Saturday, August 6, 2011

In the Pipeline: Political Activism in Columbia Heights

HCWDC Grantee Bell Clement Discusses Her Current Project

In this article, Clement provides context for her project, and describes her research plan. She hopes to provide regular updates as the project progresses.

The 1960s were a period of transition for the United States.  The nation shifted gears as the effects of a generation of prosperity and global power made themselves felt in structural changes to key institutions.  In this restless, affluent nation, political activists, in office or on the street, worked to open the next chapter of the American story.  Building on decades of advocacy and organizing, civil rights campaigns gained momentum and national attention.  In the White House, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations responded to the issues raised by civil rights leaders, and also proclaimed unconditional war on poverty and began to look carefully at conditions in the nation’s cities. 

Turmoil in the District of Columbia exemplified the times.  Inner city neighborhoods were reeling from the impact of a massive federal “urban renewal” campaign which, starting in the late 1950s,displaced 25,000 residents from the city’s Southwest quadrant.  D.C. Public Schools had desegregated immediately on rendering of the Supreme Court’s 1954 opinion in Bolling vs. Sharpe, but citizens’ battles over the implications of that order continued, culminating in the  Hanson vs. Hobson (1968) challenge to academic tracking.  Locals battled Congressional determination to ram national highway system feeders through old residential neighborhoods – “white men’s roads through black men’s homes”.  The ancient campaign for home rule reached its zenith with LBJ’s 1965 full court press for legislation and, in defeat, his creation of an appointed Mayor and council government as an interim step toward residents’ goal of autonomy.

In the midst of this tumult, Columbia Heights was distinguished by the energy of its organizing and advocacy campaigns. Centered on Fourteenth Street, a key retail corridor and the route of one of the first streetcar lines into the neighborhoods from the downtown; bordered on the west by the mansions and consulates of Sixteenth Street, the “Avenue of the Presidents,” and on the east by Howard University, Columbia Heights had always been a hub of commercial and social activity.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, the neighborhood experienced rapid transition as black householders took over from white owners, a result of the lifting of restrictive covenants, urban renewal displacements, and school desegregation in D.C., as well as more general economic trends.  

When the national political conversation and federal policymakers turned attention to poverty, race inequities, and urban conditions in the mid-1960s, Columbia Heights found itself at the center of implementation action.   The Cardozo Heights Association for Neighborhood Growth and Enrichment, Inc. was formed as a subsidiary of the city’s United Planning Organization to implement the Great Society’s 1964 War on Poverty programming in Columbia Heights.  CHANGE became a central actor in District-wide battles over the shape of program implementation – and allocation of federal funding – over the next few years.  The creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965 and its 1966 Model Cities agenda reverberated in the neighborhood as local congregations stepped up to sponsor affordable housing developments on Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets.  In the wake of the violence of April 1968,  area residents formed planning and development organizations such as Central Cardozo Concerned Citizens and the Columbia Heights Citizens Association, and claimed the right to direct the neighborhood’s rebuilding. 

Project Context:   This project will use oral history interviews and supporting research to document this phase of Columbia Heights’ political evolution.  This segment of research is built on the results of an inventory of Columbia Heights community history resources, including both witnesses and archival resources, completed with support from the Humanities Council during Summer 2009.  Both this and the earlier project are elements of my dissertation research at George Washington University’s Department of History.  The dissertation (working title:  “Measuring Liberalism:  ‘Creative Federalism’, Empowered Citizens, and the Great Society City”; anticipated completion 2012) explores the interaction among federal policymakers, community activists,and the events and ideologies of the decade, in reshaping American concepts of the city, citizenship, and federalism. It is my intention to publish the dissertation in book form.

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