Thursday, August 9, 2012

Capitol Hill Vigilantes

In 1963, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) published this brochure (the cover is shown to the right), calling on Hill residents to become "vigilantes": "If the 'Hill' is to be stabilized and preserved, that is just what we must become, and what we must remain."(1) The brochure reproduced a speech given to the CHRS on May 13, 1963 by Tony P. Wrenn, archivist at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But who or what are Hill residents to be vigilant of? Who or what are they supposed to be looking out for?

Vigilantism has long had negative connotations.(2) Vigilantes seek to take justice into their own hands, outside the law. The larger man in this drawing is wearing a coonskin cap, quite popular in the 1950s from tv shows about Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and their frontier vigilantism against Native Americans. The brochure's speech calls on Hill residents to be "pioneers," suggesting that the Hill was a frontier or the Wild West. The KKK and other groups also practice vigilantism through violent intimidation of people they perceived as threatening outsiders. On Capitol Hill, our historical neighbor Bernard L. Henning (802 4th St NE) made famous his song "The Bilbo Bill (Every Man a King)," which was a "condensed summary of Senator Bilbo's white Supremacy Speech delivered to the Mississippi Legislative in 1944."(3) Segregationist and white supremacist views had their followers in DC and on Capitol Hill. While the CHRS probably did not support such ideas, especially by 1963, the brochure did present vigilantism, which already had lots of historical baggage, in a positive light.

The brochure seems to assume a white reader. The drawing has five white people, along with an attentive dog and a (distracted?) cat, confined to a solitary row house on top of a grassy hill. Of course, we know that Capitol Hill row houses are generally lined up right next to each other very close to the sidewalks and streets. So, this image suggests a feeling of isolation and siege. From the history of CHRS, we know that there were fights against highway construction and various kinds of urban renewal projects. In the brochure's text, the speaker refers to residents of Roslyn, NY who are fighting against "undesirable industrialization, rampant road-building programs, and the spread of the apartment building." Yet, the text speaks much clearly for vigilance against "slums": "It will prevent any chance of deterioration in the future -- the possibility that a district will ever become a slum."

On the one hand, if the Hill is declared a "slum," then it might be demolished by the government, as in Southwest DC. The woman in the sundress is watering her flowers as part of this vigilant activity. On the other hand, she and the guy with the binoculars are on the lookout for something else in the distance. The term "slum" had racial connotations at this time. As discussed by a Western Michigan University sociology professor in the late 1950s, white urban residents had long perceived a "Negro invasion" and sought through various means to halt this "invasion," not due, at least in the minds of Northern whites, to overt white suprematist views but for "economic" reasons. Among whites, there was a view that African American entering "white" neighborhoods -- "pioneers"? -- would lower housing values (an incorrect view, in fact) and also would bring the deterioration of housing stock and slums with them. In the brochure, the speaker pleads his audience to keep alert of what is going on in the neighborhood, organize the neighbors (such as by the petition that the older woman is holding but also through being tough on zoning regulation), write the histories of the houses (to re-narrate the neighborhood not as a slum but as a historically significant, respectable (white?) neighborhood), and prod politicians into action. The speaker calls for vigilante action "or you will have no future."

So, of what or whom are Capitol Hill residents being called to be vigilant? Those who supposedly bring the slums? Is this 1963 brochure expressing the new form of racism that developed because KKK-style racism became unacceptable, especially in DC: a racism built instead on notions of "culture," "local history," and "economics"?

(1) "Capitol Hill Vigilantes" speech by Tony P. Wrenn, archivist of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society on May 13, 1963, P0958, Kiplinger Research Library, The Historical Society of Washington, DC.
(2) From the Oxford English Dictionary:
1890 N. P. Langford Vigilante Days i. xiv. 181 "In the name of Vigilante justice [some men] committed crimes which...were wholly indefensible."
(3) "Uncle SAP Worldwide Santa Claus" song/poem and "The Bilbo Bill (Every Man a King)" song copyrighted by Bernard L. Henning, discussed at the Dec. 9, 1947 meeting
of the Southeast Citizens Association. GWU Special Collections, Capitol Hill Restoration Society records, MS2009, Box 34, mainly Folder 14, Southeast Citizens Association.

1 comment:

  1. With apologies in advance for the rant:

    CHRS is a collection of specific people. Racist or mean-spirited designs imputed to that organization are necessarily imputed to its members. While my own association with CHRS began only in 1972 and I have not been especially active, I simply don’t recognize my fellow members, or myself, as portrayed in some of these posts. By 1972 there were members who had already spent years volunteering at Friendship House and would continue to do so. As individuals they took meals to neighbors in need, white and black; visited sickbeds; contributed to burial funds; tutored; worked to ensure participation and friendships by all in children’s activities; and passed the time of day in conversation with our most revered of neighbors, the long-time porch sitters. The old CHRS members had been doing these things long before I met them. Not everybody did everything, of course, and there was much concern that there were not enough daily bridges among adults. The people I knew who had been around during the early 1960’s were decent and normal with normal talents and limitations, not subversives cloaking “KKK-style racism” in some new, less obvious guise, intentionally or unintentionally.

    I have not read the brochure whose insouciant cover art has since become sinister and language controversial, but I wonder if it really asks vigilantism of residents, or vigilance. The latter is what the porch sitters (and window watchers) practiced, without benefit of binoculars, and they had no need of training by brochure. Vigilance, certainly not vigilantism, was on everyone’s mind when my husband helped organize a neighborhood watch for the block. I’m perplexed by the insinuation that encouraging someone to write a house history equates to an intent to “re-narrate the neighborhood not as a slum, but as a historically significant, respectable (white?) neighborhood.” No one gets to choose the people who lived in his house before he did. My own interest in history here was piqued early on by a white CHRS member who for years had been researching pre-war free black families and their descendants on the Hill. Another older member had a particular appreciation for the culture and tradition of the African American store-front churches that used to be everywhere here. (In fact, at the time I discovered his interest, he was president of CHRS.) None of the old CHRS members I knew lived here because they wanted to create a rich white enclave. They certainly didn’t feel isolated or under siege, except perhaps by government agencies pushing development that might destroy the, yes, historically significant, diverse place they loved.

    Sandy (Not anonymous, but apparently neo-racist)


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