Human Interest

Georgetown, the death of Washington’s “chocolate” neighborhood

By Sara Soteras i Acosta

Washington, May 15 (EFE).- In Washington DC, the so-called “Chocolate City” for its largely African-American population, one of the key elements is in the process of disappearing.

At age 66, Neville Waters is one of the few remaining native African-Americans in Georgetown, a neighborhood in the US capital that at one time was home to a large black community.

His case is “unique,” says Waters, a sixth-generation homeowner although many local residents had to leave their homes because of gentrification, before that phenomenon even had a name.

On a stroll through Georgetown, you can browse in the city’s most exclusive stores and sample cafes and restaurants typical of a wealthy neighborhood, which no longer retains any resemblance to its past and has now become a white enclave.

“Many black families have left, there are only about six left,” Monica Roache, 50, another black resident who has been living in the same house that her ancestors bought in 1941, told EFE. Her relatives were some of the victims of housing speculation, a situation that led them to move to other areas of the city and to the state of Maryland, located adjacent to the District of Columbia.

What at one time was an area with about 40 percent black residents, currently has just 7 percent, according to the “Black Book of Georgetown.” And it is the African-American community that has been in the district “from day one” with a history of slavery that marked the early days of the area, Lisa Fager, the director of the Black Georgetown Foundation, told EFE.

The history of blacks in Georgetown is really the history of blacks in the United States, said Fager, who added that there’s a need to ensure that people pay attention to the past.

Waters noted that the first generation of his family to come to Georgetown was that of Charles and James Turner, two enslaved twins who were freed when they were six years old with the abolition of slavery in 1862. They received compensation at the time of about $90.

Starting at that moment, the African American population began to carve out its independent place in US society.

In contrast to Waters, his parents lived in an environment where there was a “real sense of black community,” given the number of churches, schools, doctors and other services catering virtually exclusively to them. It was during the 1960s, when gentrification commenced, that many of them began to leave the homes their families had had for many decades.

Measures such as the Old Georgetown Act of 1950 were implemented under the pretext of protecting historic local architecture, thus opening the door to greater government discrimination, above all by the bureaucracy associated with the process.

As home and real estate prices rose, many African American residents could no longer buy or maintain homes in the area and began moving to other parts of the city.

In addition, Roache said that – in the case of renters – landlords made the condition of their homes so bad that they could not live there, in order to get the African Americans to move out.

She said she regrets that she couldn’t be part of those African-American organizations that “strongly united” the community, including the Girl Scouts or baseball teams, since by the time she was growing up there they had already disappeared.

She said her family worked hard to stay in Georgetown, with her grandfather holding down two jobs. Because they made such efforts to remain in the neighborhood, that is why she decided to continue to live there, Roache said.

This commitment is shared by Walters, who promised his grandfather before he died to stay in the family home. He said that his generation’s grandparents viewed acquiring a house as an achievement and wanted to pass it down to future generations, adding that he didn’t think they were thinking that one day these would be homes worth millions of dollars in which politicians and businessmen lived.

Some of the local African American churches are still open, including the Epiphany Catholic Church, where the women of the Roache family attend services, having been part of the congregation for decades.

The men, on the other hand, went to Mount Zion, which still has one of Washington’s largest African American cemeteries where people who were born and died slaves are buried. Specifically, the organization headed by Fager is working to preserve that cemetery, since, she said, it doesn’t receive any regular financing for that purpose.

One of the main demands for the cemetery, she said, is getting the “same treatment” received by many other cemeteries in the District of Columbia, which earlier were only for whites.

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