Place and Race

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Place and Race

Stories and Histories of DC

Whether you grew up in D.C. or have only been here a few weeks, knowing and understanding the city you live in is important. These books cover parts of the history of D.C. and focus on the ways in which race has intersected with politics and the way we live here.

Most of these books focus on the history of black and white communities in D.C., which of course is only part of the story, but it's a major factor in the way our city developed and the way it is now. There are many other books that could be on this list, but these are mostly ones I've read myself and so can personally recommend.


Snow-storm in August: the Struggle for American Freedom and Washington's Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley
This book is an eye-opening look at a time in our history that few of us know about: pre-Civil War D.C. The author weaves together the macro-forces which caused the city to simmer with racial tensions, as the free black population of the city swelled and many people became successful citizens of their new city. He also does an excellent job of telling the individual stories of the people whose lives and deaths intersected in the summer of 1835. The riot, sparked by the supposed attempted murder of a white woman, resulted in white Washingtonians destroying the property of blacks, injured many others, and killed a prominent restaurant owner. Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner, was the District Attorney at the time, and his choices about how to prosecute echo down to today.

Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood
Originally published in 1995, the new edition of this book has a new afterward that covers the dramatic transformation of the city in the last 20 years and how many of the questions of racial divisions and politics continue to be central to the city's narrative. From the beginnings of home rule to the struggles the city has had in governing itself and keeping Congress out of it, this book does a great job of covering the recent history of D.C. government, politics, and social issues.


Washington's U Street: a Biography by Blair A. Ruble
Instead of focusing on a particular event or a particular person, this history tells the story of a neighborhood. While most Washingtonians have been to U Street, few of us probably know the long history of U Street as an African American neighborhood and why that is. This longer but easy to read book covers a large swath of the city's history. The more recent pieces, of course, feel more relevant to understanding our current city, but U Street's early history also sheds light on race, economics, and politics in D.C. now.

Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City by Derek S. Hyra
This brand new book is getting a lot of local press coverage, as it traces the gentrification of the Shaw neighborhood. Very timely, this book is written with a more academic tone and perspective, but for those of us who are living through this time, it brings some important perspectives and arguments to light, backed up by the author's ethnographic fieldwork.

S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption In D.C. by Ruben Castaneda
Another book that covers the recent history and politics of D.C. written by a journalist, S Street Rising is part memoir, part history, and part sociology. Castaneda, a transplant from LA, tells his own story of dealing with addiction in D.C. in the 80s and 90s while he also narrates a city caught up in an unexpected epidemic. Castaneda is Hispanic, which introduces a nuance the other books in this list don't touch on, and while this book does not focus particularly on race relations in D.C., it does permeate much of the story, especially in later chapters as neighborhoods like Shaw begin to gentrify. This book is a powerful personal story and an important reflection on D.C.'s most recent past.