesn't get made often enough. And this is especially true in the DC Metro area, but "the suburbs" in general are a way to get around Brown vs BOE. The explosive growth of the suburbs didn't really take place until the end of Jim Crow. The rich-suburbs, poor-cities model was a way of decoupling the wealthy from their responsibility to the poor.

That's why it's so galling when suburbanites look back over their shoulder and tut-tut over how DCPS or CFSA can't get its act together.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

The riots exacerbated urban commercial district decline in numerous ways:

-Insurance rates soared for businesses in the area.
-Businesses without insurance suffered inventory that was destroyed or stolen.
-Customers do not like shopping in commercial districts with abandoned buildings, riot police, and reduced retail options.
-Store owners who reopened had to raise prices to compensate for rebuilding, higher insurance, lost merchandise, and reduce patronage. They were often accused of "price gouging" in riot-torn neighborhoods.

Certainly these things can be overcome, but when there are so many incentives for a business to decamp to the suburbs rather than re-open, it's easier to understand the disinvestment that occurred.

by Eric Fidler on Apr 8, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

@ greent

Thanks for the link. Myth busted.

by John Muller on Apr 8, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

... with the devastation that the city inflicted upon itself in April of 1968.

Interesting choice of words. People who loot and kill and burn are criminals, killers, and arsonists. It wasn't "Washington doing it to Washington". It was criminals, killers, and arsonists preying on Washington. These criminals, killers, and arsonists lost all rights to call themselves Washingtonians when they turned to looting, killing, and arson Washingtonians.

Let's not whitewash history.

by Lance on Apr 8, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport


Good point and important distinction.

by John on Apr 8, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

I wonder if that is the same Mr. Henry's that used to sneak us upstairs to drink when we were all underage in high school. The good old days, and electromax ID and you thought you were bullet proof.

by Tim on Apr 8, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport


How is saying that people rioted in their own city "whitewashing history?" Seems to me that claiming otherwise would be the whitewash.

by MLD on Apr 8, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

These folks must have missed that mythical white flight memo, Census or no Census.

by WhiteDCDudeWhoLeftAfterTheRiots on Apr 8, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport


The chart you cite is yet another example of where you have to know the things that happened when. The censuses of 1950 thru 1980 you cite show that from 1950 to 1960 172K whites left. That was almost entirely from 1954 to 1960. From 1960 to 1970 135K whites left mostly in the 8 1/2 years before the riots. From 1970, immediately after the riots, to 1980 the loss was only 34K whites but 100K "blacks" left.

So some 300K whites left mostly after the 1954 school integration but before the riots and 34K left afterwards. Clearly the white population had stabilized by the time of the riots but the "black" mass exodus followed the riots immediately.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 8, 2011 4:14 pm • linkreport

@MLD, Collectivizing the crimes that occured as if all members of society were somehow responsible for them is whitewashing what happened. First off, we can probably say there wasn't 'one Washington'. There were, at least 2 Washingtons, a black Washington and a white Washington. Furthermore trying to say that the looters, killers, and arsonists who took advantage of the situation to do their criminal acts somehow 'were a part of' either of these Washingtons is not only historically incorrect, but offensive to all the good Washingtonians of the time ... black or white. The people who did these acts were criminals out to cause mayhem or steal. And they didn't discriminate between black and white in their bad deeds. Theirs were crimes of convenience ... hence why most of the parts of the city that burned were the parts where under segregation the stores were by and large owned by African-Americans and operated for African-Americans. And it is the African-American community in Washington who suffered the worst consequences of the actions of these criminals.

by Lance on Apr 8, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

...The "black" mass exodus followed the riots immediately.

It would be interesting to see what impediments to black, middle-class suburban homeownership fell at that time, since there was a lot of movement on the civil rights from '68 on.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

From the "things I thought I knew" files:

One could make a compelling case that the black middle class left the city post-1968 because of landmark legislation ending housing discrimination unlocked the gates to the ghetto.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 4:21 pm • linkreport

Wait, so Marion Barry wasn't at fault here? :)

by HogWash on Apr 8, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport


I remember reading that there was actually another factor in play in all this moving around ... and that is that there wasn't really one black Washington but two black Washingtons. Washington had always been a refuge for African-Americans of means ... including those who were the result of unions between southern white aristocrats and their servants. These emigrees through the decades had brought considerable wealth with them to Washington ... and with that wealth had created a somewhate seperate class of blacks within black society where cotillions were the norm and having servants was not a priviledge but a right. And that by 1968 all that was changing because the Civil Rights legislation had started to empower all blacks, and not just those who had the means to work around segregation, to participate more fully in the political and economic scene. The 60s were the time of the afro and the 'black is beautiful' movement where someone like Marion Barry, a sharecroppers son (or something like that) could come up from the deep south and be part of the new black upper class taking the place of this other hereditary black upper class. ... I don't know for a fact, but I'd suspect that the black exodus following the riots somehow intertwined with these changes power shifts. Anyone know?

by Lance on Apr 8, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

Based on the provided links, I'm having a hard time understanding how they (links) reinforce the belief that a major player in DC's recovery is the riots of 43yrs past.

I would think that the crack epidemic and violence of the 80's 90's had quite a bit to do w/it as well.

by HogWash on Apr 8, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

Wait, so Marion Barry wasn't at fault here?

I've always given Barry credit where due: the Fair Housing Act meant that those who could afford to took off for the 'burbs post-1968. Barry's contribution was that he maximized the number of available middle-class city jobs for those who stayed behind.

Those middle-class incomes made it possible for them to buy houses, etc... Incidentally, someone who got a decent job, and had a family in the early 70s would have seen their kids graduating from high school in the late-80s to early-90s. Which means these empty-nesters would have been looking to downsize or move elsewhere at just the time the next generation of young folks started buying: in the mid-nineties.

But there's really nothing to "fault" Barry for--other than being a dinosaur who no longer is relevant to the current set of the city's problems.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 4:45 pm • linkreport

I don't know for a fact, but I'd suspect that the black exodus following the riots somehow intertwined with these changes power shifts. Anyone know?

Although I am not a tenured professor of history, the fact that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed in, well, 1968 (and went into effect presumably in 1969) seems highly relevant. That from 1970-1980 100k blacks left the city seems pretty good circumstantial evidence that the city's black population merely did the same thing that its white population did, which is to move to the suburbs as soon as it was legally possible.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

But there's really nothing to "fault" Barry for--other than being a dinosaur who no longer is relevant to the current set of the city's problems.

And you know what, to the extent that Barry represents any sort of threat, your post sums it up. It really is why I roll my eyes each time I hear people complain about Barry. Heck, when I hear people complaining and then see him shuffling around in Giant, I just smh and say this is much ado about nothing

I also have one quibble with your post, I agree that some blacks may have left for some of the reasons whites did. However, I don't agree with your suggestion that whites (like blacks) decided to move when it became legally possible.

by HogWash on Apr 8, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

In my interactions with people who had participated in the riots, I came to the conclusion that a lot of it was generated by a sense of abandonment, because by this time people who had choices either white or black had left the city or could leave the city, while the people who couldn't were stuck, with the Southern Congressional overlords, etc. Tons of rage, etc. Then bam, King is dead, and there was a great loss of hope.

Yes, the city was already in decline in its commercial districts because of suburbanization. But the riots accelerated tremendously this decline over 3 days, as cited above. Most store owners never reopened (e.g., the Larry Rosen story) or relocated (Chuck Levin) etc. As of 2000 or so, when I got involved heavily on H Street stuff, there was no question that the commercial district there still suffered greatly as a result of the riots and further outmigration.

HOWEVER, at the Bisnow Real Estate conference in Fairfax County in March, Doug Jemal argued that the riots didn't screw up DC retail especially downtown, that it was the construction of the Metro system, which f*ed up the road network for many years. (I wasn't around then, but I remember the impact on U Street NW, which was considerable.)

I don't see it, at least with the decline of the department stores, because most of the independents died virtually everywhere else across the country (not the ones owned by Allied, Federated or May, and some of the other companies like Dayton-Hudson or Marshall Fields).

Still, that's a question I mean to pose to people.

All those other things (Fair Housing, etc.) contributed to further flight, while there continued to be groups of people (the historic preservationists/urban pioneers) committed to urban living.

by Richard Layman on Apr 8, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

Barry sat on his hands and did nothing during the crack epidemic (other than tolerate). Also, the black middle class moved (largely) to PG County during his terms because they (rightfully) blamed his administrations for not dealing effectively with the violence.

While all cities had crack problems, DC had the worst crack problem in the country. Not because there was more wealth or poverty, but because of a more permissive culture.

by ahk on Apr 8, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

lol, oh wait, nevermind. Barry was responsible for the crack epidemic.

Since I wasn't here, I wonder what he didn't do..that he should stave off the results of crack and impending violence that it wrecks.

by HogWash on Apr 8, 2011 5:34 pm • linkreport

oboe/ Lance

Certainly I think the Fair Housing Act of 1968 immediately enabled many African-Americans who wanted to move to the suburbs and had the means to do so to leave.

But the white flight was clearly from 1954 (when there were traffic jams of moving vans up 16th Street) through the early 60's.


The crack epidemic irrationally was when the "back-to-the city" movement really picked up steam. In the 80's a majority of the people around my house at any one time were smoking and/or looking for crack. And we longed for the good old days when 14th was infested with heroin and they were quiet and just nodded off. But every other house on the block was being renovated.

BTW, Barry, often hinted that he was responsible for the first Molotov at 14th and U.(I don't believe that). He and Mary Treadwell then headquartered their Pride, Inc. a block away.

In fact only a small portion of 14th NW, entirely above U, was affected by the riots. The riots centered mostly on 7th Street, NW and H Street, NE. Hence the troops at the Capitol. The old buildings south of U on 14th were ravaged by developers eager to tear down what they could before historic designation and assemble parcels.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 8, 2011 5:47 pm • linkreport

@Tom: twas a pleasure providing - I was looking at the stats this afternooon - and came up with the same - that most whites left between 1950 and 1960 census.. but more then left between the 60 and 70 census.

interesting to note that white flight out was black flight in during the same period.

interesting also if there is data on the consumer side of it that @Eric brought up above.

by greent on Apr 8, 2011 5:59 pm • linkreport

My apologies for coming off as a newcomer and not being more erudite about the demographic shifts in DC post-WWII as well as the definitive point when the city's commercial corridors began to decline. A simpleton I cannot claim ignorant of the drastic racial changes following Brown v. Board. Yearbooks and conversations reveal that Roosevelt (where Celtics legendary coach Red Auerbach coached), Central, Anacostia, etc where all-white and then all-black within a matter of 12-48 months. That drastic change in the ethnicity of the city's pop. is reflected in
the Census facts cited in an above post and happened before 1968. Readers and posters are no pushovers and I didn't mean to make a misinformed prouncement regarding the city's branding as "Chocolate City." Rise of black power as a form/theme of indentity politics is a calculated phenomenon that led to the rise of Marion Barry in a city that one singer sang about as being a buogie (sic) city. Class divisions in the city within the black community are well documented going back to before Civil
War with the city's slave and freed populations. In James Weldon Johnson's ( author of "Lift Every Voice") turn of the century book, "Diary of an Ex-Colored Man" he makes some interesting observations about class and race in DC that are eerily familar to Dave Chapelle's skit about a baby on the corner at night selling weed. Please forgive any speculation and conjencture about times and places which I am too young to have smelled and tasted for myself.

All in all the DC Metro area is the greatest area of the world and everything in the past is important to the future of the region. Thanks everyone for the great discussion.

Interesting about Jemal's take. My father was in DC for a couple years in the early 70's and he says that the streets were being torn up all over the place downtown. "The Great Societ Subway" takes about the construction. Look at the streetcar construct on H Street over past 3 years or so to see how it has impacted day-time businesses.

by John M on Apr 8, 2011 6:17 pm • linkreport


Thanks again for the chart.

The African-American influx of the '50's and very early '60's was southerners moving to DC for economic advancement that the civil rights laws readily provided here. The federal government provided a lot of new jobs especially. Before that there had been a steady stream of them coming to escape the intolerable conditions in the south. Many were from the Carolinas. Barry was from Mississippi.

I think a lot of stores closed or didn't re-open because their traditional customers had fled to the suburbs before '68 and they were already struggling.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 8, 2011 6:31 pm • linkreport

Brown v Board or not, the decrease in white population was on the way, no? White school enrollment had peaked in the 1930's and by the late 40's it had been surpassed the black enrollment...only a matter of time before the same pattern was reflected in the overall population.

My impression is that while white flight was mostly finished by 1968, the riots did have a major impact in clearing out the remaining white enclaves in SE DC.

by alexandrian on Apr 8, 2011 6:33 pm • linkreport

Interesting, if 2800 police were plenty in 1968 and nowadays as the force plummets toward 3800 everybody is in a panic.

by Turnip on Apr 8, 2011 7:16 pm • linkreport

John M

What you said in the article is probably what 99% of people believe and every time it's repeated makes it closer to being the "truth" and the facts irrelevant. History has a way of being rewritten to please the writers. (I know that was not your intent, but you got suckered in).

It's much more comforting to people to justify their own families moving because of the violence of the riots rather than the embarrassing real reason that the dates show. Washingtonians mostly had the financial resources that caused the ridiculously rapid flight that took much longer in other cities.


I'm don't know a lot about SE. I know there was a large navy complex there through WWII that closed and the few whites left in parts were pretty poor and became derided as the "Oxon Hillbillies" later, maybe after they moved across the DC line. Wealthy Hillcrest was one of the last bastions and I suspect many were, as now, DC government officials. Or maybe I'm rewriting history myself.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 8, 2011 7:39 pm • linkreport

Hillcrest really didn't change until the early 70s (friends of the family lived there). Shepherd Park was already establishing itself as a determindly integrated community. Capital Hill's slow gentrification was already underway. The riots interrupted the return of Adams-Morgan, but Dupont Circle was beginning to gentrify and Cleveland Park and Woodley Park had already re-established themselves as desirable areas (in the late 50s, one couldn't get a conventional mortgage in Cleve Park). SW was undergoing its transformation (and becoming whiter), but accounted for rather few people relative to the rest of the city. DC continued to lose white families (replaced by singles and childless couples) and the black middle class was already starting to move to the suburbs, but the racial geography of 1968 was not much different from what I encountered when I first came here in 1990. The major difference were the Hispanic enclaves which had their roots in much smaller ones that were established decades ago in the 16th Street corridor.

The riots touched parts of the old CBD and hastened its decline, but it's likely that Metro construction, which came a little later, would have been a death knell, anyway. The streets were all ripped up. Most of SE was always more working class and culturally Southern than the rest of the city.

by Rich on Apr 8, 2011 9:55 pm • linkreport

Trying to blame the loss of retail on Metro is rich. Maybe Metro construction delivered a final blow for many stores, but that's only because they had already taken quite a beating from the riots.

Nor does the Metro case explain the retail decline in a place like H St, which had plenty of rioting but no Metro construction.

by Alex B. on Apr 8, 2011 10:56 pm • linkreport


Anacostia High had 407 white students in 1966 and 18 by 1970. I gather that the numbers for Ballou were similar. Both had been majority-white as late as 1963. The proportion of whites in the schools was generally lower than the proportion of whites in the general population. The trend was definitely underway already, but the remaining whites cleared out quickly after 1968.

John M:

Central High went from all-white to all-black because it was closed and the building given to Cardozo when segregation was still in effect.

by alexandrian on Apr 9, 2011 1:45 am • linkreport

Alex B -- while I agree with you about Jemal's take, there is a Washington Star photo from Dec. 1968 that seemingly shows a thriving F Street:


I thought it was interesting what Jemal said. On the other hand, he said the most important thing for developers was to keep building ("Build, build, build!") on spec.

Oh and about claiming about throwing the first firebomb, it's commonly understood that it was a group of people with Stokely Carmichael. I've heard people other than Barry claim to be the first to have thrown one. Although I asked this person afterwards about it more directly, and he backed down from the claim...

by Richard Layman on Apr 9, 2011 7:03 am • linkreport

@Richard, I'd tend to agree with your view that it wasn't the Metro that killed downtown Washington in the 70s but rather the national trend of stores moving to the suburbs (where the people who had the money to buy stuff had already moved) ... and more specifically to enclosed malls or other areas wholly on private properties where security could be better provided.

I was very young but I remember the feeling at the time as we entered the 70s was that cities were a dangerous place filled with dangerous people. The nightly newscasts showed nothing but bad things happening in cities ... drugs ... rioting ... muggings ... killings. The trend was such that even the Main Street (and downtown area) of the town where I grew up lost its customers to malls that were much further away for most of us.

I guess it was also a period of stores getting bigger ... and more regional in scope. Retail hadn't yet reached the point where niche markets made sense economically .... It was still all 'economies of scale ... and that meant the larger surfaces which the suburbs could better provide ... And the need for adequate parking. And that leads to another definite cause of the demise of downtown retail ... a very real lack of parking in most downtown areas. We've done a good job of addresses that in Washington in the intervening years, but if the GGW folks have their way, we could see a reversal in this area.

As for Marion Barry ... if he's really claiming he threw a molotov cocktail that causes fires, why isn't he being held accountable for this? He really should serve jail time if he did this.

by Lance on Apr 9, 2011 9:45 am • linkreport

I think the writer is just reading the history of DC and the riots, what is missing is the actual accounts of what was going on in the city. True the area had declined and the business owners were of another color, coupled with some serious racism, the area exploded. DC was and still is a very racist southern city, the riots were just an outlet for yrs of oppression. Things have not changed that much, the area is prettier but things are still the same.

by Bud on Apr 9, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

"DC was and still is a very racist southern city". DC didn't have Jim Crow laws until Woodrow Wilson imposed them, even though Congresspeople from Virginia had much sway on the DC Commission. Much of NW was filled in by migrants from places like New England (e.g., Mt Pleasant) and also had classic European immigrant neighborhoods---Jewish neighborhoods in the 7th St/Georgia corridor, Irish and German in G'towm, Irish & Italian near CUA. DC is more like B'more than many people would want to admit and far different from most Southern cities.

There is more mixing and less paranoia here about race than in Atlanta (a classically feudal Southern city despite having many Yankee transplants) or Nashville (a place that is a bit more truly moderate but more classically Southern than ATL)--I've lived in both. I've also done work in very traditionally Southern places like the Mississippi Delta. DC has long been a border town and its transition to a very cosmopolitan metropolitan area owes something to not being like cities of the Deep South like Atlanta or even some cities in border states like Nashville (which prospered after its early fall during the Civil War as a garrison town and had had considerable but not dominant pro-Union sentiment). The racial history of DC included checkerboard patterns of neighborhoods--Brookland had Black and White sections (divided by Monroe St, I believe), as did parts of Capitol Hill, present day Adams-Morgan, Southwest and much of the area S of the Anacostia. School segregation provided social segregation under those conditions. Residential segregation broke down because of post-WWII GI Bill & FHA mortgage codes that favored new construction in the suburbs and the striking down of restrictive covenants in deeds in 1948. Restrictive covenants had limited where Blacks could buy,, as well as Jews, Greeks, Armenians, etc. The long-term Jewish settlement in areas of Ward 3 reflected areas where Jewish developers had bought land in unbuilt areas and could pass it down w/o those covenants.

by Rich on Apr 9, 2011 7:10 pm • linkreport

Rich, thanks for that interesting analysis of DC history. I too have lived in Atlanta as well as in Philly, Brooklyn and now in DC. I never quite understood why DC was lumped as a Southern city when it is geographically quite close to all the other Northeastern cities. It's been proposed to me that the lack of ethnic (Irish/Italian/German/Jewish) neighborhoods today (that can still be found in Boston and New York) plays a part in this perception. But then you mention that those neighborhoods did exist in DC. Why did they disappear but remain in Baltimore, Philly, NY, etc.?

I feel DC's dense infrastructure, the architecture and the liberal politics also place DC firmly in Northern territory. Not to mention we're only hours away from New York by train/car/bus. I cannot emphasize how bored I was with Atlanta and its obsession with Southern history, the Civil War and racial dynamics.

by Simon Harcourt on Apr 10, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport

All this talk of white flight being in response to Brown v. Board is missing what created the suburbs of today: The Interstate Highway System and the subsidization of cars and parking. Add in a healthy dose of The Great American Streetcar Scandal for extra measure:

In the early-to-mid 20th century, cities sucked, especially after cars began infesting them and streetcar lines were dismantled. Cities had terrible environmental issues that weren't addressed until the 1970s with the EPA. It's not like cities were pleasant places to live and people just left because of racism.

Rather, people with the means decided left with the governments tacit support. Due to racist policies, the people with the means to leave at that time were overwhelmingly white.

Certainly racism played a role in why some people left cities, but don't underestimate how crappy American cities -- especially industrial ones -- were in the 20th century. The suburbs offered an opportunity for people to escape all the real ills of the city. Now that we have taken care of many of the ills of cities -- especially the terrible environmental issues that used to plague cities -- we are seeing a rebirth of cities.

I'm from Cleveland. Our river was once on fire due to pollution. If you had enough money to decamp to the suburbs back when that happened, it was wise to do so.

No one should live in a place so polluted that water catches on fire.

It's certainly a lot sexier to say that people left cities due to racism, but ignoring all of the mayor issues that affected our cities -- and still affect many today -- is ignorant.

by Patrick Thornotn on Apr 10, 2011 6:59 pm • linkreport

@Patrick, note that not being an industrial city, Washington didn't have the kinds of problems of which you speak. Washington may have just followed the trend other cities were setting, but like the other cities of the South, it wasn't industrial polution that anyone was fleeing here.

by Lance on Apr 10, 2011 10:49 pm • linkreport

@Lance: "When the smog lifted—especially, it seemed, on Sundays when automobile traffic was light—you could rediscover Washington the beautiful," wrote legendary DC activist and journalist Sam Smith.

In all US cities, even the white ones, people were trying to escape due to air pollution. When I was a kid in a small and basically white northern city, families wanted to move "out" because of this. Racism was not a factor.

You are reminded of improved cars are today when you smell an old one. Wow. Worse, they all burned leaded gas.

by goldfish on Apr 11, 2011 9:25 am • linkreport


Agreed. The inner suburbs as well went into decline. I'm not sure about the author's feeling about Silver Spring, despite the fact that Silver Spring (and other inner 'urban' suburbs like Wheaton) are quite walkable, quite dense (more so than a lot of parts of DC), and have a better retail/commercial mix, real diversity (integrated, not circumstantial or temporary), and middle class families that are invested in the city.

by AA on Apr 11, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport

@Goldfish, Agreed that the polution from cars has been eliminated ... But I read Patrick's post to be referring to pollution from factories ... which was a much worse problem in the northeast than here in the south where the prevailing winds didn't bring in the pollution of the mid-west (e.g. Gary Indiana ... for those of you who remember) and where there really was no homegrown polluting industry to speak of closer than Baltimore (where the prevailing winds also didn't come toward here.)

You'll have to tell me more about Sam Smith ... but given how small the DC metro area was back then, I'd have a hard time seeing how car pollution alone could have made it uninhabitable back in '68. I remember DC back in 77 ... and at that time the suburbs barely went past the beltway and rush hour lasted ... for one hour ... (okay, maybe an hour and a half).

by Lance on Apr 11, 2011 12:01 pm • linkreport

The "smog" is from the flames of the burning buildings and stores that blanketed parts of the city. When these areas stopped burning the "smog" cleared. That's they way I take what Sam was saying.

by John Muller on Apr 11, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

@Goldfish, Agreed that the polution from cars has been eliminated ...

While I remember: This is one of the reasons I find the argument that "traffic calming" will result in a net increase in emissions. Don't care. Nothing times a million is nothing. The threat to urban public safety--and quality of life--in the 21st century is speeding and other forms of negligent driving, not auto emissions.

by oboe on Apr 11, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport

@oboe, please don't be so quick to dismiss air quality from auto exhaust as a threat to human health and life

by Tina on Apr 11, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport


Thanks, that's interesting. I'd love to see emissions broken down by source. I wonder how much of the contribution was from diesel buses and very old cars (especially in 1996, when the survey was done). Also, it's my understanding that the deep south has almost no emissions inspection regime like we do in the Northeast (which is why you always see these car-trailers filled with junkers heading down 95 and 81).

by oboe on Apr 11, 2011 1:02 pm • linkreport

@oboe, those studies are out there. We still have so many orange and red air quality days in DC based on ozone that there is no way we can pretend auto emissions even here are not a problem.

by Tina on Apr 11, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

I thought this was interesting as well:

"BACKGROUND: Disproportionate life stress and consequent physiologic alteration (i.e., immune dysregulation) has been proposed as a major pathway linking socioeconomic position, environmental exposures, and health disparities. Asthma, for example, disproportionately affects lower-income urban communities, where air pollution and social stressors may be elevated.

OBJECTIVES: We aimed to examine the role of exposure to violence (ETV), as a chronic stressor, in altering susceptibility to traffic-related air pollution in asthma etiology."

"CONCLUSIONS: We found an association between traffic-related air pollution and asthma solely among urban children exposed to violence. Future studies should consider socially patterned susceptibility, common spatial distributions of social and physical environmental factors, and potential synergies among these. Prospective assessment of physical and social exposures may help determine causal pathways and critical exposure periods."

Also, there was an interesting article in The New Yorker a week or two ago about the connection between long-term negative physical and mental outcomes and stressors related to poverty (i.e. domestic violence, home instability, etc, etc...)

We're really only starting to see how these various environmental justice issues fit together.

by oboe on Apr 11, 2011 1:09 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure how this got turned into a pollution discussion but so be it.

I know most here think that there's a conspiracy between the American Lung Association and the Texas Highway Institute to portray DC as polluted but it's true. We repeatedly are rated the second most ozone polluted area in the country and the second most congested area in the country.

Ozone is the worst type pollution exactly because it's invisibly small and gets deep into lungs. Unlike old industrial cities where you had to wash your car more often and clothes on outdoor lines came in dirtier than before washing, ozone creeps up on a person through prolonged exposure. Living is DC is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and shortens life by 5 years on average.

But hey, we can't see it so lets ignore it and besides it's bad PR.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 2:03 am • linkreport

This is the most intelligent comment discussion I have ever read period. Thank you everybody who commented whether in agreement or not everyone was respectful.

by Tylene on Mar 8, 2014 8:06 am • linkreport

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