Archive for February, 2014
This call box — at Shannon Place SE and Talbert Street SE — is the only call box I’ve seen in Anacostia (although this box is outside the boundaries of the Historic District) in the past five years, unless I have overlooked other extant call boxes.
Where did they go? What happened to them?
In other neighborhoods throughout the city and downtown many call boxes have been re-purposed around certain themes in the last decade or so. Photos by Dorn McGrath of Anacostia in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s show call boxes on the commercial strips of Good Hope Road and in the interior residential areas of Anacostia.
Areas east of the river, in East Washington, have retained their call boxes. There are call boxes on Naylor Road SE and Denver Street SE that come to mind but none in Historic Anacostia.
I haven’t begun to research this phenomena but my hunch is there is something to be discovered. To be continued …
In Faraway, All-White Anacostia; Area Failed to Fit Builders’ Vision [Darryl Fears, The Washington Post, 26 June 2000: A.1]
During Washington’s bicentennial year as the U.S. capital, another in a monthly series on the people and events that shaped this city.
Near the muddy edge of the Eastern Branch river, under towering trees with gorgeous emerald leaves, real estate developer John Van Hook and his partners subdivided their land into a few hundred housing lots and put them up for sale.
The year was 1854. They named their subdivision Uniontown, evoking patriotic emotions, although they built it purely for profit and for whites only. If they realized they were creating Washington’s very first suburb, they didn’t acknowledge it.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Congress had recently built a bridge over the river from the Washington Navy Yard, giving workers there access to Uniontown. People were getting tired of living in the congested city. Day and night, horses pulling carriages trotted on dirt and cobblestone streets, kicking up dust and causing an annoying racket, like hundreds of hollow coconut shells constantly banging together.
To show his faith in Uniontown, Van Hook built a nine-acre personal residence on a hill overlooking the development, at Pierce and Jefferson streets. It was a stately white-brick gabled, center- hall country house with fluted wood columns and a latticework porch.
But after six years, Van Hook’s house overlooked what amounted to a ghost town. “Although most of the Uniontown lots had been sold by 1860, the community had few settlers,” Louise Hutchinson wrote in her book “Anacostia Story,” which was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Neighborhood Museum.
“A study of the grid map for the next quarter of a century discloses that homes were built at the average of four a year during that period. This was hardly the response the proprietors had expected.”
Van Hook’s original idea of Uniontown–loosely bounded by what was then called the Eastern Branch River, Morris Road and Good Hope Road- -further unraveled after the Union Army’s victory in the Civil War. There were so many Uniontowns that the Post Office had trouble delivering mail. Congress dealt with the confusion, in part, by changing Van Hook’s Uniontown to Anacostia, after the original Indian name.
The area known as Historic Anacostia covers the original Uniontown, but today Anacostia is generally considered to be the network of neighborhoods that includes Barry Farms, Congress Heights and Fort Dupont Park.
For Uniontown’s founder, the problems didn’t end with the name change. On May 4, 1871, a newspaper notice announced that Van Hook’s house was being put up for auction after he lost a lawsuit.
“By virtue of a decree of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, passed in equity cause No. 988, docket 8, George W. Miller et al. vs. John W. Van Hook et al., the undersigned, Trustees, will sell at public auction . . . at 5 o’clock p.m., on the premises,” the notice read. A third of the money was payable in cash, and the rest within a year in monthly installments.
Six years after the auction, Van Hook’s grand estate got a new owner he would have had trouble imagining. Breaking the whites-only ban at Uniontown was one of the nation’s most prominent black citizens, Frederick Douglass.
Douglass moved to Anacostia with his wife Anna after he was selected as a regent for the County of Washington, District of Columbia. He was a former slave and a famous abolitionist.
He bought Van Hook’s house with money borrowed from a friend. He particularly liked the flower and vegetable gardens and the barn. A year later, in 1878, Douglass bought the adjoining home held by the heirs of George Washington Talbert, expanding the original Van Hook property by six acres.
Douglass’s presence in the house made it famous. After his wife died in 1882, Douglass left the house. He returned two years later with a white bride, Helen Pitts Douglass. When the abolitionist died in 1895, the historical society named after him preserved the home, opening it for public view in 1901.
In 1962, Congress entrusted the house to the National Park Service, and the crumbling property was fully restored 10 years later at a cost of $3 million. Van Hook’s name is rarely mentioned in connection with the house he built.
But Van Hook is only one of a cast of thousands who are missing in action from the known history of Anacostia.
Indians who migrated from Delaware to the Chesapeake Bay region were the first to settle in Anacostia, and the first to go. The migrants eventually formed the Piscataway nation and enjoyed the land for at least 3,000 years before European settlers arrived and embarked on a pogrom that decimated them.
Piscataway translates to “where the waters blend.” The Indians were a part of the Lenni Lenape people of Delaware before slowly migrating south and forming the Piscataway. A faction of that tribe called itself the Anacostans. They grew corn, hunted wildlife and fished the Potomac River’s abundant tributaries until Capt. John Smith’s arrival in 1608, said Gabrielle A. Tayac, a sociologist who specializes in Native American culture.
“You don’t see Anacostans past the 1600s,” Tayac said. “There were 8,000 to 12,000 people when Smith arrived in 1608. By 1700, only 325 people were recorded.”
Smith is best known for his mythical romance with a Powhatan girl, Pocahontas, as retold in a popular Disney movie five years ago. If only that story were true. Pocahontas was kidnapped by a European raiding party, likely helped by Smith. She was about 13 years old at the time, and he was 27.
During the year of her captivity, Pocahontas converted to Christianity. In a tactic typical of the day, the girl was married to an Englishman, John Roth, who then prevailed upon her father, the chief, to transfer tribal land to Pocahontas’s name. After traveling to England, Pocahontas contracted smallpox and died.
Death by guns and germs was common to the Piscataway, as were forced reeducation and religious conversion. In the late 1600s, the last of them returned north to join the Iroquois. As they disappeared, so did their language.
Which is why the name Anacostia is suspect. Europeans clumsily attempted to reconstruct the meaning of a word they had heard only imprecisely: Anaquash(a)-tan(i)k. It means town of traders, or so people think.
This makes sense. When he first paddled down a tributary in a canoe, John Smith “met Indians in other canoes laden with the flesh of deer, bear and other wildlife indigenous to the area,” Hutchinson wrote.
English trader Henry Fleet, who followed Smith to the area in 1632, wrote that “the Indians in one night commonly will catch thirty sturgeon in a place where the river is not above twelve fathoms broad. And as for deer, buffaloes, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them, and the soil is exceedingly fertile.”
Fleet’s letters led land-hungry colonists to Anacostia in droves. Early on, it was clear that the land wasn’t big enough for both the settlers and the Indians.
Skirmishes between the two led to vicious wars between settlers and natives. As Indians disappeared, the way of life shifted. Instead of maize, European farmers favored a new cash crop–tobacco. It took backbreaking labor to work the land.
Another European trade offered a solution: African slaves. Around the mid-1600s, black men and women were pouring into Jamestown and were marched through the towns and forests to Anacostia and the rest of Maryland.
The more money a master made from his tobacco crop, the more land he bought. More land meant more slaves. In 1671, the Maryland legislature acted to protect the investment of slave owners, adopting brutal slave codes to control the workers.
A slave couldn’t freely travel. A slave who struck a white person had his or her ears cropped. A 1729 law called for slaves who committed certain crimes to be not only hanged but bodily quartered for public view.
Native Indians of the Anacostia region were not immune to such treatment. Slave raiding parties captured many, who were sent to work in the Caribbean. Soundly beaten by germs, guns and reeducation, most Piscataways finally marched north to join the Iroquois tribe of the New York region.
During a visit to Anacostia in 1759, George Washington wrote glowing accounts of the Potomac River and its tributaries as “well stocked with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year.” He fell in love with the place, and three decades later, he approved of the plan to put the nation’s capital there.
By the time Van Hook and partners John Fox and John Dobler established Uniontown more than a half-century later, St. Elizabeths Hospital had been founded nearby. Its patients, Union Army soldiers supposedly driven mad by war, were among the area’s first neighbors.
Times were changing rapidly. The land was growing barren, the soil depleted by years of growing tobacco. Even the Potomac River and its tributaries were devoid of life, having been overfished. The waters also suffered because of chemical runoff from the vast Washington Navy Yard.
Other change was happening as well. Quietly, Anacostia slaves like Alethia Browning Tanner purchased their freedom; they later erected homes and businesses.
Resentful white residents destroyed many black homes, businesses and churches in the 1835 Snow Riot. But the march of black people into Anacostia couldn’t be stopped. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves could walk to the area from Washington across a pair of bridges Congress built over the river.
Anacostia became a beacon for black men and women who poured into Washington to record their names at the Freedmen’s Bureau. In response to a black housing shortage, Union Gen. Oliver Howard, chairman of the Freedmen’s Bureau, established Barry Farms near the former Uniontown as a free black community in greaterAnacostia.
After the war, Howard created an investment board that purchased $52,000 in land that could be sold, leased or rented to black people. Profits from the land sales and leases helped create another Washington landmark, Howard University.
After 100 years, Van Hook wouldn’t have recognized the place he first settled. By 1940, Anacostia was 40 percent black. Over the next three decades, in the name of urban renewal, federal officials forced Washington’s poor into apartments and public housing the government built in Anacostia.
It was a move that bothered both white and black people in middle- class Anacostia. “The hillsides were scraped bare,” said Dianne Dale, who was growing up there at the time. “The influx of seven housing projects came . . . in the ’50s. Many of the people who came to the community were alley dwellers from Georgetown and slum dwellers from Southwest. They had to teach those people how to live because they came from out of the fields in the South, and they had no training. I don’t know how to put that delicately.”
By the 1960s, Van Hook’s whites-only section called Uniontown was 66 percent black. Today, that area is 98 percent black.