Monday, May 21, 2012

Zion Baptist Church Oral History Project

Narrators Reveal a Southwest Centered On Neighborhood Churches, Schools, and Businesses

During the 1930s and 40s, despite the fact that Washington, DC's population was well on it's way to reaching 700,000 people, the city's Southwest quadrant retained the appearance and feel of a small town. The narrators of Zion Baptist Church's "Spoken Memories" oral history project recall this slow-paced, civic-minded community from the shadows of the hulking concrete highrises that now line Maryland and Virginia Avenues. 

One interviewee remembered, "I missed the church in Southwest because we had strong family ties. All of us had friends and family members at the different churches. My grandfather and one uncle were members of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. I had cousins who went to Friendship, and friends who attended the Catholic Church, St Vincent De Paul. Southwest was a community because its residents were always together. We all went to Randall Junior High, and we socialized in the neighborhood together. Zion always had church sponsored summer trips to the beach for us. We went to Carr's Beach, Sparrows Beach and a beach in New Jersey. We went on hay rides to the outskirts of Maryland, and we had summer-long Vacation Bible School. Southwest was a meeting place." 

Other narrators also speak of the close link between Southwest's religious community. It was a neighborhood of many churches, and many different religions, but all were bound together through service to their congregants. Long term social bonds, and a general sense of steadiness seem to have contributed to the narrator's memories of Southwest as a tight-knit neighborhood. "I don't see Zion as the family and community church that we had in the past," observed one narrator. "Now, new members join Zion and leave before you can get to know them. In earlier times, Zion had more stability and folks got to know each other. We were a true family and we looked out for one another." 

But old Southwest's character was not to be found solely in it's thriving religious life, but also in the school system and it's ever-observant teachers. One narrator remembered, "Mrs. Peterson was my Principal at Randall Junior High School, so seeing her at church was like seeing her at school. Many of our teachers were also members of Zion. There was Mr. Herbert, who taught at Randall and was a member of Zion. The teachers knew the 153 families of Southwest, so nobody got away with bad behavior. They always made us aware of our conduct." Some years later that same Mrs. Peterson became Assistant Superintendent of the DC Public School system, but her students and neighbors still remembered her fondly for all she had done in Southwest. "She knew the Southwest families," recalled one narrator, "and often assisted them in their struggles."

Schulman's Market at N and Union Streets, SW
Image Courtesy: Library of Congress
Though Southwest is currently experiencing a resurgence in business activity, the urban renewal of the 1950s transformed many of the commercial corridors into residential streets, and many of the storefronts into government office buildings. But in the 1930s and 40s, a thriving small business community contributed to the cohesiveness of the neighborhood. One narrator remembers, "Many members had businesses located in the Southwest. Everything we needed was in our community. We had restaurants, cleaners, barber shops and stores." Another interviewee is more specific; " A lot of our members had businesses on Third Street, F Street, and Fourth Street... ... Someone had a shoe shop. Mr. James Brown had a print shop and used to do all of Zion's bulletins. The Barnes & Matthews Funeral Home was located on Fourth Street. I also remember the drug store, Campbell's Funeral Home, John T. Rhines Funeral Home, Bruce Wahl's Night Club, and a restaurant. Everything we need was within the Southwest community."

Zion Baptist Church's oral history project is valuable to Washington, DC not just because it preserves the history of a venerable religious institution, but because the words of its narrators breathe life into interpretations of archival records. The housing stock, church buildings, storefronts, an d school buildings of neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Shaw serve as visible reminders of what those neighborhoods once were. But in Southwest, where there are only shadows and glimpses of the neighborhood's historical city-scape, we must try to rebuild it in our minds through the memories of those who were there. The next post in this series will examine Zion, and its congregants' transition from Southwest to it's current home on Blagden Avenue, NW.

To view the edited transcript of the Zion Baptist Church "Spoken Memories" Oral History project, visit the Humanities Council's DC Digital Museum

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