GW professor studies D.C.’s integration success story

Times were good in the United States in the early 1950s. American sons and daughters were back from war in Europe, the economy was rolling along, and it seemed that for white Christians, the opportunities for advancement were endless.

For others, opportunities were harder to come by. Many blacks and Jews, hoping to capture their own piece of America’s golden prosperity, were denied access to the same privileges their fellow citizens enjoyed.

In the Washington, D.C. of 1950, black communities were clustered around the Capitol because real estate agents refused to sell them land in the burgeoning suburban areas of Virginia and Maryland, which were reserved for whites.

But at the same time that some communities failed to move beyond their traditional composition, others flourished under their own vision of social change.

The Shepherd Park neighborhood in Northeast D.C. began building a racially and ethnically integrated community in the late 1950s. Dr. Phyllis Palmer, an associate professor of American civilization and women’s studies at GW, has examined Shepherd Park and other success stories of America’s integration age. She will present her research at GW’s third-annual Scholars’ Showcase Tuesday in the Marvin Center.

By 1950, the nation already was growing familiar with the term “white flight,” the mass exodus of white residents from downtown areas into which blacks had moved. The flee to the suburbs, however, left many inner cities throughout America financially crippled and physically run-down.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. changed the situation a but. At least on paper, the federal government no longer condoned segregation, but change was slow and difficult to enforce.

But residents of Shepherd Park, at the corner of Georgia Avenue and 16th Street, have been actively pursuing a fully integrated community for more than four decades. In 1958, a group of mostly Jewish residents founded Neighbors Inc. with the stated goal for “people to live together and be good neighbors.”

Working toward a neighborhood without racial divisions, Neighbors Inc. sought out realtors who did not discriminate and encouraged whites to stay when the first black family moved to the neighborhood in 1960.

“Neighbors Inc. got people together to talk and learn about each other,” Palmer said.

The neighborhood hosted art fairs, a visit from Robert Kennedy and a reception in honor of African diplomats, which made the front page of The Washington Post.

Shepherd Park eventually emerged as a racially diverse neighborhood of well-educated, middle-class residents. Palmer suggests several types of individuals who made the initial success of the community a lasting reality.

“Many men who fought in World War II saw the effort and dedication of blacks and whites oversees, fighting side by side. This strengthened their commitment to equality at home,” she said, adding that the nature of the war itself played a large role in changing the ideology of many Americans.

“We were fighting a war against highly racist opponents,” she said. “That caused the country to really examine the injustice of racial division.”

Neighbors Inc. also appealed to younger people, committed to bringing the principles of the flourishing civil rights movement to their own backyards.

Finally, Palmer notes the many religious leaders who participated in the project, “trying to live out what their faiths say about religious equality.”

“I was surprised how, as a neighborhood, they are being constantly challenged, even today, to create the kind of place they want,” she said. “They have to fight all of the time. But they hold out a challenge to all of us. If we don’t set out to consciously create the type of society we would like, it’s never going to happen.”

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