Some African-American Heritage of the Early Dupont Neighborhood

The Corner of 17th and R Streets NW Was Once Home to a Freed Slave Community, Pioneering African-American Educators, and Independent Business Owners.  

This article explores only a limited number of individuals who occupied a part of a single block in the 17th Street corridor and therefore offers only a glimpse of the many, many stories of the African-Americans that helped shape our city.   

By the end of the Civil War, as many as 40,000 former slaves had made their way to Washington from Maryland and Virginia.  Some built settlements which were to become the foundations of later African-American neighborhoods.  One of these settlements, Barry Farm, was located across the Anacostia River in southern Anacostia.   Unlike Barry Farm where freedmen purchased lots from the federal government and constructed their own homes, other settlements in town were made up of renters who may have preferred to avoid long commutes to their jobs in the city.

Early 17th Street home owner Anna Cooper was only the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree.

The newly-formed communities of freed slaves tended to be well-defined, providing formal and informal support and services not generally available to them elsewhere.  Households were likely to expand beyond the immediate family to include extended family members, boarders, and friends also newly arrived from Maryland and Virginia.  Boarding provided an important means for new arrivals to become acclimated to life in the city.  Through their hosts, boarders were introduced to employment opportunities, social groups, churches, and friends.  This network helped enhanced their mobility and also provided financial assistance for the unemployed, sick, and elderly.

In the 1870s, eight houses on the northwest corner of 17th and R Streets, NW (Square 154) formed one such community, where modest wood-frame, white-owned houses constructed around the time of the Civil War provided relatively affordable rentals for a small community of freed slaves to start new lives in the city. 

Boshke map (1857) showing Square 154 with a tributary to Slash Run running through its center.

These eight houses
were an isolated location, with nothing else yet to be built in the immediate vicinity. Many of the streets north of Massachusetts Avenue specified in  L'Enfant Plan for the City if Washington were yet to be laid out and a large amount of the area was still mostly pasture and farmland.  It was also a somewhat of an  unappealing area of land as an eastern tributary to Slash Run ran through the center of the Square 154 creating a boggy terrain.  In the 1870s by the Board of Public Works, headed by Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, buried Slash Run and its tributaries in underground sewer lines, helping to drain the area and make it more habitable, which helped lead to a building boom in the general Dupont Circle area in the 1880s.

Detail from 1887 Hopkins Atlas (modified) showing the African-American households along the 1700 block of R Street, NW.

Often, freed slave households resulted in what were considered as unconventional living arrangements for the times, with groups of single men or women sharing a house, or a single man or a group of men sharing a house with a widow.  The settlement on R Street was no exception.  In 1877, Fannie Minns, working as a messenger, Lizzie Olvis, and Elizabeth Smith occupied the house at 1715 R Street (#7 on map above).  Fannie later married Jerry Evans, a manual laborer, who lived next door at 1717 R Street (#5).  At 1721 R Street (#4, Joseph Burke, a blacksmith shared quarters with Mary E. Newman, a domestic maid.  At 1723 R Street (#3), Sarah Beverly, a widow, shared the house with Willis Herndon, a manual laborer.   At 1725 R Street (#2), Anna Gaskins, also a widow, shared the house with laborers Nathaniel Gilmore, Jesse Harris, Frank Wilson, and John Robinson, a driver.  At 1727 R Street (#1) lived Joseph Holmes, a waiter, Mack Jenkins, a hostler, and Samuel and Emma Taylor, all laborers who eventually  bought the house together.

By 1877, two additional houses had also been built on the southeast corner of the block.  Caleb L. Saers (“Sayers”), a white house builder, owned and occupied a house at 1711 R Street (#7).  Immediately to the west of Saers (#8) was a house owned by James H. Saville, a white lawyer and Chief Clerk of the Treasury Department that was occupied by a widow, Margaret Wells.  He later rented the house to two African-American men: Thomas Carter, a porter and Otho Martin, a barber. 
In 1877 the large vacant lot on the southeast corner of 17th and R Streets was subdivided into six new lots with addresses 1700-1710 17th Street, NW (lots 1 and 15-19).  That same year, six two-story brick houses were built on speculation were built on the lots, each with frontage of 16 feet on 17th Street, with basements, and with "modern improvements" (i.e. gas, water, and indoor plumbing) were constructed on those lots.  The corner building at 1700 17th Street was the deepest of the six buildings, double the depth of the others and running 82 deep along R Street.  The extra depth was probably so that the building could serve as a store, with enough floor area to accommodate merchandise and living accommodations above.

Detail from 1887 Hopkins atlas (modified) showing new brick townhouses (red) along 17th Street, NW

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By 1881, all the six houses from 1700 to 1710 17th Street were owned and occupied by African-Americans.  Like their neighbors on R Street, they too were born into slavery, but were mulatos, of mixed white and black ancestry,  and therefore had somewhat more of an advantage in bettering their socio-economic status.  These new residents of 1700-1710 17th R Street were independent businessmen, leaders in African-American education, both locally and nationally, government clerks, politicians, and noted clergymen.  

In 1881, Christopher Columbus “C.C.” McKinney, who was born in South Carolina in 1832, purchased the corner house at 1700 17th Street and (#1) and set up a grocery under the name of C.C. McKinney & Son.  McKinney had one son, Christopher Jr, and three daughters.  Christopher Jr., known as “Professor” C.C. McKinney, it seemed had little interest in the grocery business.  Also born in South Carolina in 1856, Christopher Jr. was an active organist and choir director in the prominent African-American churches around the city, including Shiloh Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church (then on 3rd Street between H and I Streets).  After his father sold the grocery business to German immigrant Ernest H. Schmidt, Christopher Jr. found work as a copy clerk in the Department of the Navy to supplement his income as a musician. 

Attrell Alexander Richardson purchased the house at 1702 17th Street (#2) where he would later live with his wife, Flossie.  Richardson was born in North Carolina in about 1848 and worked as a packer and folder at Coast and Geodetic Survey for 30 years.  Richardson initially rented the house to Henry Piper, a messenger for the Treasury Department where he lived with his wife Emma and his 13 children.  

Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.  Library of Congress.

Henry Piper was born around 1837 in Fairfax County, Virginia.  His family arrived in Washington in 1843, but his mother died in 1846 leaving Henry and several siblings to fend for themselves.  While not formerly schooled, Henry mastered the basics of a rudimentary education under the tutelage of Alexander Hays, an emancipated slave from  Maryland and one of the early pioneers in African-American education in Washington.  During the “Great Rival” of 1858, Piper joined the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. With a prominent and active African-American congregation, the church played a prominent role in the struggle for freedom, civil rights, as well as the founding of educational institutions.  Piper eventually became a church trustee and superintendent of the mis-sion Sunday school.  From 1853 to1857, Piper served in the U.S. Navy in various capacities and won the confidence and esteem of his associates and superiors.  

It was not an easy task for African-American Washingtonians to obtain jobs in the federal government. Access to even the lowliest positions—laundresses and laborers—required connections to prominent whites or blacks with ties to the government.  In early 1861, Piper informed Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase that he was “a poor, uneducated colored man” seeking “a situation in your Department.”  To bolster his application, Piper told Chase that he was “very well acquainted” with William Slade, the head servant in the Lincoln White House.  Slade was a member of Piper’s church, and who, like Chase, was also from Ohio. After three years and multiple letters of reference, in the spring 1864 Piper was finally hired as a messenger at the Treasury Department, where he continued to work until 1906.

William Slade, Abraham Lincoln's head White House servant.  Library of Congress.

Piper became one of the city’s earliest African-American political activists and elected officials.  Shortly after the Civil War, he joined the Union League of America, becoming its president in 1867.  Two years later, he was elected an alderman to the city government’s common council.  At that time, the local government consisted of a mayor and an eight-member board of aldermen, a 12-member common council, and a mayor elected by both the aldermen and the common council. 
When the local government was reorganized by Congress in 1872, it established a legislative assembly with an upper-house composed of eleven council members appointed by the President, and a 22-member house of delegates who were popularly elected.  Piper ran as a Republican delegate and was up against two formidable white opponents— Republican banker and real estate speculator Hallett Kilbourn, a Republican as well, and John M.  Binkly, a Democrat— but won by a margin of 23 over both candidates.   Piper became one of the council’s most outspoken advocates of racial equal-ity in the schools and public accommodations. 

Piper’s wife Emma died in 1880 after a short but painful illness at the age of 42 and the funeral was held in the house at 1702 17th Street.  Piper Died 1906 and his funeral was held at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.  Attrell Richardson died in 1918 and his funeral was also held at his home at 1702 17th Street.

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Due to its proximity to Howard University, the 17th Street area began to attract middle-class African-Americans, many of whom were Howard alumni themselves.  Howard University, founded in 1866, would see the education of 150,000 freed slaves by 1872. 
Two of the new houses on 17th Street were purchased by some of the earliest graduates of Howard University, who taught in and served as administrators of the city’s black schools.  Although teaching positions were high status jobs for African-Americans at that time, they were not the first choice for teachers in their own schools.  In 1880, at a meeting on African-American teachers in public schools held at the Madison Street Colored Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, J.D. Kennedy, ex-member of the Louisiana state legislature stated:

"We do not come, hat in hand, begging for colored teachers as a favor; we demand it as taxpayers and wealth producers.  If we are good enough to pay our mites into the coffers of the nation and State; is we are good enough to serve in the armies of the country in times of danger like that of 1862, we are good enough to be teachers in the public schools."

By 1881, Richard T. Moss had purchased the house at 1704 17th Street (#3) and moved from his home at 433 6 1/2 Street, SW.  After attending Howard University Preparatory School, Moss entered Howard University and graduated in 1876 at the age of 20 with B.A. and was the class salutatorian.  He began teaching, and by 1879 was teaching the fifth grade at the Mott School, named for Lucretia Coffin Mott, an American Quaker, abolitionist, a women's rights activist, and a social reformer.  Moss eventually became the school’s principal.

The Mott School, c. 1900 at 355 W Street, NW.  Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Moss was a staunch advocate for education reform.  As the speaker for Howard University’s 1883 graduation ceremony, he read an exhaustive paper attacking the present curriculum of the public schools, claiming that it left young men unprepared for life, and declared it foolish that a person should spend 15 years of his life ostensibly preparing for duties of public life, and yet be less fit for such duties than those who had not had any such preparation.  He thought that too little time was devoted to the demands of the present and that the past absorbed too much of a student’s studies and lamented the lack of European-style technical schools that combined an academic education with trade skills. 
Moss returned to Howard University and received an M.A. in 1886.  By 1889, he was teaching at the Stevens School and became principal there in 1891. Built in 1868, the Stevens School, located at at 1050 21st Street, N.W., is the oldest surviving public elementary school building in the District.  Named after Pennsylvania Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, it was built for African-American students as part of the city’s racially segregated public school system.  Still, the school was considered to have comparable facilities to those provided for white students.

The Stevens School at 1050 21st Street, N.W.  Library of Congress.

Even though Moss was a great educator, he seemed to have had trouble as a school administrator at Stevens School.  In 1891, the prominent African-American newspaper the Washington Bee reported: “Moss, the principal of the Stevens School has not the control of his pupils.  When a school con-trols the principal, he should step down and out.”  Moss’s inability to maintain order in the school may have been related to the fact that he was burning the candle at both ends; he had once again re-turned to Howard University and was working on medical degree that he completed in 1892.  Unfortunately, Moss died the following year, probably from exhaustion.

Robert Lynwood Mitchell purchased the house at 1710 17th Street (#6) around 1881.  Like Richard Moss, Mitchell was also a teacher and principal at the Mott School.  Mitchell was born in Virginia in 1856 and was a graduate of Howard University’s class of 1872.  While at Howard, he met and mar-ried fellow classmate, Mary Orick, who was described by the Washington Bee as “a lady of remark-able refinement, as well as industrious.”  Together, they had four children, three girls and a boy.  Two of the children also became teachers.

Mitchell left Mott School and returned to Virginia to become secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, now Virginia State University.  Mitchell eventually resigned this position to assume charge of his father-in-law’s livery business. 

The Mitchells settled in a commodious brick house on South Braddock Street in Winchester, Virginia.  Mitchell proved to be a successful businessman and at one point had up to forty employees.  In addition to the livery business, he also had a large farm a few miles outside of Winchester where he raised enough food to feed his family and supply the local markets.   In what was probably a racially-motivated act, an arsonist set fire to the stable and Mitchell lost thirty or forty carriages and many fine horses.  Robert Mitchell died in Winchester in 1917.  

Possibly the most prominent figure on the block was Anna Julia Haywood Cooper who bought the house at 1706 17th Street (#4) in 1889.  Cooper was an author, educator, public speaker and one of the most important African-American scholars in United States history.  But unlike her other neighbors who were also educators, she never had any formal connection with Howard University.

Anna Cooper was born in 1858 in Raleigh, North Carolina to an enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley, and her white slaveholder, George Washington Haywood.  At the age of nine, Anna enrolled in St. Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, where she successfully petitioned to be able to take classes traditionally offered only to boys.  In 1869, at the age of 11, she became a student teacher at the institution.  

At age 19, Anna met Reverend George A. Christopher Cooper from Nassau, British West Indies and they were married a short time later on June 21, 1877.  He was the second African-American ordained clergyman in the Episcopal Church in North Carolina.  Only two years later, George Cooper died and left Anna a widow at the young age of 21.

In 1881, Cooper enrolled at Oberlin College, where she again refused to take the inferior “ladies course” in favor of the “gentlemen’s course.” Cooper received her B.A. in 1884, and then returned to Oberlin and earned a M.A. in mathematics in 1887. 

After attaining her master’s degree, Cooper moved to Washington, DC in 1888 and began teaching at the Washington Colored High School.  The school was founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth as an educational mission run out of the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.    It would later become the M Street School, and then Dunbar High School after the death of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1906.  At the time, it was the only all-black high school in DC.  The building is now the Perry School. 

The M Street School at 128 M Street. Built between 1890-1891, it is now the Perry School. 
The academic reputation of the M Street School was well-known and many African-American families moved to Washington D.C. simply to send their children to the school.  Within a few years of its establishment, many of the faculty members were African-American, and were well paid for the time. The goal of the school’s leaders was to prepare the students for higher education at colleges and universities.  Over the years, the school produced a large number of college graduates and its alumni included many prominent educators and public figures.

During her first year teaching at the M Street School, Cooper bought a house in Ivy City.  Ivy City at the time was a small neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C. laid out in 1873 as a suburban development specifically for African-Americans.   But after only a year there, she purchased the house at 1706 17th Street.

During her time as a teacher at the M Street School, Cooper also founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892.  That same year, she also published her landmark book, A Voice From the South, that argued that womanhood was a vital element in the regeneration and progress of African-Americans.  In response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the YWCA, she was instrumental in opening the first YWCA chapter for black women. 

Cooper became principal at the M Street School in 1902.  But her outspokenness both in and out-side of the school garnered contempt from white colleagues and supervisors.  She was dismissed from the school in 1906 after a controversy erupted surrounding her character and behavior.  But when a new superintendent was appointed in 1910, Cooper was re-hired at the school as a teacher. 

Cooper decided to return to school again and enrolled at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1924.  Upon receiving her Ph.D. in history, she became the fourth African-American woman ever to earn a doctoral degree.   While continuing to teach at the M Street School and working on her doctorate, she was also raising five children whom she had adopted in 1915 after her brother had passed away.
Dr. Anna Cooper wearing her doctoral robes.

Next door to Anna Cooper at 1708 17th Street lived James L. Jasper.  Jasper was born in 1851 in Fairfax, Virginia. In 1875, Jasper found employment with the U.S. Post Office Department, where he was promoted numerous times.  In 1878, he married Annie Parker, also a native of Virginia, and together they had nine children.

Influenced by his devoutly religious parents, Jasper was called to the ministry at an early age and became actively involved with the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, once located at the corner of 19th and I Streets, NW and is now on 16th Street, NW.  Founded in 1838, the Nineteenth Street Bap-tist Church was the first, and today the oldest, African-American Baptist congregation in Washing-ton, D.C.  Since its founding, the church has figured prominently within the historical and social fabric of Washington, D.C.'s African-American community.
Reverend James L. Jasper

Through taking evening classes at Howard University, Jasper received a certificate from its theology department in 1905.  The following year, he was ordained at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church by a counsel composed of the church’s pastor and two delegates from each of the city’s black Baptist churches.  In 1906, Jasper established the First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, Maryland that started with only 19 members.  Services were first held in a private home until the church moved into a one story building in 1907. 

The original Nineteenth Street Baptist Church
at 19th and I Streets, N.W.  Library of Congress.

With only a small, if any, income as a minister and with a large family to support, Jasper continued to work as a mail clerk at the Post Office Department.  Yet by 1910, Jasper had acquired numerous properties, including his 17th Street home, N.W., and a summer residence in West Lanham Hills, Maryland.  He became a pioneer in the construction of houses in North Brentwood, acting as a small-scale developer at a time when housing discrimination based on race was common.  This ex-ample of self-help is still a common theme in the tight-knit community of North Brentwood—the first incorporated African-American community in Prince George’s County.

Jasper continued to live at the house on 17th Street until his retirement from the U.S. Postal Service when he moved to North Brentwood to reside with his daughter, Addie, and her family.  He remained pastor of the First Baptist Church until 1935 and continued to own the 17th Street house into the 1940s.

In 1889, Mary McKinney, the daughter of grocer C.C. McKinney at 1700 17th Street, married Wyatt Archer at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.  Mary at the time was a principal in one of the city public schools. Uncommon for a black wedding at the time, the description of the wedding appeared in the society page of the predominantly white newspaper the Evening Star, and closely followed the description of a party given by Dupont Circle’s high society socialite, Mary Leiter.  The article noted that the bride was given away by her father who was wearing a neat-fitting traveling suit.  

Wyatt Archer was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1859 where he attended public school.  He attended Howard University Commercial Department between 1870 and 1871 and then its Pharmaceutical College, graduating with a degree in pharmacology in 1888.  He then took a job with the U.S. Treasury Department and was promoted from one rank to another until he reached the esteemed position of a clerk.

The year he was married, Archer contracted to build a new, two-story, brick, detached house for himself and his new bride immediately behind, and on the same lot, as his father-in-law’s at 1703 R Street.  The house was designed by the prominent architectural firm of A.B. Mullet & Co.  The firm’s founder, Alfred Bult Mullet, is perhaps best known as the architect of the Old Executive Office building, but Archer’s modest house was probably designed by one of his two sons who were in business with their father.

Mary Archer died in 1890.  Funeral services were held at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church where the couple had been married only the year before.  In spite of his wife’s untimely death, Archer became socially prominent and quite wealthy dealing in real estate in predominantly African-American Ivy City neighborhood.

Wyatt Archer house at 1703 R Street, NW behind Chastleton Market, circa 1969.  Historical Society of Washington, DC.
Archer would again fall on hard times in the next decade.  He had become a director of the Capital Savings Bank, the first black-operated bank in the District of Columbia   that began operations in 1888.  But by 1902, it was in financial difficulty and had stopped paying on checks and was forced to suspend operations and finally failed in 1904.   Depositors sued each of the bank’s officers individually.  In 1905, Archer found himself in bankruptcy court for debts totaling $100,892.82 in depositor claims and was declared bankrupt.  
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With advent and popularity of large apartment buildings after the turn of the century, the 17th Street corridor began to change from residential to mixed residential and commercial.  As was the trend along Connecticut Avenue at the same time, commerce was slowly moving north, replacing what were once single-family residences with stores to service apartment residents.  By the 1920s, this commercial wave had reached the 1700 block of 17th Street.

Many of the homeowners in the 1700 block of 17th Street took advantage of the opportunity provided by the commercialization of the neighborhood, keeping ownership of their houses while leasing them to businesses and renting the remaining rooms to borders, with a preference for black borders, perhaps to help give them a leg up.  The result was a succession of mom and pop businesses as well as several grocery stores catering to the needs of the many residents of the new apartment buildings.

The building with the most consistent use throughout its lifespan was the corner grocery store at 1700 17th Street.   C. C. McKinney sold his grocery business to Ernest Schmidt, a German immigrant. The store changed hands several more times until it was bought in 1928 by Lebanese immigrant, Frederick Neam.  Neam promptly renamed it the Chastleton Market, undoubtedly to attract the attention and business of the residents of the Chastleton Apartments only a block away on 16th Street.  

In 1903, Archer moved to 1714 P Street and rented out the house on at 1703 R Street, advertising for black tenants.  He sold the house in 1918 to Harry W. Kenner, a white man who lived and worked at his pharmacy cross the street at 1711 17th Street.  Archer died of a stroke at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1929 while visiting a niece.  Kenner converted Archer’s house  into a store with second-floor four-room apartment in 1925.  In a classified ad he ran in the the Evening Star to lease the property, Kenner included the line: “Will consider colored.”  This was ironic in a neighborhood historically occupied by African-Americans and particularly for a house built by a prominent African-American, who when he himself leased the house, specifically sought African-American tenants.
Caleb Saer’s house was razed by 1913 and the rest of the wooden houses along R Street were ultimately razed for the construction of the Rocksboro Apartment building at 1717 R Street in 1923 and the Art Deco-style Pierre at 1727 R Street in 1939.
Developed on land purchased room Howard University in 1873, Le Droit Park was planned and developed as a residential subdivision of large freestanding houses and duplexes of related architectural design and was an early attempt at racial integration.  Its homes  have been occupied over the years by prominent District and national figures, including many noted black educators, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and District mayor Walter Washington.
In 1926, Anna Cooper sold her house on 17th Street and moved 201 T Street, NW in Le Droit Park.  Her former house on 17th Street was immediately converted into a business property. 
Anna Cooper purchased the house at 201 T Street in Le Droit Park in 1926.  HABS, Library of Congress.

Although Cooper’s retired from the M Street School in 1930, it was by no means the end of her career in education.  The same year she retired, she accepted the position of president of Frelinghuysen University, a school founded to provide classes for DC residents lacking access to higher education.  Cooper worked for Frelinghuysen for twenty years, first as its president and then as registrar, and left the school only a decade before she passed away in 1964 at the age of 105. 
Around 1926, Richard Moss’s former house at 1704 17th Street was leased to the new Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain.  About a year after Piggly Wiggly opened, A&P (the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) opened only three doors up the street at 1710 17th Street in Robert Mitchell’s former home, adding yet a third grocery store to the block.  
1700-10 17th Street, NW, circa 1969.  Historical Society of Washington, DC.
The Admiral Dupont condominium building now stands of the the site of the houses that once occupied 1700-1710 17th Street. NW.

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