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Washington, D.C., History Resources

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

D.C. History Timeline -- Introduction

Congress has original jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, but its citizens have pressed for self-rule since it became the capital in 1800. Since the District is a territory under the direct jurisdiction of Congress, national civil rights law does not apply. This timeline provides key dates leading to the approval of the home rule charter which granted the District of Columbia its current form of government and the enactment of civil rights legislation and court cases that denied or provided basic civil protections to Black people. 

This timeline is based upon the history explored in Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital by Christopher Myers Asch and Derek Musgrove (catalogue record). In addition, this timeline provides composite census figures found in the Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition Online (Database). 

D.C. History Timeline: 1700-1799

1749 Town of Alexandria incorporated on the West Bank of the Potomac River as a site for tobacco transshipment.

1751 Georgetown first established at the site of a tobacco inspection warehouse.

1789 Maryland legislature granted a charter to the city of Georgetown

1790 Residence Act passed by Congress authorizing the establishment of the District of Columbia as the seat of the United States government on a site along the Potomac River from land ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia. These territories, which included the cities of Georgetown and Alexandria, retained the laws of the states that ceded them.

D.C. History Timeline: 1800-1899

1800 The population of the District of Columbia is 14,093 comprised of 10,066 whites; 783 free Blacks; and 3,244 enslaved persons.

1800 The federal government moves to the District of Columbia. Three commissioners, appointed by the President of the United States, are placed in charge.

1802 City of Washington is granted a city charter by Congress, providing for an elected council and a mayor appointed by the President.

1810 The population of the District of Columbia is 24,023, comprised of 16,093 whites; 2,549 free Blacks; and 5,381 enslaved people.

1814 British troops set fire to the Capitol and other government buildings

1820 The population of the District of Columbia is 33,039, comprised of 22,614 whites; 4,048 free Blacks, and 6,377 enslaved people.

1821 Washington City Council enacted codes requiring free Black people to show the Mayor of Washington City evidence of their freedom with certificates from three residents vouching for their character.

1827  Washington City Council intensifies Black Codes stipulating that free Blacks caught without certificates of freedom would be placed in jail and sold into slavery if unclaimed.

1830 The population of the District of Columbia is 43,700, comprised of 27,635 whites; 6,163 free Blacks; and 6,000 enslaved persons.

1835 Several mob actions aimed at Black residents and abolitionists prompted the City Council to enact restrictions on licenses issued to free Black vendors.

1836 Flooded with petitions advocating for the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, Congress enacted a gag rule banning petitions related to slavery.

1840 The population of the District of Columbia is 43,700, comprised of 30,655 whites; 8,361 free Blacks; and 4,684 enslaved persons.

1846 Alexandria and Arlington County are ceded to Virginia

1848 77 enslaved people from Washington City and Georgetown attempted to escape slavery on a schooner Pearl. After their capture, most of these people were sold south.

1850 The population of the District of Columbia is 51,687, comprised of 37,941 whites; 10,059 free Blacks; 3,687 enslaved persons. This is the first census count that does not include Alexandria and Alexandria County.

1850 As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress prohibited the importation of enslaved people for the purpose of sale.

1860 The population of the District of Columbia is 75,080, comprised of 60,764 whites; 11,131 free Blacks; and 3,185 enslaved persons.

1862 Congress passed the District Compensated Emancipation Act which freed more than 3,000 people. The bill also provided compensation for loss of property to owners loyal to the Union.

1862 Congress passed a bill requiring Washington City, Georgetown, and Washington County to provide separate public schools for Black people with a separate Board of Trustees appointed by the Secretary of Interior.

1866 Congress passed legislation for universal male suffrage in the District.  The bill called for one-year residency in the District and withheld the vote from paupers, minors, convicts and men who were disloyal during the Civil War.

1870 The population of the District of Columbia is 131,700, comprised of 88,278 whites; 43,404 Blacks; and 18 other non-whites.

1871 Congress effectively unifies the District government, granting it territorial status. The structure consolidates the governments of Washington City, Washington County, and Georgetown, but the citizens of the District lose representation in their local government. The U.S. president appointed a governor and an 11-member council for four-year terms. District residents were empowered to elect a city council consisting of 22 members. Congress also establishes the Board of Health to oversee the city's growing health problems and the Board of Public Works to continue the city's improvements. 

1872 The District territorial government passed a civil rights bill that bars racial discrimination in most places. 

1874  Congress ended territorial government. Three commissioners are appointed by the President to govern the District.

1875 Congress passed a Civil Rights Act that provided for equal accommodation for Black people in public places and on public transport.

1878 The Organic Act eliminated home rule, restoring the system of three city commissioners. Two commissioners were to be civilians, the third a member of the Corps of Engineers. Provision was made for a regular federal payment to pay for the expenses of the city and mandated that the U.S. president appoint the commissioners of the District Supreme Court.

1880 The population of the District of Columbia is 177,624, comprised of 118,006 whites; 59,596 Blacks; and 22 other non-whites.

1890 The population of the District of Columbia is 230,392, comprised of 154,695 whites; 75,572 Blacks; and 125 other non-whites.

1895 Congress passed an act dissolving Georgetown as a separate legal entity to become part of Washington. It is integrated into the street system of Washington. 

D.C. History Timeline: 1900-1999

1900 The population of the District of Columbia is 278,718, comprised of 191,532 whites; 86,702 Blacks; and 484 other non-whites.

1910 The population of the District of Columbia is 331,069, comprised of 236,128 whites; 94,446 Blacks; and 495 other non-whites.

1914 The Alley Dwelling Act provided for the elimination of alley housing by 1918. Congress subsequently passed extensions of this deadline to help meet housing shortages so that the law had little impact.

1920 The population of the District of Columbia is 437,572, comprised of 326,680 whites; 109,966 Blacks; and 745 other non-whites.

1926 In Corrigan v. Buckley, the D.C. Court of Appeals cited the widespread use of segregation laws in the District of Columbia to uphold the constitutionality of restrictive covenants that prevented the sale of property to individuals based on race and ethnicity. The case was initiated after Irene Hand Corrigan accepted an offer by a Black woman Helen Curtis to purchase her house on the 1700 block of S Street. Jack Buckley sued Corrigan for violation for violation of a restrictive covenant. The U.S. Supreme Court declined the case.

1930 The population of the District of Columbia is 486,869 comprised of 353,981 whites; 132,068 Blacks; and 820 other non-whites.

1934  Congress created the Alley Dwelling Authority to eradicate alley housing and transfer its residents into public housing. The 1944 deadline was not met because of public housing shortages.

1940 The population of the District of Columbia is 663,091, comprised of 474,326 whites; 187,266 Blacks; and 1,499 other non-whites.

1948 The Supreme Court ruled in Hurd v. Hodge that restrictive housing covenants are not legally enforceable.  Racially restrictive covenants were widespread throughout the District of Columbia.

1949 Mary Church Terrell and other civil rights activists established the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the Civil Rights Acts of 1872 and 1873 that prohibited discrimination against Blacks in public places. 

1950 The population of the District of Columbia is 802,178, comprised of 517,865 whites; 280,803 Blacks; and 3,510 other non-whites.

1953 The Supreme Court decided the Thompson Restaurant case, stating that in the District of Columbia restaurants may not refuse service to "well-behaved and respectable" Black people. This decision reinforced the District civil rights acts of 1872 and 1873, referred to as the lost laws because they were omitted from the D.C. law code of 1901.

1954 The D.C. Recreation Board ends segregated playgrounds in the District of Columbia.

1954 The Supreme Court rules in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that separate but equal educational facilities are "inherently unequal," mandating an end to segregated public schools. The Court also rules segregation in D.C. public schools unconstitutional in the case of Bolling v. Sharpe.

1955 The neighborhood restoration movements in Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Foggy Bottom succeeded in their efforts to repeal the ban on alley dwellings, leading to the renovation of some dwellings for affluent Washingtonians.

1960 The population of the District of Columbia is 763,956, comprised of 345,263 whites; 411,737 Blacks; and 6,956 other non-whites.

1961 The ratification of the 23rd amendment allowed for District residents to vote in Presidential elections.

1967 The three-commissioner system was changed to one consisting of one of several presidential appointments: a single commissioner (known as the Mayor-Commissioner), an assistant commissioner, and a nine-member council. 

1970 The population of the District of Columbia is 756,510, comprised of 209,272 whites; 537,712 Blacks; 5,372 Asians; 15,671 Hispanics (of any race)

1970 The District gained an elected non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

1973 The Home Rule bill passed Congress, providing for an elected mayor and 13-member city council.

1974 D.C. citizens approved the home rule charter and held elections for the Mayor and City Council.

1978 The House and Senate approved a proposed Constitutional Amendment, the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment, which provided District residents full representation in Congress. Only 16 states out of the 38 states required for ratification had voted for the amendment.

1980 The population of the District of Columbia is 658,333, comprised of 171,768 whites; 448,906 Blacks; 6,636 Asians; 17,679 Hispanics (of any race).

1986 The death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias due to a cocaine overdose brought Congressional attention to the crack cocaine epidemic and associated murder rate in Washington, D.C.

1990 The population of the District of Columbia is 606,000, comprised of 179,667 whites; 399,604 Blacks; 11,214 Asians; 32,710 Hispanics (of any race)

1995 Congress created a Financial Control Board to manage the finances of the District, which was on the verge of bankruptcy.

1997 Congress enacted the Capital Revitalization Act which provided the funds for a bailout and empowered the Financial Control Board to manage the city's nine largest agencies and appoint a chief management officer to run the government and report directly to the Board. This act reduced Mayor Marion Barry to a ceremonial figure with direct oversight over parks and recreation, libraries, and a few assorted commissions.

D.C. History Timeline -- 2000-present

2000 The population of the District of Columbia is 572,059, comprised of 176,101 whites; 343,312 Blacks; 15,189 Asians; 37,457 Other (including mixed race); 44,953 Hispanic (of any race)

2001 At the urging of the Control Board, Mayor Anthony Williams closed D.C. General Hospital, a public hospital that admitted uninsured and indigent patients.

2001 After addressing the structural deficit and restored investor confidence, the Control Board disbanded at the end of September.

2001 Lorton Reformatory closed at the end of this year. The Revitalization Act provided for the transfer of 5,600 prisoners to disparate federal facilities outside the Washington-area, separating them from their families. 

2003 Mayor Anthony Williams announced an ambitious development plan to attract residents to the District, which empowered the Department of Housing to seize abandoned buildings and sell them to developers and auction off city-owned properties. The District also urged federal lawmakers to turn over properties to the city for development.

2010 The population of the District of Columbia is 601,723, comprised of 231,471 whites; 305,125 Blacks; 21,056 Asians; 44,071 Other (including mixed race); 54,749 Hispanic (of any race)

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