The Story of Deanwood

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The community of Deanwood, arguably, has one of the most colorful histories in the Ward 7 community. The neighborhood lies just east of Capi­tol Hill and has a rich past that might amaze its own residents.

Some of the highlights include a park named after a DC legendary R&B artist, former site of DC’s only amuse­ment park and a major street named after a women activist.

An official site of the Cultural Tourism of DC, the Deanwood com­munity received its name from de­scendents of the Sheriff family, a major street respectively named in the area. Deanwood was once farmland that belonged to slave holding families. In 1833 slaveholder Levi Sheriff bought 330 acres of land from the nephew of another slaveholding family, the Ben­ning family. Today Benning Road is a major street surrounding the Dean­wood community. The acres were along the Watts Branch and Sheriff began to raise livestock and tobacco with the labor of some 19 enslaved people. He also raised three daugh­ters on the land, Mary Cornelia Dean, Emmeline Sheriff and Margret Sheriff Lowrie, who went on to inherit the land in 1853.

In 1871 the Southern Maryland Railroad built a station near the old Bladensburg-Piscataway Road, now Minnesota Avenue near the Sheriff farm. The sisters had a plan to get rich and decided to transform their land into three subdivisions: Lincoln Heights, Burrville and Whittingham. Sales were low and eventually skilled laborers and craftsmen built houses in these subdivi­sions and nearly two years later Levi Sheriff’s grandson Julian Dean, also built homes in the subdivisions. Thus the name Deanwood arose and has remained since then.

The community saw a boost in 1890 with the Benning Racetrack opening just west of the railroad sta­tion and by 1895 the community was majority African-American. During this time banks were reluctant to offer lending to African-American’s and thus many of Deanwood’s residents built their own houses with minimal designs and bartered labor.

By the early 1900s Deanwood began to really transform its com­munity. Between 1901 and 1902 the First Baptist Church of Deanwood was formed by a small group of believers and in 1908 the church was erected on Whittingham Place, now 45th street. The church became a staple in the community, hosting community events, concerts, field days and sport­ing events. Other historic churches of the community include Antioch Bap­tist, Beulah Baptist, Zion Baptist, Taber­nacle Baptist and Mount Olive Baptist to name a few.

Around the same time of the church development, the educational foundation of the community was being laid. Deanwood Elementary opened in 1907 on 45th Street and Francis L. Cardozo, Jr. served as princi­pal. The school was built to serve the areas African-American population with students attending from nearby Maryland suburbs. Later the school was renamed George Washington Carver to honor the black botanist and educator shortly after his death. To­day the school is named Ideal Public Charter School after nearly 11 years of closure. While Deanwood Elementary laid a solid foundation for education in the community another school would prove to provide the same founda­tion through a woman activist, Nannie Helen Burroughs.

Today a street is named in her honor in the Deanwood community, but her humble beginning and dedi­cation to this community serve as a key tenet in its history. An advocate of women’s rights, civil rights and religious activism, Burroughs founded the Na­tional Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. Her goal was to train her students to be independent women where she stressed her motto of the three B’s- Bible, Bath and Broom. Her lessons focused on godliness, physical cleanliness and housekeeping among other disciplines like entrepreneurship, printing and dressmaking. As the years passed the school grew and devel­oped to train thousands from the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean.

By the 1950s the community saw its commercial corridor develop with Sheriff Road becoming a staple for the Black community to shop for ev­erything from groceries, pharmacy to clothing and salon services. Today the community is even more developed than its humble beginnings. A neigh­borhood park at the corner of Min­nesota and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenues has been redeveloped and named after legendary D.C. R&B artist Marvin Gaye. The Watts Branch Park has been restored and new basketball courts are at the community center at Watts where summer tournaments can be seen on any given day.

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