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DC's History

Washington, DC was established by the Constitution of the United States to serve as the nation’s capital and was founded on July 16, 1790. Throughout its history, race has played a profound role in shaping the nation's capital. The District was built on the backs of slaves.  On April 16, 1862, President Lincoln signed the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act, ending slavery in the nation's capital.


For the sake of understanding the livability of DC and the barriers the city faces in achieving shared prosperity, the focus of this project starts in the 20th century. When slavery was outlawed, D.C, did not end discrimination of it's black citizens, but instead established intense housing segregation.

Developing a modern city that is equitable for all citizens and leads towards livability and prosperity requires racial reckoning with the city's history of segregation and housing discrimination. 

“It didn't happen by accident, so undoing it can't be by accident either”

Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, a writer, cultural scholar, and columnist succinctly explained in a panel for Prologue DC's Mapping Segregation efforts the intentionality that is required for progress towards equitable living.

US trends illustrate the need for justice.

Redlining has thwarted shared prosperity across the US. Below is a brief history of how these and other racial segregation practices shaped the development of DC and its neighborhoods.


Redlining - the practice of refusing to offer credit or insurance on a racially discriminatory basis - excluded black Americans from the Federal Housing Administration's efforts to insure mortgages and help stimulate the housing market following the devastating economic effects of the Great Depression. This intentionally kept black residents out of D.C.'s white neighborhoods. 

See how the history of redlining persists in the racial divide of DC's neighborhoods today.


"Housing Covenants" normalized residential segregation across Washington DC by  legally reserving much of the city for white residents. The goal was to confine DC’s expanding black population to older housing near the city center, near waterfront employment along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and to remote sections of far Northeast and Southeast DC.

Follow the history of the racial covenants from 1940 to 2010 here.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the enforcement of racially restrictive deed covenants unconstitutional and The National Committee on Segregation published "Segregation in Washington," detailing the profound social and economic impacts of racist housing policies in the nation's capital.


Though covenants were no longer legal, they had created borders that were insurmountable for many black residents. DC residents organized to combat racial steering and white flight through an initiative called Neighbor's Inc.


The Civil Rights Act of 1968 created Title VIII, also known as the Fair Housing Act. In signing this act, President Lyndon B. Johnson prohibited most forms of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the sale or rental of housing and in mortgage lending.


D.C. was nicknamed "Chocolate City," being home to flourishing culture of a majority black population with the 1970 Census reporting that D.C. was 71.1% black. And yet, despite growth in the black population, the areas of the city where black families lived barely changed. While legally allowed to move to "white neighborhoods," due to generations of exclusion from the housing market they lacked ability to amass wealth necessary to cross the "border." 


D.C. publishes a policy framework for building an inclusive city (found here) to spark resident-led community dialogue to accompany the 20-year Comprehensive Plan published by DC's Office of Planning.


126 housing discrimination cases reported to DC’s Equal Rights Center, even 50 years after Fair Housing was established. And yet, this number represents far less than the amount of discrimination still at play, since majority of fair housing cases don’t get reported. (source)

What's next?

How might we use DC's history of housing discrimination to create unique opportunities to overturn invisible borders and welcome the opportunity for a new shared identity?

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