Washington, DC, is the capital of the United States. Limited to ten miles square in the US Constitution, DC sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, a location selected by President George Washington himself. Maryland and Virginia ceded the land to the federal government in 1790. After a decade of rapid construction, the federal government moved to the still half-built capital in 1800, and Congress assumed the power of “exclusive legislation,” granted by the Constitution, over the city. Congress permitted the city to have a local government for the first seventy years of its existence. During the antebellum era, the District allowed slavery and developed a politics and culture characteristic of a southern city. As abolitionists pushed Congress to ban the slave trade in the nation’s capital, white District residents in Alexandria, already frustrated that Congress had stunted their city’s economic growth by banning federal buildings on the Virginia side of the Potomac, successfully petitioned to have all District territory west of the river retroceded to Virginia in 1846, reducing the city’s size by nearly a third. In 1874, following a brief period of biracial democracy during postwar Reconstruction, Congress replaced the District’s local government with three presidentially appointed commissioners, a system that remained largely unchanged for the next century. In the first half of the 20th century, the District experienced explosive growth as the United States government expanded to fulfill its new role as a world power. Because of white out-migration to the segregated suburbs and black in-migration following World War II, in 1957 the District became the first major US city to boast a black majority. The black population dominated the city’s culture and, after the reintroduction of “home rule” (local government) in 1974, political life in the late 20th century. White in-migration and black out-migration in the early 21st century led to the city losing its black majority, though the city’s population remains majority-minority as of this writing. The field of DC history has undergone changes as profound as those that have engulfed the city itself during the past century. Begun as a celebratory genealogical endeavor among well-to-do amateur historians in the late 19th century, in the post-WWII period the history of the nation’s capital has garnered increasing interest from journalists and serious scholars within the academy, who have broadened the scope of the field and deepened our understanding of the dynamics of race, class, power, and gender in the city.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, award-winning general histories by pioneering scholars established DC history as a legitimate academic subfield. The two-volume study Green 1962 and Green 1963 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, setting a high standard of scholarship and making it clear that DC history no longer could consist simply of hoary chestnuts told and retold by aging elite white men. Green would follow up this achievement with a study of the city’s African American community in Green 1967. (Green’s work was preceded by and rooted in a number of pioneering studies of DC history, among them Helen Nicolay’s beautifully illustrated Our Capital on the Potomac (New York: Century Company, 1924), and the incisive “The Negro in Washington” by Sterling Brown, in the Works Progress Administration’s Guide to Washington (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1937). Though widely read, these earlier works were, in many instances, written for a popular audience or published as government reports and did not stimulate a broader interest in DC history within the academy.) In the decades since, a host of talented scholars have penned overviews of the city’s history, typically using a thematic through line such as race or urban planning. Written as a high school textbook, Melder and Stewart 1983 provides a panoramic view of the city’s history, replete with reprints of rich primary sources. Lewis 1977 is a general history of the city written for the nation’s bicentennial that pays significant attention to issues of race and rights. Asch and Musgrove 2017 follows in this vein, making race and governance the primary fault line in this history of the city. Gillette 1995 also foregrounds race but combines it with a penetrating discussion of urban development. Abbott 1999 takes a unique approach, exploring the many identities the city has taken or have been projected on the city over the past two hundred years.
Abbott, Carl. Political Terrain: Washington, D.C., from Tidewater Town to Global Metropolis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
An exploration of the many ways that residents and visitors have both influenced and interpreted the District’s identity between the founding of the city and the late 20th century.
Asch, Chris Myers, and George Derek Musgrove. Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
A comprehensive study of how race shaped the city and how it was governed, from the first encounter between white explorers and Native Americans in the 1600s to the end of the black majority in the early 21st century.
Gillette, Howard. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
A groundbreaking study of the impact of urban planning and public policy of the city’s history.
Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington, Village and Capital, 1800–1878. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Deeply researched study of Washington from its founding until the end of Reconstruction.
Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington: Capital City, 1879–1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
The second of a two-volume history of the city. Explores DC history from the late 19th through the mid-20th century.
Green, Constance McLaughlin. The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Provides a panoramic view of the “interplay between the races,” in the District from the founding of the city to the early 1960s, focusing primarily on “Negroes at the upper socio-economic strata” for whom data was more prevalent.
Lewis, David Levering. District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
An overview of the city’s history through the civil rights era, written for the bicentennial.
Melder, Keith, and Melinda Young Stewart. City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Washington, District of Columbia. Silver Spring, MD: Intac Inc., 1983.
A collaboratively produced high school history textbook covering the city’s history from contact to the late 20th century that incorporates primary source material.
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