A vote to designate portions of a Ward 8 housing development as an historic site has been delayed a third time – further exacerbating the frustration of supporters.
On Aug. 1, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) postponed a vote on whether to declare structures that have not been demolished and remain standing an historic landmark – a request made by the DC Housing Authority.
The postponement troubled Detrice Belt, president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association, who made little effort to hide her views.
“Our ancestors deserve this,” Belt said. “We wanted the vote to move forward and hope this delay is not a signal that the HPRB is responding to the needs and wants of developers over the need to preserve our community’s history.”
The HPRB heard impassioned testimony for three hours as current and former residents and activists from organizations including Empower DC, pled their case. However, lacking a quorum, HPRB members present could not call for a vote.
Barry Farm has a rich history in the District. It’s founding came when the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands bought 375 acres from the heirs of Washington merchant James Barry in 1868. The area provided Blacks with an opportunity to own land in the District in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Barry Farm became a middle-class enclave for prominent Black residents including family members of noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Then, in November 1942, the federal government chose Barry Farm Dwellings as the site of the first Black public housing project in the District.
In 1950, residents there attempted but failed to desegregate then newly-built John Philip Sousa Junior High School upon which they filed a lawsuit. The suit, Bolling vs. Sharpe, served as a companion case to the famous Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared public schools segregated by race as unconstitutional and thereby desegregated the District’s school system.
In the 1960s, Barry Farm Dwellings entered decline due in part to neglect by District and federal governments. But a band of residents, including Etta Horn of the National Welfare Rights Organization, worked diligently to improve the housing development demanding proper policing and maintenance.
In 2013, the D.C. government announced efforts through its New Communities initiatives to spruce up Barry Farm Dwellings with an upgrade in its housing stock – a decision that required residents, albeit with the promise that they’d be able to return upon the completion of the work.
Empower DC and Belt’s organization have made it clear: they want Barry Farm Dwelling to be a livable, vibrant community but don’t support forced replacement as a means of accomplishing that goal. In addition, the group initiated efforts of its own several months ago when it became clear that the District government had little active interest in preserving the community’s history.
The nomination for historic preservation has the support of organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the Historic Anacostia Preservation Society.
The Washington Informer sought explanation as to why the DC Housing Authority requested the postponement but did not receive a response. Meanwhile, a date for the September hearing has not been unannounced.
Salim Adofo, who serves on the 8C Advisory Neighborhood Commission which includes Barry Farm Dwellings, says his constituents have mixed feelings regarding the property.
“There are some of my constituents who definitely want to it to have an historical designation,” he said. “Others say the whole complex has got to go noting that the housing is not in good condition and they look forward to improvements and changes.”