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Washington, D.C., History Resources

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

Washington Politics and Society during 19th Century

Benjamin Butler French Family Papers, 1778-1940 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division finding aid)

These papers include journals written  by Benjamin Butler French (1800-1870), who worked in the House of Representatives between 1835 and 1847 and served as Commissioner of Public Buildings between 1860 and 1867, and his son Francis O. French (1837-1893). Both journals contain incisive commentary about Washington society, particularly its political culture written from the vantage point of the loyal Congressional staffer Benjamin and a view of childhood end education from Francis.

Brooks-Queen Family Collection, 1773-1979 (The Catholic University of America ACUA finding aid, digital collection)

The papers of two families united by the marriage of Jehiel Brooks (1797-1886) and Ann Margaret Queen, the daughter of Nicholas Louis Queen (d. 1860). The papers of these two men constitute the bulk of the collection. Brooks came to Washington in 1828, seeking an appointment with the Red River Agency. In 1830, he married Ann; several years later, he established a plantation on the land now known as Brookland. Nicholas Louis Queen, a member of a prominent family, was the proprietor of the Queen Hotel, which was notorious for its role in the slave trade. The papers include correspondence, legal documents, manuscript essays, newsclippings, and memorials to Congress.

Peter Force Papers and Collection, 1492-1977 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue record, finding aid)

Best known as a collector of historical documents, Peter Force (1790-1880) was a printer who published the National Journal which supported the administration of John Quincy Adams, Mayor of Washington between 1836 and 1840, a scientist who helped found the Smithsonian Institution, and editor of American Archives. These papers include his correspondence, financial records, and notes. The diaries of his oldest son William Q. Force, an editor and clerk at the Smithsonian Institution, provide insight into the religious, intellectual, and scientific community of Washington between 1864 and 1877.

Montgomery C. Meigs Papers, 1799-1892 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue record, finding aid, digital collection)

A career army officer, Montgomery Cunningham Meigs (1816-1892) worked on several engineering projects on the Army Corps of Engineers, including the construction of the Washington Aqueduct, Capitol Dome, and the construction of the Pension Building. During the Civil War, he was Quartermaster General. The bulk of these papers, which include private diaries and personal correspondence, address his work in Washington and family matters. A large portion of this collection is digitized which can be accessed through its finding aids.

Margaret Bayard Smith Papers, 1789-1874 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue record, finding aid, and digital collection)

A writer who engaged in social and political commentary during the early national period, Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844) wrote two novels Winter in Washington, or Memoirs of the Seymour Family (1824) and What is Gentility? (1825). She is better known for the correspondence, journals, diaries, and commonplace books that comprise this collection. The papers include correspondence with her husband Samuel Harrison Smith (1772-1845), editor of the National Intelligencer, banker, and Treasury Department official, an eyewitness account of the British occupation of Washington in 1814, and Washington social life.

Joseph Meredith Toner Collection, 1741-1896 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue record, finding aid)

Joseph Meredith Toner (1825-1896) contains the personal and professional papers of a physician who played a leading role in the Medical Society of the District of Columbia and in the foundation of asylums and hospitals. Correspondence, genealogical documents, financial records, and his manuscript writings which include narrative histories of the medical profession in Washington and nationally comprise the bulk of this collection. He also was a collector of historical documents.

Tudor Place Archive, 1700s-1983 (Tudor Place collection description, request appointments

Papers of the Peter family and those documenting the historic house constructed by Thomas Peter in 1805. These papers include correspondence between family members, diaries, financial accounts, and scrapbooks. This family was connected by kinship to the Washingtons, Custis, and Lee families. The Peters also were slave owners who maintained plantations in Washington and Montgomery County and also employed them at this historic mansion.

Reform in the 19th Century

Maryland State Colonization Society, 1827-1902, Maryland Center for History and Culture (catalogue record, finding aid, digital collection)

Official records of the Maryland Colonization Society comprised of financial records, letters and reports from agents, manumission books and extracts of wills manumitting enslaved people, and correspondence received from Liberia. This organization worked in the District of Columbia, including Georgetown.  

Myrtilla Miner Papers, 1825-1960, Library of Congress Manuscript Division (catalogue record, finding aid)

One of several Northern abolitionists, Myrtilla Miner (1815-1864) opened in 1851 the Normal School for Colored Girls in Washington, D.C, to train school teachers. The papers include her correspondence with other abolitionists, subject files, and essays by some of the free Black girls who attended the school. In 1857, Emily Howland took over the school enabling Miner to recuperate from numerous ailments; the school closed during the Civil War.

Business and Labor

Ben's Chili Bowl Records,  (GWU Gelman SCRC finding aid)

Established in a Black neighborhood in segregated Washington in 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl remained open throughout the 1968 civil disturbances, the construction of the U Street/Cardozo neighborhood, and is now a touchstone in that gentrified neighborhood. This collection consists of photographs, menus, correspondence, financial records, and papers related to its community work.

Capital Transit Company Records, 1862-1956 (D.C. History Center finding aid)

Administrative and financial records of the Capital Transit Company, founded in 1933 when the streetcar companies of the District of Columbia into a single company. This collection includes corporation papers and financial records of all of its predecessors, including those established as horse-drawn railway cars chartered between 1862 and 1872, the conversion to electricity after 1888, and subsequent adoption of an electrical underground conduit system after 1895. The network that connected Georgetown, Tenleytown, and other points in Northwest Washington with the Navy Yard, Anacostia and Eckington was gradually displaced by bus service. In 1956, the charter of the Capital Transit Company was revoked; D.C. Transit converted the system to bus service, with the streetcar system closing in 1962.

John Glassford and Company Records, 1743-1886 (Library of Congress finding aid)

These records include ledgers, journals, daybooks, and letterbooks for the mercantile firms in Maryland and Virginia that comprised John Glassford and Company, the Glasgow-based firm that controlled much of the tobacco trade in the Chesapeake region. Its records listed products that were imported and exported by tobacco plantations, including enslaved individuals. The records include a store in Georgetown headed by Robert Fergusson, whose records are held by the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in Lauinger Library.

Greater Washington Board of Trade Records, 1889-1986 (GWU Gelman Library Special Collections finding aid)

Founded in 1889, the Board of Trade served as a forum for business leaders to express their concerns to Congress and other federal officials during the period before home rule. It is now the largest regional business and non-profit leaders in the District and suburban areas of Maryland and Virginia. This extensive collection consists of correspondence, minutes, reports, directories, programs, photographs, audiotapes, and artifacts.

Hechinger Company Records, 1905-1997 (D.C. History Center finding aid)

This collection consists of financial records, advertising and marketing materials, correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings of a local hardware chain. Establishing his business as a wrecking company that sold salvage materials in 1911, Sidney Hechinger (1885-1958) anticipated home improvement retail by opening hardware stores that focused on home owners. The first store located in Southwest Washington opened in 1919. Until the 1980s, it was largely based in the immediate D.C. area. It then expanded dramatically to compete with big box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's. When it declared bankruptcy in 1999, it had 117 stores. 

Heurich Mansion Collection (request access)

A business archives consisting of financial account books and marketing materials of the The Christian Heurich Brewery which began operations in 1872 and by the 1880s was the principal supplier of beer in the District. By the 1910s, the Brewery supplied ice to businesses and households, a venture that enabled it to survive the Prohibition. When the Prohibition ended, the Brewery revived and did not close until 1956. 

Rufus S. Lusk & Son Business and Personal Records, 1896-1994 (GWU Gelman SCRC finding aid)

Established by Rufus S. Lusk (1892-1971), this company provided weekly reports and annual directories on the real estate sales, mortgages, and ownership trends. Active in Washington high society, Lusk was a member of the Gourmet Dinner Society and president of the Washington Taxpayers' Association. This collection includes financial records, correspondence, and real estate appraisal data. There is a series of records related to the Tri-State Commission and the establishment of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Woodward & Lothrop Records, 1873-1995 (D.C. History Center finding aid)

In 1880, Samuel Walter Woodward (1848-1917) and Alvin Mason Lothrop (1847-1912) established a department store that soon became a fixture in Washington's downtown shopping district and subsequently expanded into the suburbs. This collection includes biographical information and newsletters of employees, marketing and advertising, records related to stores, inventory and sales statements, corporate communications, ephemera, and photographs. "Woodies" filed for bankruptcy in 1994 and was subsequently liquidated.

Black Intellectual and Civil Rights Leaders

Bethel Literary and Historical Association, 1895-1913 (Howard University MSRC finding aid, digital collection)

Founded in 1881 by American Methodist Episcopal Bishop Daniel Payne, the Bethel Literary and Historical Association became a debating society and forum that attracted prominent speakers, including Frederick Douglass, Mary Ann Shadd, Ida B. Wells, John Mercer Langston, and Kelly Miller. These records include the minutes (1895-1901), resolutions, announcements, newsclippings, and other printed materials.

Christian Fleetwood Papers, 1797-1945 (Library of Congress catalogue record, finding aid)

Born as a free Black person in Baltimore, Christian Fleetwood (1840-1914) received his education at Ashman Institute in Lincoln, Pennsylvania,  was a founder of the Lyceum Observer, achieved the rank of Sergeant-Major in the 4th regiment of the U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry, and moved to Washington where he became a civil servant. These papers include diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence and official documents that relate chiefly to his activities as a soldier and a leading Black citizen of Washington. There also are papers relating to the activities of his wife, Sara Iredell Fleetwood.

Cromwell Family Papers, 1849-1955 (Howard University MSRC finding aid)

Papers of the family of John Wesley Cromwell (1846-1927), who moved to Washington in 1871 to study law at Howard University, and became active in the Bethel Literary and Historical Association, the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, and the American Negro Academy. His sons and daughters likewise dedicated themselves to Black education and social organizations. This collection consists of 42 volumes of scrapbooks kept by John Wesley Cromwell, Sr., between 1859 and 1915; family documents, including manumission papers; unpublished writings related to local and national concerns; and papers related to Black community organizations. 

NAACP District of Columbia Branch, 1921-1949 (Howard University MSRC finding aid)

These records consist primarily of two organizations with close relationships to the NAACP: the Citizens Committee against Segregation in Recreation, which is interfiled with NAACP Committee on Recreation and was headed by Edwin B. Henderson; and the Committee for Racial Democracy in the Nation's Capital (CRD), which later re-organized as the Council for Civil Rights in the Nation's Capital (CCR) and shared members with the NAACP-DC. The records consist of reports and logs of legal activities, including cases of police brutality; correspondence with local and national civil rights leaders; and entertainment activities.

Omnium Gatherum Collection, (Howard University MSRC finding aid, digital collection)

A collection of single documents comprised of the writings of leading Black intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and John Mercer Langston, documents related to the sales of enslaved people and emancipation events, newspaper clippings, and handbills. The collection includes materials related to D.C. history, including anti-slavery petitions, essays by Black school children, and graphics of civil rights protests during the 1960s. Consult the items from this collection listed in the resource guide on D.C. history developed by MSRC staff.

Black Women's Activism

National Archives for Black Women's History (National Park Service, National Capitol Region Museum Resource Center, list of collections

A collection created by Mary McLeod Bethune (1874-1955), the founding president of the National Council on Negro Women who served between 1935 and 1948. This Archives includes her own papers, the records of the NCNW, and personal papers of other people associated with the NCNW.  as well as materials she collected during her career. For information on the archives and its procedures, call 301-832-9377.

Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers, 1900-1963 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue recordfinding aid)

A voice of racial uplift often characterized as the female Booker T. Washington, Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) moved to Washington in 1909 to establish the National Training School for Women and Girls (later re-named the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls). The school had a close relationship to the Women's Convention Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, a body that named Burroughs its president between 1948 and 1961. The collection consists of correspondence, financial records, memoranda, notebooks, speeches and writings, subscriptions and orders, student records, and printed matter.

Anna Julia Cooper Papers, 1881-1958 (Howard MSRC finding aid, digital collection)

Known as a pre-eminent educator and black feminist, Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) taught and administered Black schools in Washington between 1887 and 1941. These included stints as principal of the M Street High School (1901-1906), teacher of Latin at Dunbar High School (1910-1930), and president and teacher at Frelinghuysen University (1930-1941) which provided continuing education to Black working adults. This collection is comprised of scrapbooks, her unpublished writings including literary works, publications.

Elsie Brown Smith Papers, 1900-1989 (Howard MSRC finding aid)

Educated in D.C. public schools and Howard University, Elsie Brown Smith (1895-1989) spent most of her teaching career at Dunbar High School where she helped design the curriculum for high school teachers, managed extracurricular events, and helped establish the National Honor Society, and the Dunbar Girls' Victory Club during World War II. This collection consists of publications, student essays and records, subject files on segregation, and photographs.

Mary Church Terrell Papers, 1851-1962 (Library of Congress Manuscript Division catalogue record, finding aid)

Educated at Oberlin, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) moved to Washingon in the mid-1880s to accept a teaching position at the M Street School. By the early 1890s, Terrell began to focus on social activism and in 1896 helped found and served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. Drawn into national concerns, Terrell never lost interest in Washington and actively campaigned on removing the color line in movie houses and restaurants. This collection includes speeches and writings, diaries, subject files, correspondence with family members and 

Washington Politics and Society during Home Rule Era

David A. Clarke Papers, 1994-1997 (GWU Gelman SCRC finding aid)

A tireless civil rights advocate who tried to empower his constituents with legal education, David A. Clarke (1943-1997) served as the Ward 1 Representative on the City Council between 1975 and 1982 and chairman of the Council between 1983 through 1991 and 1993 through 1997. This collection consists of subject files documenting his campaigns and service on the council that include letters from constituents, legislative drafts and proposals, reports of the Council, newsclippings, audio and videotapes.

Walter E. Fauntroy Papers, Parts I and II, 1940-1990 (GWU Gelman finding aid part I, part II)

Walter E. Fauntroy (1933-     ) is one of the most significant figures leading the transition from the commission to home rule government. Named by Dr. Martin Luther King as Director of the Washington Bureau of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960, Walter E. Fauntroy played a key role in planning for the March on Washington and Resurrection City. In 1970, he was elected as the D.C. Representative to the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat that he used to advocate for home rule and ultimately held for 21 years. This extensive collection documenting his entire career includes correspondence, news releases, booklets, articles, brochures, statements, meeting files, briefing books, memorabilia, newsletters, photographs, negatives, slides, bills, and hearing files. 

Hilda Mason Papers (DCPL People's Archive)

There are three related collections created by Hilda Mason (1916-2007) who served as at-large representative on the City Council between 1977 and 1999. She also was a member of the Board of Education between 1972 and 1977, a stalwart member of the D.C. Statehood Party, and an advocate for the development of the University of the District of Columbia.

  • Hilda Mason, City Council Papers, 1970-1988 (finding aid) comprised of subject files on her committees and Council legislation, including areas that reflect her interests in education.
  • Hilda Mason, Statehood Party Collection, 1806-1995 (finding aid) contains files on the Committee on Self-Determination and DC Statehood Party Conventions as well as drafts of the Constitution of the State of “New Columbia."
  • Hilda Mason, Board of Education Records, 1966-1992 (finding aid) includes files of her Board of Education service between 1972 and 1977 in addition to Council Committees, particularly the Education, Libraries, and Recreation Committee between 1981 and 1997.

Charlene Drew Jarvis Papers, 1978-2014 (DCPL People's Archive finding aid)

The daughter of blood plasma transfusion pioneer Charles Drew and a neuropsychologist, Charlene Drew Jarvis (1941-     ) represented Ward 4 (Brightwood, Takoma Park, and parts of Chevy Chase) in the City Council between 1979 and 2001. In 1996, she ran unsuccessfully for Mayor and was named President of Southeastern University. These papers consist of speeches, campaign materials, photographs, Board of Elections and Ethics files, and other printed materials.

Wilhelmina Rolark Papers, 1882-2002, bulk: 1980-1992 (Howard University MSRC finding aid)

Wilhelmina Rolark (1916-2006) was a strong advocate for home rule and represented the residents of Ward 8 (Anacostia) in the City Council between 1976 and 1993. This collection consists mostly of papers related to her service on the Council, including her advocacy of bail reform, access to cable television for Southeast Washington, police and prison reform, and her work on the Judiciary Committee. The papers also document her philanthropic work with her husband Calvin Rolark, particularly the development of the United Black Fund.

Walter Washington Papers, 1933-2007 (Howard University MSRC finding aid)

Walter Washington (1915-2003) was Mayor of Washington during its transition from the commission form of government to home rule. In 1967, President Lyndon Baynes Johnson had appointed him Mayor-Commissioner; after the restoration of home rule in 1974, he was elected Mayor for one term. Papers documenting his mayoral tenure and campaigns comprise the bulk of these papers: speeches, correspondence, official schedules, budget reports, agency and committee files, newsclippings, and photographs. This collection also includes papers documenting the activities of his first wife, Bennetta Washington (1918-1991), who was an advocate for the poor, director of the Women's Job Corps, and Assistant Secretary of Labor.

John A. Wilson Papers, 1974-1993 (GWU Gelman Library SCRC finding aid)

Known for his knowledge of the city's budget and finances, John A. Wilson (1943-1993) represented Ward 2 for 16 years before becoming Council Chairman, a seat he held until his death. This collection consists of correspondence, constituent records, publications, statements, photographs, negatives, slides, newspaper clippings, and audio cassettes. These files cover a wide range of topics including urban renewal, healthcare, campaign data, historic preservation, and transportation.

Community Activism

Carol Fennelly Papers, 1971-1997, GWU Gelman SCRC (finding aid)

This collection documents the work of homeless rights activists Carol Fennelly and Mitch Snyder who founded the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) between the time of its founding in the early 1970s and her departure in 1994, the Trust for Affordable Housing, and Housing Now. She and Snyder were known for their protest tactics that drew attention to homelessness. This collection includes correspondence, financial papers, ephemera, and newsclippings.

Frank Kameny Papers, 1843-2006 Library of Congress Manuscript Division (catalogue record, finding aid)

Frank Kameny (1925-2011) became a key proponent of gay rights, after his dismissal in 1957 from work at the U.S. Army of Services on charges of homosexuality. After unsuccessful legal petitions for reinstatement, Kameny founded the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1960, the first gay advocacy organization which sought civil liberties and social organization of gay people. This collection includes correspondence, legal papers, speeches and writings, case files of gay and lesbian federal and military workers who faced discrimination, and materials related to his campaign to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders. 

Mitch Snyder Papers, 1970-1991, GWU SCRC (finding aid)

Mitch Snyder (1943-1991) was well-known nationally for his confrontational protests of homelessness, particularly in Washington. This collection includes documentation of his anti-Vietnam War activism, which led to his imprisonment for two years; his hunger strikes calling attention to homelessness; and his work creating shelters and relief programs through the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV).

Jim Graham Papers, 1961-2015, GWU SCRC (finding aid)

Jim Graham (1945-2017) was involved with the Whitman-Walker Clinic from the time of its foundation as a health center for gay and lesbian community in 1978. Taking on the role of executive director in 1983, he led the clinic during the early years of the AIDS epidemic as it became a leader in HIV education. Between 1999 and 2015, he represented Ward 1 on the City Council during the transformation of his district, which included Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and the U Street Corridor. This collection includes financial papers, correspondence, photographs and other materials related to his entire career.

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