By DCist contributor Scott Harris
Once a thriving settlement of the Nacotchtanks, a Native American Algonquian tribe, the Anacostia neighborhood was incorporated as Uniontown in the mid 1800s as a suburb of the District of Columbia. But Anacostia is not a synonym for the entirety of D.C.’s land mass east of the Anacostia River. The neighborhood, and it’s nearly coterminous historic district, has its own distinct character, charm, and trove of stories. Here are 10 facts about that history that you may not have known.
1. The Frederick Douglass House Almost Didn’t Exist
Cedar Hill House, the home of famous abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass, is located on about 10 bucolic acres in Anacostia. But the property almost missed out on becoming one of America’s great historic places.
After he died, Douglass’ children wanted to sell the property after his will was ruled invalid. He had intended to leave the home to his wife, Helen Pitts, who wanted to preserve the Cedar Hill in perpetuity.
She borrowed and scraped together enough money to buy the home herself, then spent years setting up the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. Eventually the federal government bought the property and established the historic site we know today.
The Frederick Douglass House is located at 1411 W Street SE.
2. Black And Irish People Were Once Banned From Living in Anacostia
At the time of its incorporation in 1854, seven years before the start of the Civil War, community leaders stipulated that “no Negro, Mulatto or anyone of African or Irish descent” would be allowed to buy, sell or rent property in Anacostia. The first person to break the rule? Douglass, when he moved to Cedar Hill in 1878.
Captain John Smith was one of the founders of Jamestown. (Photo by Ken Lund)
3. Captain John Smith Put Anacostia On European Maps
The truth about Captain John Smith’s deeds is rather more complex than the Disney version. Regardless, the same English explorer who founded the Jamestown, Virginia colony in the early 1600s also played an integral role in putting the Anacostia area on European maps. According to the National Park Service, “Captain John Smith recorded in his journals that he sailed up the Eastern Branch or Anacostia River in 1608 in his search for the main branch of the Potomac River and was well received by…Native Americans.” In his 1612 map, the area is called Natcotchtank.
Anacostia’s Big Chair was originally made of Honduras mahogany, and it weighed 4,000 pounds. (Photo by Kerrin Nishimura)
4. Anacostia’s Famous “Big Chair” Was a Furniture Store Advertisement
Even a city with as many stately landmarks as Washington still has its equivalent of the world’s largest ball of twine.
That would be the famous Chair that makes its home at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street SE. What is that 20-foot-tall chair exactly? What is it doing? What is it trying to tell me?
A 2006 Washington Post article quoted Anacostia pastor Willie Wilson as saying the chair represents a “seat at the table where all of us can come together.”
Strictly speaking, the Big Chair began life as an advertisement for a furniture store. But hey, the Louvre began life as a military outpost. It’s how you end up that matters, and after starting out as essentially an oddly shaped billboard in 1959 (it has since been replaced with a more durable aluminum version), it’s clear the Big Chair has become a true seat (sorry) of the community.
The Big Chair is located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street SE.
Officials broke ground on the Anacostia Busboy’s location in the fall of 2016. (Photo via Twitter)
4. The Newest Busboys and Poets Location Used to Be a Bowling Alley In Anacostia
The fifth D.C. location of the beloved Busboys and Poets book store/restaurant/performing arts mini-chain is nowunder construction in Anacostia, slated to open at the end of the year or early 2018.
The building has existed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue since 1940 and once housed a bowling alley. It has also served as home to a Masonic lodge and a furniture store. That’s quite a hodgepodge.
The under-construction Anacostia Busboys and Poets is located at 2004-2010 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
Lieut. Col. Leslie MacDill and and Private Joseph G. Gloxner were killed in a 1938 plane crash in the neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
6. D.C.’s Worst Airplane Crash of Its Era Occurred Here
It was 1938, and it’s pretty safe to say air travel was in its infancy. Lieutenant Colonel Leslie MacDill and Private Joseph G. Gloxner took off from Bolling Field (now named Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, which just rolls off the tongue, I think you’ll agree) but three minutes later, the plane went into a spin. It crashed and killed both men.
According to a newspaper account pulled by the blog Ghosts of DC, flames from the crash “leaped as high as 50 feet.” The BC-1 pursuit plane also destroyed power lines and three cars as it fell to the street. Luckily, no civilians were killed or seriously injured, but it still stood as the worst air accident in D.C. at the time.
And if the MacDill name rings a bell, MacDill Air Force Base in Florida is named for the pilot.
The Anacostia Community Museum is 50 years old. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian)
7 . The Anacostia Community Museum Is A Smithsonian
Since 1967, the Anacostia Community Museum has, in its own words, worked to “challenge perceptions, generate new knowledge, and deepen understanding about the ever-changing concepts and realities of communities.”
It may not be the highest-profile of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, but it has featured plenty of thought-provoking exhibits on topics ranging from the Civil Rights Movement to preserving urban waterways.
The museum also is unique for something that occurred behind the scenes while it was still in development. When it opened its doors, it became the nation’s first neighborhood museum to be federally funded.
The Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE.
America’s Islamic Heritage Museum opened in 2011. (Courtesy of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum)
8. And That’s Not The Only Museum In Anacostia
You might miss the unobtrusive, storefront-style entrance on the shady block where it resides, but America’s Islamic Heritage Museum has been operating in Anacostia since 2011.
As its name suggests, the museum, operated by a D.C. nonprofit, focuses on the Muslim-American story. Exhibits cover topics like the history of Muslims in the United States and famous Muslims in sports and entertainment.
America’s Islamic Heritage Museum is located at 2315 Martin Luther King Jr Avenue SE.
The National Park Service held a 100th birthday party for itself last year at the Anacostia skating pavilion. (Photo by Benjamin Strahs)
9. D.C.’s Only Remaining Roller Rink Is In Anacostia
If you want an actual, bona fide roller-skating rink and actual, bona fide four-wheeled roller skates to ride upon said rink, there’s only one option in D.C. these days: the skating pavilion at Anacostia Park.
There are larger rinks in the suburbs, but this is the only one in the city. Run by the National Park Service, it’s a solid deal for visitors, too. Admission is free to the covered outdoor rink and free skate rentals are available throughout the summer (check the website for specific days, which can change from month to month).
Beginners and experts are welcome, but if you wish to be neither, the acrobatics from some in the latter category can be something to behold from the sidelines. If you’re lucky, you might catch one of the shows put on there periodically by different groups.
The Anacostia Park skating pavilion is located at 1500 Anacostia Drive SE.
John Wilkes Booth fled across the 11th Street Bridge taking Good Hope Road and Alabama Avenue SE after killing President Abraham Lincoln. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
10. You Can Travel John Wilkes Booth’s Escape Route After He Killed Lincoln
After he assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth frantically fled D.C. The Anacostia Heritage Trail retraces the path Booth took, which ultimately led him into Maryland and then farther south. (He was located and killed in Virginia 12 days after the assassination.)
The trail—which was unveiled in 2015, the 13th of such routes in the city—is flanked with informational signs about Booth, the Civil War, and many other aspects of the neighborhood’s history. Not a bad way to spend a day if you’re an outdoor recreation and/or history buff.
And if that wasn’t enough for trail enthusiasts, the 11th Street Bridge Park soon will feature a trail over the Anacostia River. Often likened to New York’s High Line trail, it’s set to open next year.
The Anacostia Heritage Trail begins on the corner of Shannon Place and Howard Road.