Oral histories of eight descendants of Chevy Chase DC’s Broad Branch Community of Black landowners evicted in the 1920s are now being conducted by college students as part of an academic-community partnership between HCCDC and the University of the District of Columbia.
The histories, to be documented on this website, are the first phase of a two-part program UDC has launched to delve into racial displacement of this small community that had thrived for more than a century on land we now know at Lafayette Park. Those landowners — many descendants of enslaved people — were forced off the land in 1928 so Chevy Chase could build Lafayette Elementary School, then for white children only.
The second phase of the UDC program, to start in June, will include 15 District high school students who will join the UDC students to examine this legacy of Black land loss, an all-too-familiar family history for African Americans in Washington, DC, and elsewhere across the nation.
UDC professor Amanda Huron, who created the UDC program from a matching $30,000 HumanitiesDC grant awarded last fall, said the summer program will be a formative experience for the teenagers and a national model for community-academic partnerships. Some students will be paid by the DC Summer Youth Employment Program, others will received college credit, and a few others will receive social service credits. She is still accepting applications from teens who wish to be on a wait list for the summer. Dr. Huron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The program evolved from a three-year effort by HCCDC to bring recognition to this nearly forgotten slice of local history. Racially restricted development by the Chevy Chase Land Company starting in 1907 eventually encroached on the small Black community made up of farmers and laborers, and a community-orchestrated campaign led city leaders removed them by eminent domain.
The HCCDC effort to acknowledge this stain of racial history started with an appeal to the DC Department of Parks and Recreation to pay for historic signage as part of the new rec center construction at Lafayette — a building just being completed this spring. It evolved into a petition drive that resulted in 500 signatories asking the DC City Council to change the name of the part to reflect this history. Components of the story are documented on the HCCDC website here.
Last fall the DC City Council voted to officially change the name to Lafayette-Pointer Park, reflecting the legacy of a formerly enslaved man named George Pointer. Pointer had worked for George Washington on his canal project as a teenager and was able to buy his freedom at age 19. It was his granddaughter, Mary Ann Plummer Harris, who settled along Broad Branch in the 1840s, joining a community of free people of color who had owned land there since around 1800.
Final edits have just been completed for the two historic signs this month that HCCDC created to tell the story of the Black community with deep roots on this much-beloved community asset, a history that many regular users of the park are surprised to learn.
One of the signs, featuring artwork by local artist Richard Swartz depicting Pointer’s granddaughter, 8-year-old Mary Ann Plummer Harris, piloting a U.S. president down the Potomac canal, will be placed on Broad Branch Road near that actual site of her old home. Landscaping will be done in cooperation with the Friends of Lafayette Park, and the sign will be at a height so children on their way to school can easily see it. A second, larger sign telling the complete story will be near the newly constructed recreation center.
High school students lined up for the summer program are ages 14 through 19 and are coming from Wilson, Burke, Washington International School and St. Albans, Dr. Huron said. They will be engaged in part of what the UDC students have been busy with this semester. Along with being trained in the method of oral history, the UDC students have studied the history of race in America from the perspective of a range of academicians, researchers, and victims of land loss. More than a dozen guest lecturers have conducted symposium-style conversations during class, allowing the students to delve deep into the systemic racial issues that have created the disparities of wealth, education, and societal status that persist today. Several of those lecturers will return this summer to engage the high school students.
The summer program will involve research, discussion, and community outreach, with the goal of presenting recommendations to the Chevy Chase D.C. community about how to reckon with this loss. Students will gain hands-on experience researching racially restrictive covenants and working with the oral histories conducted by the UDC students, as well as with the oral historians themselves. All products will be archived on the HCCDC website at historicchevychasedc.org.
The summer program will run from June 28 through Aug. 6, meeting four hours a day, four days a week. As of now, the plan is to run the classes virtually.