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Ten years ago, I lived in Washington, DC, and watched the cranes dotting the landscape along the northern banks of the Anacostia River. I recently moved back to the city and now the cranes have been replaced with skyscrapers. Gleaming riverside walkways lead to new restaurants overlooking the sea. The once littered river is free of plastic bags.
The economic development of a city is often called progress. However, in most of the city, it has had the effect of reducing Washington’s black population to the point that « Chocolate City » is no longer an appropriate nickname. Now, the last of the predominantly black portion of this once predominantly black city is east of the river in Wards 7 and 8, in neighborhoods like Anacostia, Congress Heights, and Barry Farm.
I was in Anacostia with members of the Headway team, right next to the 11th Street Bridge Park that Megan Kimble wrote about for Headway in August 2022. Residents spoke to us about the changes they were seeing in their neighborhood, changes that are often distilled into one word: gentrification. We’ve heard from hundreds of longtime residents, newcomers, and visitors to the neighborhood over the past few months, and met many more at the Anacostia Riverfront Festival, where we set up a booth to capture a time capsule of the community.
Progress Is Complicated for Black Americans in the U.S. Every time I tell someone I edit Headway, which tackles stories that explore the world’s challenges through the lens of progress, I think of the frozen, stuck, or backward movement for Black Americans in the key indicators of socioeconomic status, including life expectancy, home ownership rates and access to banks. The issue that Headway has covered the most is housing insecurity. Black people make up 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness in the United States, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. The reason for this isn’t mysterious: It’s the product of decisions made over decades that have limited progress toward equity for Black Americans.
For many black people in Anacostia, those skyscrapers across the newly lit river are dangerous signs. Rents and taxes are rising while the percentage of black home buyers in the area is declining. Many residents will tell you that Anacostia has its challenges and that more investment in the community could help. Good parks and better funded schools are widely regarded. But the intrusive luxury buildings and long-promised bridge park could also lead to displacement, as has happened in other parts of the city in recent years.
While in Anacostia, we looked for examples of majority-Black communities with thriving economies: thriving Black-owned businesses, high Black home ownership rates, high accumulation of Black wealth, and other indicators of progress toward economic equity for black Americans. Our exploration brought us back to the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, once the financial center of the African-American community, which was torn apart 102 years ago by whites in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Victor Luckerson, who conducted more than 200 interviews for his recently published book on Tulsa, wrote for Headway about how the concept of the group economy—Black Americans supporting a local Black economy—fueled entrepreneurial success in Greenwood , asking the question: Are there modern-day examples of what a predominantly black community in the United States can be?
This is the starting point of an exploration we call Progress, Revisited. We look back on historic moments of progress toward racial equity for Black Americans since the turn of the 20th century and look forward to their lessons and legacy in the present day. We are following in the footsteps of scholars commissioned by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights to explore the persistence of racial inequality in five fundamental aspects of life in the United States: the economy, education, health care, justice penal and housing. In each of these areas, we are looking for moments where black communities have made significant progress toward racial equity and asking how we are building on or learning from those advances today. In my introduction to the series, I included a quiz to test your knowledge of how far we have and have not come toward improving economic equity measures for Black Americans.
Any attempt to document the progress of black people in the United States owes a debt to WEB Du Bois. Du Bois brought an iconic series of images to the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900: a selection of distinctive photographs and data visualizations. Du Bois intended to supplant the image of enslaved black Americans with the vision of a free black nation growing in health and power, despite the extraordinary resistance of white supremacy at every turn.
Du Bois, who died on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington, understood progress in terms of generations. Among the questions he sought to illuminate were some that resonated through my conversations with parents and older adults in Anacostia at the Riverfront Festival, and which I invite you to reflect on with us: Are we doing better than our ancestors? Are we building on their best ideas and learning from their worst mistakes? What kind of future are we preparing the next generation for?
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