Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Fence War

I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go. ~Langston Hughes

As one of the first suburbs developed in Washington, a home in the gated community of Le Droit Park came complete with a colorful gingerbread exterior, picket fences, and flowerbeds. Bordering the traditionally black Howard University, this “white only” neighborhood was established in the 1870s when it was sold to Howard trustee and real estate developer Amzi L. Barber. No expense was spared by architect James McGill, and the lavish houses cost $4,000 to $10,000 (a large sum for the 1870s). Soon Le Droit Park was referred to as the “Flower Garden of Washington.”

Simultaneously developing in the 1870s was the University. Chartered through Congress in 1867, Howard University’s mission was to educate African-Americans at a time when the concepts of segregation and “separate but equal” were becoming entrenched n American society. Despite the constraints, Howard developed into a reputable university and a home for intellectual thought among African-American elites. Howard professors resided in the predominantly black Howard Town area just north of Le Droit Park. On weekends these prominent African-American citizens would stroll through nearby McMillan Park, by then designated as a black park.

With the increasing influence of the university community, Le Droit Park became the center of a “Fence War.” The mansions of Le Droit Park represented what African-Americans were struggling to achieve, in addition to what white society was trying to keep forbidden from them. Residents of Howard Town grew frustrated with the segregation and inconvenience of having to walk around the neighborhood to get to and from Howard University. In frustration, African-Americans in the community tore down the fences of Le Droit Park, including a board fence on 4th Street across from the University. Subsequently, by securing court injunctions the residents of Le Droit Park reconstructed the fences. The cycle repeated itself from 1886 to 1891, when a compromise permanently removed the fences.

Not long after, the African-Americans moved in to the neighborhood; early residents included poet laureate Paul Laurence Dunbar and the first black municipal judge, Robert Terrell. As has often been the problem with racial tension, where blacks went, whites left. By the early 1900s Le Droit Park became a community for affluent African-Americans, gaining prominence in as a home for African-American congressmen, doctors, lawyers, and a frequent of Langston Hughes in the 1920s.

Sources: “How Le Droit Park Came to be Added to the City,” The Washington Times, May 31, 1903 (page 5).

Jacqueline M. Moore, Leading the Race (Virginia: The University of Virginia Press, 1999).

“Le Droit Park Historic District,” The Le Droit Park Historic Society, DC Historic Preservation Office.

“Neighborhood History,” Le Droit Park Civic Association, available online at (25 March 2009).
Picture Source: “How Le Droit Park Came to be Added to the City,” The Washington Times, May 31, 1903 (page 5).


  1. That's awesome. I had no idea.

  2. Neighborhoods change. I guess that's the bottom line. James McGill built a mansion for himself to live in where the present day Safeway stands.