D.C.: Less Black, More Green

Future President of BET Debra Lee and BET founder Robert Johnson at 2005 BETAwards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Future President of BET Debra Lee and BET founder Robert Johnson at 2005 BETAwards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Hey, uh, we didn't get our 40 acres and a mule
But we did get you, CC, heh, yeah
—From the song "Chocolate City" (1975) by Parliament

Two local disc jockeys first anointed Washington, D.C., "Chocolate City" in the early 1970s. White flight to the suburbs after the 1968 riots had left the nation's capital with an African-American majority. But the city's roots as a showcase community for the black middle class were planted more than a century earlier, when tobacco farmers in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, their exhausted soils producing smaller and smaller crop yields, discovered that they had an oversupply of slaves on their plantations.

They leased their slaves to craftsmen and artisans in the District and Baltimore, where they learned carpentry, ironwork and other skilled trades, and many even managed to earn enough to buy their freedom. By the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, there were more Negroes than whites in the skilled trades in Washington, D.C.


From this antebellum black middle class emerged storied institutions like Howard University and Dunbar High School, pioneers like Duke Ellington and a population of black professionals that was second only to Harlem, N.Y., until World War II. By the time Ellington died in 1974, the best and brightest African Americans in the post-civil rights generation were pouring into the District for good-paying jobs in government, journalism, law and medicine. But at the same time, much like the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the black working class in D.C. and across the nation was going broke — "gradually at first, and then suddenly."

Chocolate City is a lot less chocolate these days, and the term seems quaint, almost mocking, now. What was once black America's imperfect piece of the pie, its gritty Promised Land, has evolved into the model of the polarized, postindustrial city, its transformation so stark that it represents a cautionary tale for the new Gilded Age. With the end of Jim Crow; the new doors opened by the civil rights movement; and a refashioning of labor, trade, education and health policies that began to take hold in the Carter administration, many sociologists believe that income disparities within the black community have never been wider.

Nowhere is that truer than in the District, a city on the make, serving first and foremost the needs of speculators rather than its indigenous population, by supplying bricks and mortar and other raw materials required by Wall Street for its reckless gambits.

Washington, D.C., has, over the past decade, embarked upon what is essentially a liquidation sale of its assets, closing schools, firehouses, tenements, abandoned properties, college-campus buildings, the city's only public hospital, a homeless shelter, a home for battered women and another for abused children.


But it was clear from the start that the flood of money pouring into the city wouldn't just cleanse the grime and remove the dirt; it would wash away some people as well. Until Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the District led the nation in the number of its schoolchildren attending privately managed charter schools, which, generally speaking, have not produced any better educational outcomes than public schools.

Giddings Elementary School in northwest D.C. was converted into a private health club where memberships start at $100 per month. William Syphax Elementary School in southwest D.C., built in 1910 and named for a Reconstruction-era educator renowned for his efforts to improve the District's African-American public schools, reopened as Syphax Village — where condos and town houses sold for upwards of $400,000 at the peak of the housing bubble. The nearly 150-year-old schoolhouse in Logan Circle, Berret Elementary, is now the Berret School Lofts, offering high ceilings, cityscape views and as many as 1,700 square feet for $385,000 and up.


Bulldozers demolished more than 1,100 public housing units in southeast Washington to clear the way for a taxpayer-financed, $611 million major-league baseball stadium. Corridors plunged into darkness by seething mobs 42 years ago are now neon-lit pathways lined with bars, nightclubs and restaurants serving fusion cuisine to K Street lawyers and Hill staffers. Menacing, boarded-up husks have given way to loft apartments, Starbucks and Whole Foods. The new convention center opened in 2003, a new sports arena in neighboring Chinatown a few months later.

The District's fire sale helped fuel what former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once referred to as the market's "irrational exuberance," which pushed home values up to record highs, and the poor and working class out. Between 1999 to 2007, the average home price in the District more than doubled, from $189,000 to $469,000, while median household income fell 8 percent for blacks and 2 percent overall.


Over that same period, property-tax bills increased by an average of 30 percent each year from 1999 to 2007. At Ann's Beauty Supply and Wigs in southeast D.C., not far from the Washington Nationals' new, 42,000-seat baseball stadium, the yearly assessment skyrocketed to $16,000 from $600 in just three years' time. A nearby foster-care agency contracted by the city to care for abused and disabled kids saw its tax bill increase from $9,000 in 2005 to $83,699 in 2007. At the Market Deli at First and L Streets NW, property taxes soared to $22,000; its assessment was $1,500 in 2004.

Not surprisingly, Washington's poorest — and darkest — residents have abandoned the city in droves. Between 2000 and 2006, the District lost more than 21,000, almost 10 percent, of its African-American residents — while the city's overall population grew by more than 30,000 to 572,000. (Many of the city's black residents defected to nearby Prince George's County in Maryland.) The Chocolate City's black majority dropped from 56 percent to 51 percent between 2000 and 2008. Of the jobs in the city that don't require college degrees, nearly two-thirds are filled by suburbanites, according to a 2008 report by the local Chamber of Commerce.


And three African Americans with ties to Washington, D.C., made Forbes magazine's 2009 list of the 40 wealthiest African Americans, including Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, who became the first African-American billionaire in 2000 after he sold the network to Viacom for $3 billion in stock and assumed debt. Johnson ranks third on the list after Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods; his former wife and BET co-founder, Sheila Johnson, ranks seventh with $400 million.

No. 8 on the list is Don Peebles, with an estimated worth of $350 million, who runs one of the country's largest minority-owned real estate development companies. The grandson of a hotel doorman, Peebles left Rutgers University in 1979 to become a real estate agent in the District, later working on Capitol Hill as a page and an intern. Today the Peebles Corp.'s portfolio includes hotels, apartments and office space in Miami Beach and the District, and 13 acres of prime Las Vegas real estate behind Steve Wynn's Encore casino.


Of the 100 largest businesses owned by African Americans, 16 are located in the Greater Washington area, according to a 2010 survey by Black Enterprise magazine that divides the businesses into four categories: advertising agencies, auto dealers, financial services and, the broadest category, industrial/service companies. With $528.7 million in revenue in 2009, Robert Johnson's RLJ Development, a Bethesda, Md.-based hotel-development and investment firm, ranks as the eighth-largest black-owned industrial/service business in the nation. Thompson Hospitality, a food-services company in northern Virginia, comes in at 12th, with 2009 revenues of $321 million. The 17th-largest African-American-owned business in the category is Lanham-based Radio One, the 30-year-old broadcasting empire led by Alfred Liggins III, which reported $272 million in annual sales.

The Washington-area businesses in the industrial/service category are predominantly communications, technology and lobbying firms, as well as other companies that are heavily reliant on government contracts, regulations and personal connections with decision makers and their staff. Following close behind Radio One at No. 20 is 1 Source Consulting in the District, an information-technology firm that recorded revenues of $210.7 million last year.


The extreme polarization of wealth in the black community has far-reaching implications. Poor African Americans' increasing social isolation leads to greater political isolation. The elites are getting richer and more integrated into the local economy. Meanwhile, the poor and working class are getting poorer and more estranged from the local economy.

"The poor in D.C. are much less likely to have exposure to black professionals," says Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociology professor and senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "The black middle class knows how to hold institutions accountable, and the poor don't. It's going to be harder to fight city hall, and this is really becoming a serious issue for the black community as our public schools continue to produce failure in this era of greater global competition.


"If, 10 years from now, we look back and see another generation of poorly educated kids, this is going to be something that really puts the nails in the coffins for kids who have no access to good schools, and that expands this underclass and wage inequality. If you don't have a college education, you really are in trouble in this city."

Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People and, with Robert E. Pierre, A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's "Post-Racial" America.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter