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National Archives and District of Columbia Records

By Matthew Gilmore*

There’s an immediate threat to access to important District of Columbia records at the National Archives. Plans are a-foot to transfer much of Record Group 21, “Records of the District Courts of the United States,” to Kansas City, Missouri. Why is this important? So much of Washington’s local history is bound up in litigation and these records are vital to understanding that history.

The court records for the District date back to 1800. See, “21.10 Records of U.S. District and Other Courts in the District of Columbia, 1801-1993.”

The National Archives has two public facilities in the historic Archives building on Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets, NW (designated as Archives I) and in College Park, Maryland (Archives II); there is also the records center in Suitland, Maryland. It is implausible that there is not enough space to keep the records locally.

The threatened move of the DC Court records from Archives I, is not to College Park, but all the way to Kansas City. The records themselves may sound obscure, but they are key sources for deep understanding the texture of Washington’s history.

Just a few examples from my recent research: cases such as Morris v. United States, which led to the creation of East and West Potomac Parks, created from the Potomac River; United States v. Annie E. Cole determined how public space would be used in Washington; the equity case of John L. Newbold vs. District of Columbia is key to understanding a corner of Georgetown history when Bellevue was moved and Q Street extended.

These archived records document family history as wills are disputed and neighborhood history as subdivisions were created (Bloomingdale, Palisades, Washington Heights, Kalorama Heights, Clark Mills estate, Meridian Hill, Rosedale, Twining City; see, “A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902.”)

While recently the DC government has begun to devote more attention to its Public Records Office (including the DC Archives), vast stores of DC’s records are carefully maintained by the federal National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) — all to its credit. Some of the most important ones can be found on the Archives’ District of Columbia “Research Our Records” website page.

This is a good thing given that NARA has resources that DC simply does not have. Many, or most, of the records directly relating to DC are located at Archives I — the original Archives building, conveniently entered by the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Other stashes of records are located at Archives II, the facility in College Park — less convenient but still local.

The argument is simply this: No records of the District of Columbia should be housed outside metropolitan Washington. It is the duty and responsibility of archival institutions to preserve records and to make them accessible.

[Note: click here for Record Group 21 locations.]