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  • Howard University, the New Negro Movement, and the Making of African American Visual Arts in Washington, DCPart 1
  • Howard Dodson (bio)

I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

The spirit of the New Negro Movement, inspired by the post-Reconstruction reign of terror and the draconian impact of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, set in motion a process of resistance, self-affirmation, and justice-seeking self-righteousness that planted the seeds of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the hearts and minds of Black America. Out of it came a new mass movement of Black people who were committed to proving their status and identities as human beings and building among and within themselves the capacity to be much more than America believed possible.

Time, circumstance, and history do affect who and what people, institutions, cities, and nations become. Yet, these entities are always more than the sum total of the history, time, and circumstances in which they live. Black Washingtonians were and are much more than that. So was and is Washington, DC—the capital of the United States. The same can be said of Howard University—the District's center of African American intellectual and cultural life. This paper traces the evolution of Washington, DC; Black Washington; and Howard University as a means of informing the origins and development of a unique community of Black American artists and their art in an emerging but evolving arts scene in the nation's capital city.

Washington, DC: From Capital City to "Chocolate City"

Prior to 1800, the capital of the United States was located primarily in two northern cities—New York City, New York (1789–1790) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1790–1800). Congress also convened in Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey; New York City; and Annapolis, Maryland, from 1781 to 1788 during the period when the Articles of Confederation [End Page 983] were in force. On July 16, 1790, the first President of the United States, George Washington, signed into law the Residence Act, a bill that authorized the construction of a permanent capital along the banks of the Potomac River. Land for this new municipality—which was neither a city, a state, nor part of a state1—was provided by two southern states: Maryland and Virginia. The new capital was named Washington, the District of Columbia, in tribute to President Washington. Since 1800, the District of Columbia has been the permanent home of all three branches of the nation's federal government (Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary).

Black people have been an organic part of the population, development, and identity of the capital city since its inception. In February 1791, Surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott hired Benjamin Banneker, a free African American surveyor and almanac editor, to help him survey the borders of the original District of Columbia site. Black people, both enslaved and free, provided most of the labor force that built the city, including the Capitol and the White House, from the ground up. Significantly, by November 1800, when the new city declared itself open for business as the Congress met for the first time, fully thirty percent of the District's residents were Black, most of whom were enslaved. By 1830, however, the majority of Black Washingtonians were free men, women, and children. That would remain the case until President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the District in 1862, a year before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all the other Africans in states that were not in rebellion against the Union. An additional 25,000-plus free and formerly enslaved Blacks took up residence in Washington during the Civil War. It would be almost a century before Washington, DC, would become known—famously or infamously—as the nation's "Chocolate City."

After the war, the District's Black population rarely fell below twenty percent. By the 1950s, African Americans had become the majority of its population. Over the following fifty years, Black majorities would fluctuate between sixty and seventy percent of the population as Whites fled to the city's suburbs...


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