Growing up in Barry Farm-Hillsdale in the 1950s, an epicenter of social change and Black activism that swept Southeast DC, Anacostia historian Dianne Dale lived side-by-side with some of the community’s most prominent changemakers. She was even among the first waves of students to integrate into white high schools. But Dale, then a teen, didn’t realize she was making history, nor that her neighbors, churchgoers and family members gave her the right to enroll.
In fact, Dale didn’t know her neighborhood mobilized against segregation. She didn’t know what Brown v. Board of Education was. These were adult affairs – issues that were neither her business nor something to meddle in. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered many of the role models in her life were on the front lines in the fight for equality – a fight for her future.
“I had no idea he was going over to Sousa protesting,” Dale said of her godfather, Reverend Samuel Everette Guiles of Campbell African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Guiles transformed his church into a regular meeting place for anti-segregation activists. In September 1950, Guiles marched with the Consolidated Parent Group, a Northeast-based desegregation collective, to enroll Black students in John Philip Sousa Junior High School on Ely Place SE. The initiative failed, paving the way for a suit against the school board. Now known as Bolling v. Sharpe, this 1954 Supreme Court case and complement to Brown v. Board of Education decisively ended school segregation in the District.
Dale attended church with three of the case plaintiffs, too: Barry Farm resident James Jennings and his daughters, Barbara and Adrienne. Speaking with Adrienne years later, Dale says the young plaintiff, who was of high school age, didn’t remember much of the legal battle.
“Someone was always working toward our freedom when I was growing up,” Dale said. “Everybody worked for the benefit of the children. But nobody explained that to the children. They just said, ‘This is happening,’ and you do it whether you had a role or not.”
Communal History Sparks Activism
In Bolling’s case, Barry Farm-Hillsdale’s fight shaped education for Black children across the District. It’s a powerful example of a united community, says Anacostia Community Museum curator Alcione Amos, and its potential for igniting change. As protestors continue to occupy Black Lives Matter Plaza and demand racial justice, Amos points to the determination and resolve of the Barry Farm community as a critical piece of DC history worth commemorating today.
“Barry Farm/Hillsdale was a small African-American community amid white communities. Perhaps that’s what made a difference,” Amos said. “People could go from door to door and people knew everybody. Reverend Guiles said, ‘Let’s get together and do something about it.’”
Barry Farm’s communal history precedes its foray into social justice. It was developed by the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil war for occupation by newly freed African Americans. Barry Farm Dwellings was built during the Second World War to house African American war workers within the footprint of Barry Farm-Hillsdale. Barry Farm Dwellings’ design imitated European social housing styles that emphasized communal spaces for physical and mental well-being. Its 34-acre plot is also physically isolated by the Suitland Parkway and flanked by Congress Heights, which was an all-white neighborhood in segregated Washington.
“We hear oral histories from people who worked across the river and came back home to their own haven, where their community was,” Shoenfeld said. “They were motivated by each other.”
Prior to Bolling, there were no junior high or high schools for Black children in Southeast. Students had to commute across the Anacostia River, often on foot as buses only had capacity for Congress Heights children.
Conversely, in Northeast, the Consolidated Parents Group (CPG) formed to protest the poor conditions of Black schools. Group leader Gardner Bishop was outraged by mismanagement at Browne Junior High School, where his daughter had to attend school in shifts due to overcrowding. CPG soon connected with Howard Law attorney James Nabrit, who encouraged the group to launch a wider anti-segregation effort.
Shoenfeld notes desegregation was a means to a larger goal of improving the livelihood of the children. As stated by CPG member Nellie V. Greene, “The average parent did not give a hoot about his child going to a white school, but he did not want the fact that his child must be segregated used as an excuse for his being given sub-standard, obsolete, hand-me-down school facilities abandoned by whites.”
Bishop saw an opportunity with the opening of Sousa Junior High. Barry Farm-Hillsdale families had already petitioned the school board, having produced 400 signatures, mostly from residents from Barry Farm Dwellings, to integrate the school. On September 11, 1950, Bishop and Guiles organized the Jennings family, Stanton Terrace neighbors Spottswood and Wanamaker Bolling and others to enroll their children at the school. Amos suspects about a dozen students accompanied their parents.
“The principal was courteous, but said, ‘Nope. You can’t attend this school,’” she said. “That was the beginning of the whole thing.”
Bolling Paves Road for Future Fights
Bolling v. Sharpe, named for plaintiffs Spottswood and Wanamaker Bolling, targeted school board president Melvin Sharpe. Rather than arguing separate was not equal, as was typically argued in other civil rights cases under the Fourteenth Amendment, the case instead attacked segregation as a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. As the District was not a state, attorneys Nabrit and George E. C. Hayes instead contended that DC residents must receive the same protections as broader US citizens. Bolling also set the precedent that the federal government must adhere to the Fourteenth’s equal protection clause.
The District Courts initially dismissed Bolling, yet the Supreme Court asked to hear the case in 1952 as a companion to Brown v. Board. The Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the same day as the historic Brown ruling, paving the way for desegregation nationwide. If not for Bolling, segregation would have still been allowed to continue within the federal district.
Barry Farm Dwellings remained fertile ground for activists throughout the 1960s and the welfare rights movement. Stevens Road native Etta Mae Horn testified frequently before Congress on behalf of tenants’ rights and helped found the National Welfare Rights Organization. Today, Barry Farm remains a connected community whose latest activism throughout the neighborhood’s redevelopment led to the property receiving historic designation last fall.
“Our activists here in D.C. have made appeals directly to the federal government,” Shoenfeld said. “We have this special relationship, this lack of boundary between local activism and the federal officials.”
In anticipation of her book titled Barry Farm-Hillsdale in Anacostia: A Historic African American Community, Amos gives history presentations to former residents. She recognizes the same sense of community pride and resolve demonstrated decades ago.
“They didn’t know a lot of the history of the whole area or the beginning of the community,” she said, “but they have a sense of belonging. For me, I saw that, ‘We need to protect what is ours and not be just pushed out without protest.’”
For Dale, she realized the impact of Bolling one fall morning in 1956.
“‘You’re going to Anacostia High School,’” she said, quoting her parents. In many classes, Dale was the only Black student. Used to an Afro-centric curriculum, she now transitioned to learning about European affairs. Having been sheltered from her community’s fights for her equality in education, she didn’t fully understand what was at stake. But she was proud to take part on behalf of Barry Farm.
“You were going to put your best foot forward, because we had to show them what we could do or could be,” she said. “There was a kind of pride in being involved in things and doing things.”