Take a Tour of Historic Barry Farm

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The history of Southeast Washington details communities of change and contrast. What once was becomes something entirely new, and, thanks to historians like Alcione Amos, the area’s expansive past is not forgotten.

“It grabbed me, the idea of doing a tour,” said Amos, curator at the Anacostia Community Museum and host of last month’s historic Barry Farm/Hillsdale tour. “Barry Farm has disappeared from the consciousness of the people, even the people who live in this neighborhood.”

The name itself has metamorphosed, along with the rest of the area. Before each of her events and lectures, Amos is quick to clarify that the Barry Farm in question is the neighborhood designed and acquired by the Freedmen’s Bureau as a home for Reconstruction-era African Americans – and not the public housing unit that arguably comes to mind first for most Ward 8 residents.

View of Nichols Avenue (today Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) around 1905. The intersection of Nichols Avenue, Howard Road and Sheridan Road was the center of the neighborhood until the 1950s. This view looks toward the 11th Street Bridge. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It is through pointing out the differences of then and now that Amos resurrects Barry Farm proper. Beginning on Morris Road at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church and ending at the now-faded line between Anacostia and Barry Farm at Maple View and Morris Road, Amos illuminates a thriving community through photographs juxtaposed with the unassuming buildings that stand today. According to Amos, each stop builds on a narrative of community triumphs and contextualizes the neighborhood’s decline from the 1940s on.

“It was part of telling how important people came out of here,” she explains. “Part was telling the sad story, like the destruction of Barry Farm and public housing. And part to show the activism.”

Moments of activism include daring attempts to integrate all-white pools by diving (quite literally) headfirst into the cause, and Barry Farm’s pivotal involvement in the fight to desegregate Washington’s schools in the 1950s.

Amos notes harrowing stories that evoke shock from her listeners. “In one of the presentations I gave, one woman who was on the tour who also attended the presentation said, ‘How is it that nobody knows this? People should know this.’”

Amos reflects, “People should know this. This should be in schools. People should be aware that this was not always a place where there was crime and drugs and despair.”

Map of Barry Farm, 1867. The Freedmen’s Bureau established the Barry Farm settlement for African-Americans in 1867. It contained 375 acres, bought from the Barry family, which were divided into 359 lots in nine sections. Image: Library of Congress Maps and Geography Division

Local or not, anyone can become a sightseer of Historic Barry Farm by visiting and learning about these local sites:

  1. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Built in 1921, it was the first African-American church in Barry Farm. Previously, African-Americans had to worship in the basement of segregated St. Theresa d’Avila.
  2. Elvans Road. This street was home to prominent Barry Farm residents, including Solomon Brown, the first African-American Smithsonian employee, and Frederick Douglass Patterson, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  3. Douglass Road/Mt. Zion Hill. Despite drastic changes since the founding of Barry Farm in 1867, a church and a school remain on these streets as they did over 150 years ago.
  4. Sheridan Road and Stanton Road. Stickfoot Branch, the area’s biggest creek, caused devastating floods in the early 20th
  5. Sheridan Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. This area marked the commercial and social hub of Barry Farm.
  6. Barry Farm Dwellings. These housing units, acquired by the government to welcome an influx of African-American workers during World War II, are being torn down for redevelopment.
  7. Anacostia Park and Anacostia Pool. As a segregated park it divided Barry Farm from Anacostia, a white neighborhood. In 1949, a riot broke out over efforts by local youths to desegregate the whites-only pool.
  8. Old Anacostia Market and Douglass House. When Frederick Douglass moved into Anacostia, he was one of the first African-Americans to purchase property in the area.
  9. Maple View and Morris Road. This site marked the line between a predominantly white neighborhood, Anacostia, and Barry Farm.

Amos is currently working on a book on the history of Barry Farm. For more information, visit the Anacostia Community Museum’s website, http://anacostia.si.edu.