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Community News

Long Awaited LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale Heritage Trail Now Open

By Maybelle Taylor Bennett*

After four years, many hours of community meetings, historical research, the collection of oral histories and historic photographs, the LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale Heritage Trail was formally opened. This two-and-a-half mile tour of 16 sites provides an approximate 90-minute stroll through the two adjoining

neighborhoods. Trail markers describe the rich history of the first planned development in the Nation’s capital, the eclectic architectural expression of its neighborhoods, the social and racial integration of its housing, and the area’s intellectual and cultural evolution.

LeDroit Park ornamental gateway. photo--Maybelle Taylor Bennett.

LeDroit Park ornamental gateway. photo–Maybelle Taylor Bennett.

The Trail begins where Florida Avenue, 6th and T Streets, NW meet at what was once the “gateway” to LeDroit Park, a planned suburban enclave close to the city’s streetcar line along the northern border of the City of Washington. LeDroit Park began as a gated community established in 1873 by a Howard University professor and trustee, Amzi Barber, together with a local real estate developer, Andrew Langdon.

Initially developed for white households only, the gates surrounding the community were intended to restrict through-passage of the predominantly African-American residents of Howardtown to the north who would cut through the area on their way to work in the city. In 1893 the community began to be settled by blacks and became a premier neighborhood for African-Americans of distinction, many of whom had some affiliation with Howard University, which had been founded in 1867.

This James McGill-designed T Street mansion formerly housed performers who frequented the Howard Theatre. photo--Maybelle Taylor Bennett.

This James McGill-designed T Street mansion formerly housed performers who frequented the Howard Theatre. photo–Maybelle Taylor Bennett.

The trail winds its way through historic LeDroit Park past the homes of Dr. Ernest Just, a renowned cell biologist; Walter Washington, the first elected mayor of Washington, DC since 1871; and Robert and Mary Church Terrell, the first black Municipal Court judge in the District of Columbia and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, who fought to gain equal access to restaurants, and other public facilities in Washington, respectively. The trail continues to the Anna J. Cooper Circle and on to near the home of famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar after whose poem “Emancipation” the trail has been designated “Worth Ambition.”

This James McGill-designed mansion overlooking Anna J. Cooper Circle, NW was the former home of General William Birney and Arthur Birney. photo--courtesy Lauretta Jackson private collection.

This James McGill-designed mansion overlooking Anna J. Cooper Circle, NW was the former home of General William Birney and Arthur Birney. photo–courtesy Lauretta Jackson private collection.

Throughout the LeDroit Park neighborhood, trail walkers will pass by a remarkable collection of architectural styles, including Second Empire, Victorian Gothic, Chateauesque, and Italian Villa — all assembled in distinctive and rhythmic patterns continuing eastward into the Bloomingdale neighborhood. From there the trail proceeds to the southern end of McMillan Park where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a reservoir and filtering system that once served as an open park around a beautiful “lake so blue,” and still provides drinking water for downtown communities as well as those east of the Anacostia River.

Bloomingdale was also home to such well-known residents as actor Chita Rivera, best remembered for her role in West Side Story; prominent Washington businesswoman and activist Flaxie Pinkett; former Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts; American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers; and psychiatrist Ernest Y. Williams.

March, 2009 view of Bloomingdale row houses on Flagler Street, NW. photo--courtesy of Flickr user Ronnie R under Creative Commons license.

March, 2009 view of Bloomingdale row houses on Flagler Street, NW. photo–courtesy of Flickr user Ronnie R under Creative Commons license.

The classic Victorian row houses that line Bloomingdale’s streets were built by well-respected Washington designer developers such as Harry Wardman, Francis Blundon and Thomas Haislip. Trail markers provide walkers with a brief history of the struggle for equal access to both residential and educational facilities for African-Americans in this handsome community. Legal battles were fought to overturn covenants restricting the sale of homes to African-Americans in Bloomingdale, some of which were fought by Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard University’s law school. And Bloomingdale found itself home to both segregated public schools and an integrated parochial school at St. Martin’s Catholic Church which produced the first black Catholic naval chaplain and the first black priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky.

February 3, 2010 following a light dusting of snow. photo--courtesy of Flickr user Vicki under Creative Commons license.

February 3, 2010 following a light dusting of snow. photo–courtesy of Flickr user Vicki under Creative Commons license.

*The writer is a member of the original LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale Heritage Trail working group, and currently is coordinating the hosting of the launch event planning committee meetings in collaboration with Cultural Tourism DC.

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