Zion Baptist Church Oral History Offers Unique Perspective on Urban Renewal
Southwest Washington may be one of the most enigmatic neighborhoods in the district. During the 1950s, homes and businesses that had stood in the area for decades were razed as part of the Federal Government's plan to revitalize the neighborhood, and provide office space for government agencies. The story has been written time and again by Washington historians, and a documentary film was produced that emphasized the human cost of the wholesale relocate, raze, rebuild, and return process that left out that final step for many families. A 2009 DC Community Heritage Project examined that disruptive and traumatic experience through an entirely new lens - that of the Zion Baptist Church Congregation.
The oral history project, led by church historian Sarah J. Davidson, captured the stories of 46 longtime congregation members and former pastors. A group of professional and volunteer oral historians asked the narrators a set list of questions, that generally focused on church life and community. The oldest person interviewed was born in 1916 and had become a church member in 1928, but most of the interviewees were old enough to remember when Zion moved from Southwest to a temporary home in the YWCA on Rhode Island Avenue, NW. One narrator recalls, "We moved from Southwest because the city took over that community to rebuild. The address of the old Zion was 337 F Street, SW. It was in the middle of the block. The freeway is there now, behind the Market Inn Restaurant."
Some of the interviewees could trace the history of the church back even further because their families had been members in the 19th century. Zion's archives reveal ties to a group of Freedmen who were brought to Southwest Washington with the Union Army during the Civil War, and who constructed the first church in 1867. One of the narrators, recalling family traditions handed down through generations, said "my ancestors were members of Zion Baptist Church. .. They remodeled the feed store, when the church was located there." In 1870, that remodeled feed store was replaced by a new building on the same site at 337 F Street, SW where it became a major focal point in the lives of many Southwest DC residents.
We will continue to examine this remarkable oral history project for what its narrators can tell us about life in Southwest before the 1950s, and the traumatic experience of the Federal Government's early experiment in urban renewal there. The next post will focus on the interviewees memories of Southwest as a village within the city, including relationships with neighbors, business-lined streetscapes, and, of course, the centrality of church life.