Doug Siglin

Today is Proclamation Day in the District of Columbia.

Proclamation Day is not a real holiday, and you don’t get the day off with pay. According to Google, Proclamation Day is celebrated only in Australia and Latvia, which presumably have their own proclamations to celebrate. So I’m borrowing it to make a point about the persistence of history.

227 years ago today, President George Washington announced— technically, “proclaimed”—the borders of the District of Columbia, implementing a law passed eight months before. Actually, he only proclaimed the location for a “district for the permanent seat of the Government of the United States.” The name District of Columbia wasn’t used until later, after Washington had passed on.

To me, the interesting thing about Washington’s proclamation is this: the “Residence Act” law that gave him permission to locate the new capital required that it be “a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue.”

President Washington, consulting with Secretary of State Jefferson, decided that the capital district should lie slightly east of what the law allowed. So they persuaded Congress to amend the law “so as to include a convenient part of the Eastern Branch and of the lands lying on the lower side thereof, and also the town of Alexandria.”

On March 30th, 1791, the president proclaimed the location of the new federal seat of government. He did not have a press event. It’s likely that the only people who cared much were the few landowners who thought that maybe they would make some money. He was one of them.

By amending the Residence Act, Washington was able to make the Eastern Branch/Anacostia River run through the heart of the city we know today.

OK, but why should anyone care?

Because history is sticky, and the consequences of that decision are still very much with us today.

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Since the original proclamation day, the Anacostia River has divided the city into two parts, separate and unequal, physically and psychologically. For most of the city’s history, only two bridges spanned it. At Washington’s direction, Major L’Enfant planned the “City of Washington” only west of the Anacostia. This is where the federal government invested in creating the national capital city. The eastern part of the district was defined as Washington County, and remained rural for decades.

Washington County east of the Anacostia had a very different trajectory than the area to the west. It held slave-owning plantations, and then military forts. In 1867, it became the location for the first planned all-black community, Potomac City, popularly known as Barry Farm. In the 20th century, during the time of explicit segregation, it became the location for both all-white and all-black communities. Later, it received a lot of African Americans who were displaced in the “urban renewal” of southwest Washington, and a lot more from the great migration from the rural Carolinas and further south. More and more all-African American public and private housing complexes were built, particularly in Ward 8.

Although Washington County was unified with the City of Washington in 1871, public and private investments in the east continued to lag far behind those west. In middle years of the 20th century the white families east of the river largely left, although remnants of their residency remain, like the three Jewish cemeteries in Ward 8.

This week, the DC Policy Center released a comprehensive study on the current state of housing in the District. This is a serious piece of data-driven work. The executive summary is more than 15 pages long. The report quantifies the huge differences in housing that exist between the two sides of the Anacostia.

Other data-driven studies point to the persistent differences between east and west in a wide variety of social indicators. Data from DC Action for Children documents that median family income in Wards 7 and 8 – east of the Anacostia – has dropped significantly, while the city as a whole rises. The Washington Literacy Center estimates that between 10 and 15% percent of District residents are functionally illiterate. Most of these are likely to be east of the river.

Now that the District is prospering and economic development is jumping the Anacostia River, there are serious concerns about economic displacement of African American residents east of the river, particularly market-rate renters. The District government works hard to find effective policy solutions, and money, to continue to provide affordable housing, better education, training, job opportunities, and community amenities. Mayor Bowser titled next year’s city budget request presentation “A Fair Shot.”

Geographers like to say that geography is destiny. Clearly, both natural geographic lines and man-made ones have huge real-world impacts on laws and policies. Historians—especially advocacy-oriented amateur historians like me—have to be careful with correlation and causality.

However, as Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It is not too much of a stretch to believe that the 227-year-old proclamation to put the Anacostia in the middle of the nation’s capital started a cascade of events that has led to today’s troubling situation in DC, and the real need to create an implementable vision of a just, inclusive, and prosperous city across the river that still divides us.