The United States of America's ongoing struggle for racial equality is reflected in the history of Rock Creek.
When Rock Creek Park was established in 1890, DC's slaves had been emancipated for fewer than 30 years. The legacy of slavery and discrimination would not be easily erased.
Earlier in the 19th century, some free blacks lived in the rural countryside near Rock Creek, including a community founded in Brightwood in the 1830s. But many more residents of African descent suffered in bondage. As the most significant slave owners in the area, the Peirce family depended on enslaved blacks in their enterprises, including Peirce Mill.
After slaves in the nation's capital were freed in April 1862 — more than eight months before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — scores of slaves who fled captivity in the South came to Washington to volunteer for the Union cause. Called "contrabands" because in Confederate eyes they represented valuable property, these poorly paid freedmen helped build and maintain the city's Civil War defenses. Many of them were based at Camp Brightwood, located close to Fort Stevens. The fort itself was built on land owned by a free black named
Elizabeth Proctor Thomas. Like many whose homesteads were seized for the war effort, "Aunt Betty" never received compensation.
The area's African American population surged after the war. With the opening of the National Zoo in 1891, Rock Creek valley provided a gathering spot for black Washingtonians on the Monday after Easter. The enduring tradition may have started because, at the time, African Americans were barred from the White House Easter Egg Roll, yet many black workers had Easter Monday off.
Jim Crow nests along Rock Creek
Before Rock Creek Park came under the authority of the National Park Service in 1933, some of the DC officials managing the park opposed integration. Army engineer Clarence Sherrill — park supervisor from 1921 to 1925 — was rebuked in the African American press as "the same man who recently had posted signs in Rock Creek park segregating persons of Color, and also the same man who was in charge of the segregated seating arrangements at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial" (Chicago Defender 8/5/1922).
The local chapter of the NAACP began protests in 1930 after discovering that many park picnic areas were still off-limits to black visitors. For three decades ending in the 1930s, only white children were admitted to Camp Goodwill, the park's summer haven for underprivileged kids. When the DC Recreation Board voted in 1945 to mandate segregation at District facilities — including those on federal land — the headline in the Baltimore Afro-American (6/23/1945) read: "Recreation Board Okeys Jim Crow – Eloquent Protest of Tan Member Ignored – Hate Boys Win 4-2." The Board changed its policy in 1949 only after an ultimatum from the Interior Department.
Even as late as 1964, Rock Creek Park was cited on the floor of the Senate as Hubert Humphrey made the case for landmark civil rights legislation:
Mr. President, suppose you attempted to go into Rock Creek Park with your loved ones on Sunday, but discovered you first had to go to court for authority to use these public facilities? How long would most white citizens tolerate such a state of affairs? Is it any wonder that colored people demonstrate?
Unearthing black history
Archeologists have studied the homesteads of several African Americans who lived in Rock Creek Park at the time of its founding.
The only black property owners were Jane Dickson and Charles Dickson. Each had a small house and garden on separate quarter-acre plots not far from present-day picnic areas along Glover Road. Among the items found on one parcel was the metal figure of an African American man — part of a toy representing a mule cart driver, once a common occupation for black males.
Elijah and Sarah Whitby rented property near where Broad Branch flows into Rock Creek, paying Isaac Shoemaker three dollars a month for a two-room house and a stable. Based on pottery found at the site, researchers say the home may have been built in the early 1800s and was probably occupied for decades by African Americans. [See the top of the previous page for an artist's conception of the house, based on 1880s drawings by the Smithsonian's Delancey Gill.] By 1900, Sarah was a widow, raising nine children and working as a laundress. Some evidence of her clientele was found among the 52 buttons unearthed on the property. One was inscribed "Saville Row," the neighborhood that housed London's finest tailors.
Documenting these households represents one way to honor the memory of the many African Americans who made essential contributions to the history of Rock Creek valley. Acknowledging the injustices they faced helps us appreciate the modern era in which all visitors are welcome to experience together the beauty of Rock Creek Park.