The History of Washington, DC
The history of Washington, D.C., is tied to its role as the capital of the United States. Originally inhabited by an Algonquian-speaking people known as the Nacotchtank, the site of the District of Columbia along the Potomac River was first selected by President George Washington. The city came under attack during the War of 1812 in an episode known as the Burning of Washington. Upon the government’s return to the capital, it had to manage reconstruction of numerous public buildings, including the White House and the United States Capitol. The McMillan Plan of 1901 helped restore and beautify the downtown core area, including establishing the National Mall, along with numerous monuments and museums.
Unique among cities with a high percentage of African Americans, Washington has had a significant black population since the city’s creation. As a result, Washington became both a center of African American culture and a center of civil rights movement. Since the city government was run by the U.S. federal government, black and white school teachers were paid at an equal scale as workers for the federal government. It was not until the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a southern Democrat who had numerous southerners in his cabinet, that federal offices and workplaces were segregated, starting in 1913. This situation persisted for decades: the city was racially segregated in certain facilities until the 1950s.
Today, D.C. is marked by contrasts. Neighborhoods on the eastern periphery of the central city, and east of the Anacostia River tend to be disproportionately lower-income. Following World War II, many middle-income whites moved out of the city’s central and eastern sections to newer, affordable suburban housing, with commuting eased by highway construction. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 sparked major riots in chiefly African American neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park. Large sections of the central city remained blighted for decades. By contrast, areas west of the Park, including virtually the entire portion of the District between the Georgetown and Chevy Chase neighborhoods (the latter of which spills into neighboring Chevy Chase, Maryland), contain some of the nation’s most affluent and notable neighborhoods. During the early 20th century, the U Street Corridor served as an important center for African American culture in DC. The Washington Metro opened in 1976. A rising economy and gentrification in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to revitalization of many downtown neighborhoods.
Article One, Section 8, of the United States Constitution places the District (which is not a state) under the exclusive legislation of Congress. Throughout its history, Washington, D.C. residents have therefore lacked voting representation in Congress. The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave the District representation in the Electoral College. The 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act provided the local government more control of affairs, including direct election of the city council and mayor.
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