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Home of the 'father of black history' should be restored

Carter G. Woodson is often known as the "father of black history" due to his contributions to African American scholarship. His historic home on 9th Street, NW sits vacant and unused, but the National Park Service owns and could restore it.

Woodson house. Photo by Google.

In 1912 Woodson became the second black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. His industrious scholarship led to the founding of multiple academic journals that are still published today. He prepared many of his most important works from his home at 1538 9th Street, NW, where he lived from 1922 to 1950.

The house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, but according to the Washington Post such designation "brought little more than a plaque on the facade." The decaying property remained accessible to squatters and vagrants until 2005, when NPS bought the home.

The same Post article notes that "the Park Service figured that renovation and development of exhibits and a visitors center would cost $2.9 million and that the historic site, which could draw 10,000 to 30,000 visitors annually, would cost about $100,000 a year to operate."

But where's the money?

The Park Service's plans identify community partners and charitable organizations as potential supporters. Possible partners might include the University of Virginia's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American & African Studies, the African American Experience Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library's Black Studies Division, and sponsors of the $1oo million Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Some organizations could help by lending their support in name only, while others could help to raise capital.

One important partner may be the Shiloh Baptist Church, which sits at the corner of 9th and P, NW on the same block as the Woodson home. The church has been an important center of social services for decades, but it has also not always been a good neighbor. The church owns several vacant properties in the area, and is sometimes called a slumlord.

The good news is that the Omega Psi Phi fraternity recently made a $5,000 donation towards renovations at the Woodson home. Unfortunately, while generous in ceremony and sentimentality, $5,000 is akin to the ceremonial first pitch at the beginning of a baseball game. First pitches start the game, but don't impact the game played or the final score. The Woodson house will need millions more.

Meanwhile, the Woodson house and the 1500 block of 9th Street wait. The house has the potential to become an important destination for cultural tourism and education, but it needs funding. How long will it be before there is serious movement? Hopefully, where there's a will, a way will follow.

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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The Park Service once again screwing DC residents! They (and Shiloh) should be ashamed. Beautiful properties and one as significant as this one sitting vacant and contributing nothing to the community. Looks like they both should sell to responsible developers who will put these buildings back to use for us to enjoy.

by Logan Res on Aug 4, 2011 11:08 am • linkreport

NPS told the community a few years ago they needed TEN YEARS to "study" the property. Between them and shiloh, that blighted block is maddening.

by Si Kailian on Aug 4, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

I agree this is an important historical location and deserves investment. But the same thing could be said about many NPS properties, and they don't have enough money to operate effectively right now.

It's wrong to pin the blame for this on the Park Service. Their budget's been targeted for years and it's not going to get any better with the debt deal that was just agreed to.

In a recent report on NPS, the National Parks Conservation Association cites, "a general lack of sufficient staff and funds to care for and interpret park resources." This isn't a DC problem or an issue with this house. It's a struggle for funds that permeated everything at NPS for years. Blaming the Park Service for this is just ignorant.

Blame Congress and the White House, not NPS. They're just the victim in this battle.

by B on Aug 4, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

How about Howard University? The house just sits a few blocks from one of the country's most prestigious historically black colleges. I know that funding all around (and with the recent debt deal will be even harder to come by) is scarce, but you would think that Howard and its donors would be interested in supporting a site so close to the school.

by John on Aug 4, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

I don't mean to lay the blame at the foot of any one specific door. As you mention, the problem of the home's vacancy and idleness is larger than the NPS. I know NPS is backlogged tens/hundreds of millions of differed maintenance/other costs across the country. That is why I tried to make/identify some potential partners.

In all honesty, I have my own bias. To keep it simple, I think the heavenly spirit of the author of "The Mis-Education of the Negro" isn't surprised his house is vacant today and has been for decades. If you read his book this is what he talked about.

For all of DC's "nationalism" around Emancipation Day and other events, I lay the blame at a people in positions of influence and means who don't know or rather don't care about their history.

That stings, but somebody has to say it. If $100 million can be raised for the MLK memorial, I can't believe that a city-wide/nationwide collaborative effort can't put this house into use as a place of scholarship and cultural activity that impacts the young men and women of our communities that walk around with no sense of place, purpose, or history.

The new (re-opened) African-American Civil War Museum a short walk from the house is an amazing testament to black folk. When I went there the other day the common thread was “pride” repeated over and over again. A people without a history are lost, that is what Carter Goodwin Woodson said throughout his life and his life’s work was to honor and celebrate a history that had been vacant.

I am not idealistic. I have been out here too long to be so. But I think if there was a real will – from somewhere – something could get done. It would take lots of money and the right management, vision, and dedication to make it work.

Maybe to say the house should be restored is too idealistic. But it’s the right thing to do.

In the city what's more important to fund -- job training, emergency rental assistance, social services, or the restoraion of a home of a man who affirmed the strength of character, spirit, and intellect of black folks?

We have a black president, right, but ain't a damn thing change in the neighborhood.

And we wonder why these young people out here have madness on their minds.

I think Carter G. Wodson would understand 'Pac -->

by John on Aug 4, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

@John - Howard University is not what it used to be not that it ever was. Individual students help the city but the institution does nothing for the city. There is no sense of service or conection with the city. At their freshmen orienttations they tell students to not mingle with the "DC people." Also, who funds HBCUs? Alumni, not so much. The Feds. George Bush increased funding to HBCUs and then when President Obama won all the buppies went down to the WH and chanted "NA-NA-NA-NA HEY-HEY SAY GOODBYE."

What did Jay-Z say? You can pay for school but can't buy class?

Howard has no class.

by SE Jerome on Aug 4, 2011 12:45 pm • linkreport

@John, Absolutely terrific post! It demands to be acted upon.

by Dennis Jaffe on Aug 5, 2011 12:27 am • linkreport

Perhaps DCPL, which has managed to get more than a half million dollars in "payments" from the developers of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist property (in exchange for dropping their lawsuit), could move some of those funds from their "studies" of mid-century modern architecture to help restore this truly historic site.

And thank you, John, for an outstanding post.

by Mike S. on Aug 5, 2011 10:16 am • linkreport

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