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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Repository Collections

Below are links to the portals to the major repositories of historic images of Washington, D.C. It is possible to identify all catalogued images held by them with links to digital images. Many of these images are not part of larger collections. However, it is possible to access several of the collections featured in this guide through their respective repository portals. 

Architecture, Neighborhood, and Street Views

Washington, D.C., Sights and Structures Before 1880: Selected from Prints & Photographs at Library of Congress (digital collection)

Digitized prints of projected designs and city plans, some of which were never implemented. Includes general views, landmark buildings, boarding houses, and Civil War sites.

Darrell C. Crain Collection, D.C. Public Library (digital collection)

Color images taken by rheumatologist Darrell C. Crain (1910-1995) of his national and international travels, including recreational areas, neighborhoods, and events in Washington between the 1940s and 1980s. This entire collection is digitized.

Joseph Owen Curtis Collection, D.C. Public Library (digital collection)

Joseph Owen Curtis (1915-2005) photographed his neighborhood of Southwest Washington between the 1920s and 1980s, showing the impact of urban renewal upon a Black community. This collection of 270 black and white prints and 85 color slides has been entirely digitized.

Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Library of Congress (digital collection)

Photographs taken by Carol M. Highsmith of landmark buildings, architectural renovation projects, and public events in Washington, D.C., throughout the United States. Highsmith donated these photographs, taken since the 1980s, and all rights to the Library of Congress so that they are open access.

Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress (digital collection)

This collection of photographs, drawings, and written histories for more than 43,000 structures dating from the Pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century is the product of a partnership of the Library of Congress and National Park Service. The collection includes numerous landmarks in the District of Columbia, drawings of urban development plans, and residential and commercial buildings.

Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress (collection description) (digital collection)

The Theodor Horydczak Collection documents the architecture and social life of the Washington metropolitan area in between 1920 and 1950, including exteriors and interiors of commercial, residential, and government buildings, as well as street scenes and views of neighborhoods. A collection comprised of nearly 32,000 images, Horydczak also photographed events such as the 1932 Bonus Army encampment, the 1933 World Series, and World War II preparedness campaigns.

Portraits and Character Studies

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black and White Negatives (collection description) (digital collection)

The product of Depression-era works projects, the FSA-OWI Collection consists of images taken between 1935 and 1945 that document living conditions throughout the United States. During its early years, agricultural settlements and planned communities were the focus, but by the 1940s urban areas and wartime mobilization were included. Among the photos of Washington, D.C., are images of the alley dwellings and character studies of Black workers by Gordon Parks.

Harris & Ewing, Inc. Collection, Library of Congress (collection description) (digital collection)

Responding to newspaper editors who wanted easier access to photographic images in Washington, Harris & Ewing opened their studio in 1905. The collection is comprised of images of Washington people, events, and architecture taken between 1905 and 1945. Approximately half of the collection is available digitally; indices to the remaining negatives are available.  

E.B. Henderson Collection, Howard University MSRC (digital collection)

Loose photographs and scrapbooks collected by Edwin B. Henderson, a physical educator who promoted athletics among Black youth. The images consist of Black professional and amateur athletes.

Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress (collection description) (digital collection)

One of the first women to achieve prominence as a photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864-1952) worked from a photography studio in Washington from the late 1880s until 1935. Johnston developed a reputation for architectural and landscape studies, but her interest in progressive education led her to photograph public schools in Washington. In addition, her subjects reflected her bohemian lifestyle. 

Terence Vincent Powderly Photograph Collection, Catholic University ACUA (digital collection)

Terence Vincent Powderly, the leader of the Knights of Labor during the 1880s, was also a skilled photographer. A resident of Petworth from 1897 until his death in 1924, several of his photographs depict public events, portraits of his friends, street views, and landscapes of Washington. 

Scurlock Studio Photograph Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History (collection description) (Portraits of a City sampler) (Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

A family business founded by Addison Scurlock (1863-1964) shortly after he moved to Washington, the Scurlock Studio documented the Black community in Washington during the years of the bleakest segregation through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was known as the official studio for Howard University, portrait studio for Black Washington, and documentarians of Black protests and mass gatherings. Addison's sons George S. and Robert Scurlock joined business in the 1930s. The Scurlock Studio closed in 1994, when Robert died. A small percentage of photos are available digitally; the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History holds the collection.

For more information on the Scurlock Studio, consult Paul Gardullo, The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington : Picturing the Promise (Washington, D.C: National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2009). E185.93.D6 S38 2009

Newspaper Photo Morgues

Washington Star Photo Collection, 1930s-1981 D.C. Public Library 

A daily newspaper in operation between 1852 and 1981, The Washington Star (previously known as The Evening Star and The Washington Star-News) promoted itself as the newspaper that focused on local events. A photo morgue consisting of 1.3 million images is arranged by subject. Several of the images were provided by press services such as the Associated Press and United Press International; many were never published. The DCPL has posted 147 images taken during the civil disturbances and Poor People's Campaign following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. 

Researchers using this collection can learn more about the images by consulting The Evening Star, 1852-1981, available on Readex America's Historical Newspapers.

Pittsburgh Courier DC Image Collection, 1946-1968, Howard University MSRC (collection description) (digital collection)

One of the most noteworthy Black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier maintained an active bureau in Washington, D.C., to cover its intellectual, cultural, and political life. This collection consists of 3,500 images, the vast majority taken by noted Black photographers, including George and Robert Scurlock.

Researchers using this collection can learn more about the images by consulting The Pittsburgh Courier, available on Proquest Historical African American Newspapers.

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