Georgetown Recalls Its Diverse Past

Posted September 18, 2009 at 4:07pm

One glance at the streets of Georgetown today proves that the neighborhood lives up to its tony reputation, with high-end shops, exclusive restaurants and chic rpesidents.

But 70 years ago, the Georgetown of Dorothy Harris Gray’s childhood looked very different. The stores along M Street included novelty shops, small businesses and 5- and 10-cent stores. Children spent entire summer days at Rose Park. Gray’s neighbors on P Street were a solid middle-class mix of doctors, lawyers, federal government employees and homemakers.

And most of her neighborhood was African-American.

From the P Street Bridge across Rock Creek Park to either side of Wisconsin Avenue, a predominantly black community thrived for generations. Gray was herself a third-generation Georgetown resident before moving to Takoma Park with her husband and children 40 years ago. She recalls a close-knit neighborhood, with the pillars of her world being family, the nearby park and the church. With five churches — four Protestant and one Catholic — within a five-block radius, it’s little wonder that services were an integral part of her world.

But the religious aspect of the community had less to do with spirituality than with bonding and togetherness. People knew what church you went to, whether it was Mount Zion United Methodist Church or Epiphany Catholic Church, Gray recalled. Her mother was one of Epiphany’s founders, running bake sales, crocheting doilies and helping throw bazaars to raise funds for the opening in 1925. But whatever variety of Christian you were, Gray said everyone attended all of the services as a way of showing support and simply engaging with one another. Before her father converted to Catholicism, Gray would attend Mass with the rest of her family before meeting him at First Baptist Church.

“We were extended family,— she said. “We were there for each other.—

Thriving Community

Many of them have moved away from Georgetown now, but African-Americans once made up a bustling section of the neighborhood. Gray grew up on P Street, where she and her 10 siblings lived with their father, a federal government employee, and homemaker mother. Gray spent much of her childhood summers at the playground at Rose Park, which she said was the center of her world. She played with the Rose Park tennis team and proudly recalls that they were “citywide champions.—

The majority of the families Gray knew growing up were black, with the exception of a few white local shop owners who lived on her street. But even before integration began, Gray said, she never felt that there was any racial tension in the area or that she missed out on any significant advantages because of living in a mostly segregated environment.

“We didn’t feel it because we had everything right there for us,— she said. “We had the recreation, we had the education and we had the religion. And we had our parents, and that was very important,— she said.

Because of that, Gray recalled the transition to integration as being very smooth. In fact, her most significant memory of that time was a shift in the religious communities, rather than any kind of racially driven violence or conflict.

“When integration came through the Catholic churches, we were encouraged to go to churches closest to our homes, in our communities,— she said. “It wasn’t a white church or a black church. It was just Catholic.—

The Kennedys Arrive

Things would not stay the same forever. When John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to Washington and made Georgetown their home in the 1950s, they brought a glamour that proved alluring to a political set that had previously not shown much interest in the neighborhood.

The budding enthusiasm for Georgetown real estate caused property taxes and rental prices to rise, making it impossible for many of the old families to continue living there, according to Gray. She had grown up in Georgetown, then moved to Virginia briefly with her husband before they decided to move back to their hometown. In 1969, they became another family that decided to leave for good, seeking lower costs and more space for raising their children.

But Gray and many other families maintained one vital connection to their roots. They come back weekly for their church services. She has been attending Epiphany for the past 40 years, just as she did when she was young.

“They built the churches, it’s part of them,— she said. “Their families stayed in the churches.—

When Gray comes back for Mass on Sundays now, the Georgetown she sees is nothing like the one in which she was raised.

“The people there, they don’t know you,— she said. “They’re not friendly. You don’t see them participating in the neighborhood activities there. The basketball court used to be full and it’s not anymore.—

She also lamented the lack of community and the fact that most people who live there now are unaware of the history of Georgetown.

“It’s not that community-like. The doors are closed. You used to see people sitting on the steps. The doors were open,— she said.

Lost History

There is not much public documentation of the African-American history in the area, but what was known was held in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library. That collection was nearly destroyed in a fire in 2007. Jerry McCoy, the special collections librarian and archivist for the Peabody Room, said great pains have been taken to restore what they had, at significant cost.

“Unfortunately, we did not have much on the African-American community, but we are making an effort to reach out to grab some of that history,— McCoy said. “Going forward, when the Peabody Room is opened and in the next several years, we hope to have individuals consider us a repository to deliver some of the materials they have.—

In the meantime, however, those older residents who keep coming back for their religious services and to see one another will keep the history alive.

Each year, one of the five historically black churches holds a revival, where all of the congregations can connect and celebrate.

A number of years ago, Everette Payne, a childhood friend of Gray’s, wanted to reconnect with old friends and neighbors.

He “went around to the churches with a notebook saying he wanted to have a reunion,— Gray recalled. “And the best way he could get in touch with us was to come to the churches because he knew we were still in the churches.—

A black Georgetown committee was formed, and Gray and others made a list of 500 names of people they once knew and wanted to contact. The group is mostly dormant now, but for 15 years, they held an annual dinner-dance reunion, where generations of residents and their families could mingle and reminisce.

It’s been a long time since Gray has lived in Georgetown, but her memories are vivid and she said her old home “was a lovely place to live.—

In some ways, her days on the playground and in the neighborhood are still with her. She still crochets, just the way she learned all those years ago. She’s still carrying on her family legacy by attending Mass at Epiphany. And even though it’s been 40 years since she was a resident, her love for Georgetown remains.

“It’ll always be close to my heart, Georgetown, because that’s all I knew,— she said. “Going home, mm. It was home.—