Maurice Jackson: Pricing the Soul Out of Washington, D.C.

Roundup: Historians' Take

Maurice Jackson is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is working on a book about African-Americans and Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., the marble city begun by slave labor in the 1790s, is again in the news. As charges of campaign violations swirl around Mayor Vincent Gray, and the chairman of the city council and another member resign after admitting financial misdeeds, it is often forgotten that Washington once stood as a "city on a hill" to the nation's African-Americans. Just as the Puritan John Winthrop held the biblical image up as the ideal for Boston, so the District has long served as a beacon to blacks seeking freedom—from slavery, Jim Crow, and racism.

But for generations of blacks born and raised in D.C. and others who migrated to the city, the hill has become steeper to climb and easier to fall off. Corruption, crime, unemployment, the lack of affordable housing, and similar urban woes are just part of the problem. How we deal with them is another matter. Will Washington lose its identity in the process?

In 1957, Washington became the first major city in the country with a majority-black population. At the peak of this demographic trend, in 1970, 71 percent of Washingtonians were black, but 2010 census figures show that from 2000 to 2010, the non-Hispanic white population in the District grew by more than 50,000, to 209,000, while the black population declined by more than 39,000, to a little more than 300,000—below 50 percent. Washington is not alone; during the past decade, Chicago lost more than 180,000 black residents, and other cities long known for their black populations, like Cleveland, Oakland, and St. Louis, suffered similar losses....

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