Washington, D.C. has always been a mecca for Blacks. But the Nation’s Capital has always had a complicated past and ideals that ran on parallel tracks. The District of Columbia while serving as a hub for abolitionists had thousands of enslaved Africans in its population as the city’s elite made copious amounts of money off slavery and the slave trade.
In the early days of this city’s history, the White House, U.S. Capitol building and private and public projects were built and completed primarily on the backs of enslaved Africans. In 1800, Blacks comprised 25 percent of the city’s population and politicians in the District, in a move to solidify slavery as an institution and to more fully enforce racial segregation, passed the first of several “Black Codes” in 1808.
Slavery finally ended in 1862 after President Abraham Lincoln signed the DC Compensated Emancipation Act which historians say marked an important legal and symbolic victory that requires recompense.
D.C. has always been considered a politically sophisticated enclave. Anti-slavery newspapers were an important aspect of the abolition movement. The National Era newspaper, for example, was founded in Washington, D.C. by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. In 1851-1852, Gamaliel Bailey, a well-known White anti-slavery journalist, serialized Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The renowned Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in Maryland, published the anti-slavery North Star newspaper in Rochester, New York from December 1847 until June 1851. In his later years, Douglass was an important District resident. Appointed marshal for the District of Columbia, in 1878, Douglass purchased the 20-room Victorian home overlooking the city named Cedar Hill.
In the 1960s, Blacks in Washington gained and began to leverage political power. Currently, Black Washingtonians comprise the wealthiest concentration of Blacks in the world. From Douglass to now, the city has attracted Blacks of vision and participants in enterprise. In October of 1964, Calvin Rolark founded the Washington Informer newspaper. The 1968 riots caused the city’s population to become majority Black. As Blacks started to wield power in the District of Columbia, Rolark and his newspaper rose to prominence.
Rolark served as a role model for Blacks in the Washington area and as a powerbroker in both the private and public sectors. “If it is to be, it’s up to me” is a quote Rolark often used about self-reliance. A member of America’s Black Press, people such as Rolark have been vitally important to African Americans’ progress. Forerunners for justice and economic uplift in Black communities, publishers such as Rolark demonstrated leadership in vision, values, charisma, and intelligence toward the benefit of Blacks. Rolark proved to be a pacesetter for enterprise and information in D.C. As founder of the United Black Fund of America, Rolark headed one of the nation’s largest black charitable fundraising organizations that provided money for Washington inner-city social service organizations and community projects.
Rolark is respected by many in the District for his political lobbying as well as emphasis on “accountability.” He taught that “Accountability starts with you.” Rolark died three years after Eleanor Holmes Norton was first elected as the District of Columbia’s Delegate to Congress. Since she assumed office in 1991, Norton has offered a D.C. Statehood bill at the start of each Congress. Statehood for D.C. is a political movement that advocates making the District of Columbia a U.S. state. The bill would formally create the state of New Columbia, with two senators and one House member. The state would not have control over federal buildings or territory within its borders.
Going forward, it’s important that future leaders in D.C. follow in the traditions that have gone before them. Blacks in D.C. can set the standard for the country and be the venue where legacies of slavery are resolved. The people of the Nation’s Capital should join the push for Congressional passage of the Statehood resolution, as well as that of H.R. 40 so that forms of compensation are provided to descendants of slaves in consideration of their ancestors’ coerced and uncompensated labor.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via the BaileyGroup.org