Anacostia: Discovering Uniontown


There are many neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area that are considered “historic.” Be it the rich history it possesses or the beautiful landscape it has preserved, these small pockets in and around D.C. do exist. Even if unknown by the residents who inhabit these areas, it is of histori­cal reference to explore these communities.

The Anacostia community is considered by many, to be the most famous neighborhood in the southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. The area has been home to such notable figures as Frederick Douglass, Ezra Pound, Marvin Gaye and D.C.’s former Mayor and current Ward 8 Councilmem­ber Marion Barry.

The area was once covered by marshy swamplands and its name comes from the Nacochtank Native Americans, who settled along the river they called Anacostia. During the 1850’s the area saw a development spurt, with its historic dis­trict becoming incorporated as Uniontown in 1854. Today if you drive down Marin Luther King Jr. Ave., a staple street of this community, you will see a newly renovat­ed bar, named respectively Uniontown Bar and Grill.

This community was one of D.C.’s first suburbs and was designed to be finan­cially available to the working class of the city, many of whom worked across the river at Navy Yard. Initially Uniontown car­ried restrictive covenants prohibiting the sale, rental or lease of property to anyone of African or Irish descent. However, the neighborhood gained notoriety after Abo­litionist Frederick Douglass moved in the area. Known as the Sage of Anacostia, Douglass built a house in Cedar Hill after he was restricted from liv­ing in Uniontown accord­ing to official segregation laws. By 1880 nearly 15 percent of the residents were African American and today this popula­tion dominates the area.

During the Civil War Anacostia saw a military-fueled construction boom and was pro­tected by a series of forts upon the hills. After the war, the forts were dis­mantled, but the sites of two of the most notable forts have been turned into beautiful parks, Fort Stanton and Fort Greble.

The 1920’s saw a surge in African American’s moving into the area be­cause of the Great Migration. Southern African American’s moved north during World War I and the U.S. government built the Anacostia Naval Station and Bolling Airforce Base. A decade later the Great Depression hit in 1932 and WWI veterans from across the country flooded D.C. for a march on Washington and many camped on Anacostia Flats, a swampy muddy area across the Anacostia River.

After WWII the area’s demograph­ics shifted again, this time from its historic white population to one that was well over 90 percent African American. The area had remained predominately white up until the 1950’s. Some characterize this period as the White Flight, when White residents from old communities like Union­town began fleeing for the suburbs. The 1950s also saw other major construction like the Anacostia Freeway (I-295) which imposed a barrier between the Anacostia neighborhood and the river waterfront. By 1957 the city had become majority black with a good deal of the African American population residing east of the Anacostia River.

These demographic shifts brought about new changes and challenges for the area. Public housing started to pop up around the neighborhood and soon the area had become one of D.C.’s poor­est sections of the city. Badly in need of investment from the federal government, the area began to suffer from chronic neglect. The crime rate increased, drugs infiltrated the community and the public schools began to fall drastically behind the rest of the city. However, every neigh­borhood has its struggles and Anacostia soon began to revive itself.

In the 1990s the crime rate plum­meted when the city was under home rule and there were renewed efforts to see the community grow. Today new restau­rants have moved into the neighborhood and there are lots of new condominium buildings being built. D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) headquarters is located in down­town Anacostia at the corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. The community also has a metro stop named in its honor on Howard Road and even the demographics have begun to shift once again. Still predominately Afri­can American, today you can see where the White population is slowly trickling in.

There is even a branch of the Smithsonian Institution in the community, the Anacostia Community Museum. It was established in 1967 by S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum provides a myriad of formal programs including exhibitions, research, tours, lectures, performances and demon­strations.

With a history so rich it is short of shocking that the community is being redeveloped and will be amazing to see in a few short years. Once, considered the most neglected part of the city, is seeing its community revitalized and growing.


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