The history of Deanwood’s local foodscape – The D.C. Policy Center – DC Initiative on Racial Equity
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This excerpt has been adapted from Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. (UNC Press, April 2019). In this book, Ashanté M. Reese makes clear the structural forces that determine food access in urban areas, highlighting Black residents’ navigation of and resistance to unequal food distribution systems. Linking these local food issues to the national problem of systemic racism, Reese examines the history of the majority-Black Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Reese not only documents racism and residential segregation in the nation’s capital but also tracks the ways transnational food corporations have shaped food availability. By connecting community members’ stories to the larger issues of racism and gentrification, Reese shows there are hundreds of Deanwoods across the country. Reese’s geographies of self-reliance offer an alternative to models that depict Black residents as lacking agency, demonstrating how an ethnographically grounded study can locate and amplify nuances in how Black life unfolds within the context of unequal food access.  Image: uncpress.org

What is now known as Deanwood was once farmland worked by enslaved Black people. Ninian Beall, a white farmer, initially acquired it as part of a land grant in 1703.[1] Ownership changed hands multiple times, but by 1833 Levi Sheriff, another white farmer, purchased it. When he died, Sheriff’s three daughters subdivided the land in 1871 after realizing that the decline the family farm underwent during the Civil War was likely irreversible.[2]

When the sisters developed these subdivisions, it is likely they assumed that white families would be attracted to the newly built homes, the expansive landscape, and the railway that ran through Deanwood from Bladensburg, Maryland, to a Potomac River wharf. By 1873, however, only two plots of land had sold, for a total of $50.[3] In 1874, the next buyer purchased one of the subdivisions, offering the sisters two plots in the city center in exchange. Reverend John H. W. Burley, who purchased the subdivision, was the first African American on record to purchase land in the Deanwood area, setting a precedent for Black landownership in the community.

Archival records between 1874 and the turn of the 20th century are unclear concerning how African Americans heard of Deanwood or why they chose to move there. It is likely that word of mouth traveled routes similar to those followed by the people who made up what we call the Great Migration—throngs of Black people looking for opportunities in urban centers around the country. What is clear, however, is that Black residents established institutions that were key to community sustainability. Between 1880 and 1886, residents built Contee African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Burrville School, the first to serve African American students in the greater Deanwood community. In 1909, Nannie Helen Burroughs opened the National Training School for Women and Girls.[4] […] By 1926, at least six additional churches were built, several along the main thoroughfare that would later be named Sheriff Road after one of the white slaveholding farmers who originally owned land where Deanwood sits.


Photo credit: Juan Pineda / @criomatic_designs

The mass exodus of African Americans from southern cities during the Great Migration left its mark on D.C. generally and Deanwood specifically. In 1920, Washington, D.C.’s Black population was 110,000.[5] Ten years later, that number had grown to 132,000, with a great majority of new Washingtonians hailing from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, where the agricultural system had begun to decline after World War I.[6] These migration trends were consistent in Deanwood. Among the residents included in an oral history project conducted by D.C. historian Ruth Ann Overbeck, eight out of 20 participants or their families had migrated to Deanwood from other southern states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Others moved there from other parts of the city and did not detail if they had origins elsewhere.[7]

Their reasons for choosing Deanwood varied. Some families sought Deanwood at the encouragement of friends or relatives who already lived there. Others came in search of educational opportunities for their children and thought Deanwood would provide a better environment. Still others were seeking more progressive racial and economic climates than what they experienced in their home states. Though migrants could not escape the anti-Blackness that created little or no access to schooling and a sharecropping system in the South that amounted to another form of bondage, urban centers like Washington, D.C.—combined with the talents they brought with them—gave them hope for creating better futures for themselves and their children.

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In D.C., communities that formed reflected Black people’s commitments to surviving in spite of white supremacy. Compared to a neighborhood like Shaw, which had emerged as a center of Black culture and intellectual life in D.C.,[8] Deanwood seemed like the backwoods. Established by freedmen on the outskirts of Washington City in the nineteenth century, Shaw was home to several prominent African Americans and to some of the most prestigious African American institutions: Howard University, the Whitlaw Hotel, Industrial Savings Bank, and Freedmen’s Hospital.[9] Though it had the only amusement park for Black residents in the early twentieth century and was well connected to railways, Deanwood neither looked nor felt as developed as its counterpart.

The Suburban Gardens - Deanwood

Above: Deanwood’s Suburban Gardens amusement park. Photo by William Henry Jones, Scurlock Studio (1927). From The New York Public Library (Source)

Deanwood, east of the Anacostia River, was considered by other Washingtonians as distinct from “the city” of Washington because of its relative physical and social isolation from the African American epicenters.[10] City services were slower. Roads were not paved until well into the 1950s, and even then, some residents still did not have indoor plumbing. A hand-drawn map from 1948 (below) described Deanwood as “mainly a Negro residential area” that, in spite of nicely kept homes, displayed “the usual characteristics of a Negro neighborhood in the outlying sections of Washington, such as a lack of ad


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