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Community Activism

A group of men, women, and children march in front of a suburban house holding signs that read “Senator Byrd, Are Welfare Recipients Criminals?” and “Senator Byrd, Go Back to West Virginia.”
Click to view image attribution

Etta Mae Horn leads activists in a march in front of the house of Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, to protest his views on welfare. Reprint by permission from the D.C. Public Library, Star Collection at Washington Post

Barry Farm–Hillsdale has a long history of community activism, from the struggle for women’s suffrage in the 1800s to protests about gentrification and redevelopment today.

Meet the people who fought for change.

Demanding Votes For Women

In 1877, 18 men and 15 women from Barry Farm–Hillsdale signed a petition to Congress demanding voting rights for women. The petition drive was part of a nationwide movement spearheaded by the National Woman Suffrage Association led by Susan B. Anthony. The petition included 10,000 signatures collected from all over the United States and was delivered to Congress later that year. Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents who signed the petition included Frederick Douglass Jr., Virginia L. Douglass, Elizabeth Chase, and Solomon G. Brown.

"When we first moved on Nichols Avenue we didn’t have running water. You either had a well or you had a system. The system is, the water would run off the roof of the house down through charcoal in big well and we used that water. Some people had springs. They would get water from springs."

Barry Farm–Hillsdale resident
Pierre McKinley Taylor

Oral history interview, Anacostia Oral History Project, Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Fighting For Essential Services

For many years, Barry Farm–Hillsdale lacked essential services, including electricity, running water, sewers, paved streets, public transportation, and mail delivery. Houses were allowed to burn due to the lack of water mains. Families were forced to collect water from nearby streams, which led to disease outbreaks. Community groups, including the Barry Farm Civic Association, fought for and won essential services. But the pace of change was slow, and the lack of piped water and sanitation was still a problem in the 1940s.

“They said this was slums out here in Barry Farms and they wanted to put in public housing . . . We went to Congress . . . We defeated them . . . The idea died down after that.”

Barry Farm–Hillsdale resident Ella B. Pearis

Oral history interview, July 1974, Anacostia Oral History Project, Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Opposing Redevelopment

In the 1940s and 1950s, Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents opposed multiple attempts to redevelop their neighborhood. In the 1940s, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission planned to demolish the neighborhood, which it said suffered from “‘rural’ blight and slum conditions.” But Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents stood up for their community and testified before Congress opposing the plans. In 1949, Congress passed an act prohibiting the redevelopment of Barry Farm–Hillsdale. In 1954, Republican Representative John Phillips of California helped strike down another attempt to redevelop the neighborhood.

Protesting Segregation

Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents faced relentless segregation and discrimination from the very start of the neighborhood. World War II saw the beginnings of resistance, as military service members and others stood up for their rights. During the 1940s, Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents, including Norman E. Dale, picketed White-owned businesses on Nichols Avenue that refused to hire African Americans.

"I remember when they first desegregated that pool. . . . They had a park policeman out there with a horse and he was just running over the first black person he could see. . . . We were determined we were going to stay in there. When they wanted us out, we were going to stay."

Barry Farm–Hillsdale resident Everett McKenzie

Oral history interview, January 24, 2002, Dale-Patterson Collection Oral Histories, Anacostia Community Museum

Integrating the Anacostia Pool

African Americans were barred from the nearby Anacostia Pool. Instead, many local children swam in the Anacostia River, which was dangerous and led to multiple drownings. In 1949, a group of young residents from Barry Farm–Hillsdale tried to enter the Anacostia Pool and were turned away. They returned several times, and violent clashes broke out. Officials closed the pool due to the violence. It reopened in 1950 and was integrated without incident, although White attendance dropped considerably.

"I realized right away that there is a difference between desegregation and integration. Desegregation was a court decision . . . Now integration, you see, is . . . mental. . . . We would go eat in the cafeteria, all black students would be in a section and all the white students would be in . . . [another] section . . . So that’s not integration."

Barry Farm–Hillsdale resident Gerald B. Boyd

Oral history interview, April 2, 2002, Dale-Patterson Collection Oral Histories, Anacostia Community Museum

Desegregating Schools

Schools had been segregated from the very beginning of Barry Farm-Hillsdale. In 1950, a group of local students attempted to enter the all-White Sousa Junior High School and were turned away. The students filed a legal case, known as Bolling v. Sharpe. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was heard as a companion case to Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered that segregated schools were unconstitutional. DC schools were desegregated, but African American students continued to face protests, hostility, and discrimination from White students and teachers.

Black Power

In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, the recently elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), came to Washington, DC. Future DC mayor Marion Barry’s organization, Free DC, arranged Carmichael’s visit to Barry Farm Dwellings. More than 150 people attended the rally. In his speech, Carmichael used the slogan “Black Power,” which he had coined just a few days before. Soon the slogan would become a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.

Southeast Neighborhood House

In the 1960s, Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents worked with the Southeast Neighborhood House (SEH) organization to fight poverty and racial discrimination. SEH hired local residents and trained them to help those in need find jobs, housing, legal aid, medical care, and assistance with welfare. Among SEH’s earliest recruits in the neighborhood was John Kinard, who became the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum’s first director. The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum was the original name of the Anacostia Community Museum.

“Since we live here, we are best qualified to advise Mr. Washington on how the funds should be spent in the best interests of our community.”

Band of Angels Chairman Lillian Wright

The Washington Post, 27 February, 1966

The Band of Angels

By the 1960s, Barry Farm Dwellings were in disrepair. Residents were afflicted by vermin infestation, leaks, faulty faucets, and defective furnaces inside their units. With the help of the Southeast Neighborhood House, a group of local women organized themselves under the name the “Band of Angels.” They secured a promise from DC Mayor Walter Washington to make repairs to the buildings. The group went on to protest inadequate income, inferior housing and health care, and the lack of attention to poor women by public agencies.

Rebels with a Cause

In 1966, Barry Farm–Hillsdale resident Leroy Washington organized a group of local residents to advocate for jobs and recreational facilities for local youth. They called themselves the “Rebels with a Cause.” The group reached more than 1,500 young people with their programs, which included clubs, dances, and field trips to museums. They also succeeded in having a recreation center built in the neighborhood. The group became a model for future programs empowering youth in Washington, DC.

Environmental Justice

For decades, toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead, and hydrocarbons, leaked from the Navy Yard into the Anacostia River. These pollutants endangered the health and lives of Barry Farm–Hillsdale residents, who lived just across the river. Local activists, including Dorothea Ferrell of the Barry Farm Residents Council, demanded that the government take action. Thanks to their efforts, the government agreed to investigate and clean up the pollution.

“We’ve shown again that an organized group of people can win something, even if it wasn’t what we ultimately wanted.”

Daniel del Pielago, Empower DC Organizer

Historic Preservation

In 2019, Barry Farm Dwellings were slated for demolition as part of plans to redevelop the neighborhood. Most of the buildings have been demolished. But the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association and local nonprofit Empower DC succeeded in preserving a small section of the housing complex as a historic landmark. This historic designation will help ensure that part of the community’s history will be preserved for future generations.

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