The Road to Civil Rights

Deanwood Trail Celebrates African-American Heritage

Posted March 27, 2009 at 3:00pm

As Washington continues to make history, the Deanwood community is working to preserve it.

Cultural Tourism DC and the Deanwood Heritage Trail Working Group have combined their research to create the newest historical trail in Washington — A Self-Reliant People: Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail.

Deanwood is the ninth area in Washington to be lined with 15 informational street signs displaying the area’s culture. It’s the first trail located east of the Anacostia River. As one of the first African-American communities in the district,

Deanwood provides many stories and landmarks that reveal the character of the neighborhood.

At one point, most of the land known today as Deanwood was owned by one man. The landowner, Levi Sheriff, ran a slave plantation until the Civil War, as Jane Freundel Levey, director of heritage programs for Cultural Tourism DC, explained. When he left the land to his daughters, they subdivided it into housing lots.

While this technique flourished in the northwest quadrant, the Deanwood community didn’t thrive until the 1890s when the new racetrack attracted individuals and their families who worked there. The area had another boom in 1909 when the National Training School for Women and Girls opened.

The path to civil rights is a major aspect of Deanwood. When the Glen Echo amusement park in Montgomery County, Md., banned African-Americans, the community sought its own. H.D. Woodson, a Deanwood resident and community-builder, and other individuals decided to open Suburban Gardens in Deanwood, an amusement park that operated from 1921 to 1940.

“The interesting thing about segregation in D.C. is that the whites discriminated against the blacks, but black-based enterprises did not discriminate against whites,— Levey said. That does not mean there was a diverse crowd at Suburban Gardens, however. In 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. visited Deanwood and rallied there for D.C. home rule. The sites of both Suburban Gardens and King’s rally are featured on the trail.

About five years ago, the Deanwood Heritage Trail Working Group gathered research to produce a pamphlet about the community’s history. The brochure grew into a book that was released the following year. At that time, Cultural Tourism DC approached the group about the trail. The trail has become a collection of information from the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., as well as from residents’ history.

In order to collect the oral history of the community, the working group held a story-telling session. “People who lived in Deanwood came back; it was a homecoming for them. They were very excited,— said Kia Chatmon, chair of the Deanwood History Committee. “People are proud of Deanwood. They are from all walks of life, but still very proud and rooted in the community.—

Chatmon specifically remembered a story about a Deanwood resident who was on a ship halfway around the world. While on the ship the man sported his Howard University shirt, which another ship member recognized, and the conversation led to Deanwood.

The official opening for the trail will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Riverside Center, located at 5200 Foote St. NE. Madame Tussauds will provide a wax presentation of R&B artist Marvin Gaye, who was raised in the area and sang a cappella in a Deanwood group. D.C. Councilmembers Yvette Alexander and Kwame Brown will also attend.

Other events will include a guided tour by IDEA Charter School students, Deanwood resident experts and members of the working group.

“You’ll find from the heritage trail that a lot of the pictures are from family collections,— said Levey, who explained that Deanwood was not as well-documented as other parts of town. More information is provided at culturaltourismdc.org.