Exploring the Congress Heights Community

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The Congress Heights Community is nestled on the hills of the Anacostia River and makes up one of the oldest communi­ties of Ward 8. With beginnings stretching as far back as the Native Americans, it is only fitting that a chronological timeline be explored to discover this community’s rich history.

The community begins at Missis­sippi Avenue S.E. and 13th street S.E. and it goes west along Alabama to the south­west boundary of St. Elizabeth’s campus to Lebaum St. SE, down to Interstate 295 and back to Mississippi Ave SE.

The history of Congress Heights be­gan back in 1608 with the original natives, Nacotchtank Indians. In the 1630s Euro­pean colonists began to claim land in the area now called Congress Heights and in 1735 Thomas Addison Jr. built a plantation near Giesboro Point area. In 1813 Tobias Henson, an enslaved African American bought his freedom and the freedom of many of his relatives and purchased land along Hamilton Road, now Alabama Avenue. Today there is a condo division along Alabama Avenue named Henson Ridge, for Tobias Henson.

Between 1848 and 1852 a social reformer, Dorothea Dix, lobbied Congress for a national psychiatric hospital and in 1852 the St. Elizabeth Hospi­tal for the mentally ill opened. The hospital also served as a cemetery for soldiers during the Civil War. The east campus is 118 acres and the west campus will soon be the home of the new Homeland Security De­partment, taking up the 182 acres

In 1862 George Washing­ton Young bought 624 acres of land that Thomas Addison Jr. owned and became the largest slave owner in D.C. His heirs sold his estate in 1878 and it became a popular river resort enjoyed by all. Known as Capital View, City View and Buena Vista, the resort was popularly enjoyed until it burned in 1888.

The Congress Heights community formally got its name in 1890 when Arthur Randle laid out streets and called it its respective name. Somehow he managed to place restrictive covenants on deeds prohibiting the sale of land and buildings to African Americans. In 1897 the one-room Giesboro School for white children was replaced with Congress Heights Public School in what today is Imagine Public Charter School housed in the remodeled Old Congress Heights School. Just down the street the fire station that sits on MLK Ave now, used to be 3203 Nichols Avenue. In 1903 Engine 25 constructed one of the two brick buildings and in 1907 the Congress Heights Civic Association was formed. Today this association meets monthly and is active in the community.

In 1911 a streetcar line opened to Congress Heights and operated until 1938 when it was replaced by the bus service. Today you can drive just across to wards 6 and 7 and see where streetcars are being reintroduced along Benning Road.

As the years progressed Congress Heights continued to develop, with the opening of the Ana­costia Naval Air Station leading to the establishment of Bolling Field and Camp Sims. Housing development began to oc­cur around 1937 and a theatre for whites opened up in 1939 and was subsequently closed during the 1970s. In 1949 the Fred­erick Douglass Bridge (now South Capitol Street) was completed, connecting Con­gress Heights to downtown Washington. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision many white families in the area moved out. Thus, more African American families began to move in and in 1961 Ballou Senior High School opened, with its marching band becoming nationally renowned. Congress Heights held its first annual Congress Heights Day Parade and Festival in 1981 and throughout the next decade the community saw its commer­cial stores take off with Rite Aid, Safeway, Popeye’s, McDonalds and the Players Lounge opening in this community.

As the community thrived the city saw the need to help accommodate its citizens and in 2001 opened the Congress Heights Metro Station on Alabama Av­enue. Former Mayor Marion Barry’s wife, Cora Masters Barry also invested into the community by opening the Southeast Ten­nis and Learning Center on Mississippi Ave. Today the community is almost unrecog­nizable from its humble beginnings back in 1608. Today you can ride down Alabama Avenue and see the Shops at Park Village and a new sit-down restaurant, IHop, all a major part of the economic rebirth plan for the community.

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