Friday, August 8, 2014

Immigration and the Decline of Capitol Hill (II redux)

In my previous blog post, I had discussed the observations by Mary Z. Gray, who was a child on Capitol Hill in the 1920s. She discussed how Capitol Hill had begun to decline during that time. In response to my post, my neighbor Sandy, a great researcher of our block on 10th St, SE, wrote:
I hope I haven’t misstated the basis of the post. Our block of 51 houses is typical in many ways of Capitol Hill’s development. The first black family bought a new house in 1872, joining 15 white families already living here. What was happening in the 1920’s? Both black and white families were moving here...The Hill was a viable community appreciated by its residents. [Read further in the comment section.]
From a brief look at the Census data, it is clear that where Mary Z. Gray lived, around 3rd and E. Capitol, was very different from the history of our block down at 10th St, SE. Between 1890 and 1930, Gray's neighborhood was almost completely white for blocks (with the exception of a few African American live-in servants and African Americans living in alleys in NE). The overwhelming majority of the whites were "native" whites, mainly with parents from the mid-Atlantic region, not from abroad. So, her area was quite different from 10th St.

Mary Z. Gray would likely have questioned whether "The Hill was a viable community appreciated by its residents," especially considering how she discussed the 1920s segregation she witnessed in Capitol Hill businesses, including those on Pennsylvania Ave, SE, between 3rd and 4th. She remember deciding that she wanted to have peach pie at one restaurant, Sherrill's, with her family's African American live-in servant Oscie:
One day as we were passing Sherrill's, I suggested that we go into the restaurant section and have some peach pie. It was August, and there is nothing to match fresh peach pie...[Osci said], "I knows you sick. I can't go into Sherrill's and sit down at a table and eat a piece of pie." She was recoiling as I neared the door. "Why not? Don't you like peach pie?" "Sure I like peach pie, but you know I can't go in there and eat it." She looked frightened....When we got home, I told Mama about what happened. "Tell her she can go to Sherrill's," I said..."No, she can't go into Sherrill's to eat," Mama said softly. "Oscie's right. You should have listened to her...That's just the way things are. There are certain places colored people can't go. That's just the way it is."... And that's the way it was on Capitol Hill -- and throughout most of the country -- in the 1920s. (301 East Capitol, pp. 31-32)
Racial segregation did not always exist in the past. The 1890s marked a worldwide turn toward racial segregation and divided cities. This segregation did not appear everywhere suddenly or naturally, but rather took a great deal of work by whites, driven in part by the desire to maintain their housing values and other privileges. I am going to look further at the Census data to see how the area was changing by age, race, immigration flows, and housing values.

If parts of Capitol Hill escaped the worldwide turn towards divided cities, then we should consider ourselves lucky. Yet, if we step back and take a look at DC in 2010, we can see Capitol Hill at the center of a divided city/region (green dots are white residents; blue dots are African American residents):

NY Times interactive map

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