On Dec. 5, the D.C. Council passed a bill, authored by council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), titled “The Office on African American Affairs Establishment Act of 2017.” The bill would create an office to develop, implement and support policies and programs for Black advancement in the District. The office would also have the authority to write grants for organizations that support Black communities in D.C.
“I was there at the D.C. council chambers when the bill was introduced,” Ward 7 Resident Cinque Culver told the AFRO. “This is a good thing. African Americans represent 46 percent of the city’s population and they should be studied and recognized for their contributions.”
Since its inception on July 16, 1790, the District has had a significant Black population because of its location close to Maryland and Virginia and its status as the nation’s capital. In the 1850s, the District was noted for having more free Blacks than slaves within its borders. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law that freed slaves in D.C.
In 1955, the District was hailed as the first major city in the country to have a Black majority, with 51 percent of the population at that time. In 1975, the city made major headlines when census figures showed that 71.5 percent of all District residents were Black, which was a high percentage at that time in the nation for a major city and a state-level jurisdiction. The high percentage of Blacks led to the District becoming known as “Chocolate City.”
However, the Black population dipped below 50 percent in 2010 as more Whites moved into the city while many Blacks left to live in Prince George’s County and other Washington, D.C. suburban areas.
While Todd’s legislation would not have been taken seriously 20 years ago, Culver said it is needed now more than ever. “The African American population should be supported just like all of the groups in its population,” he said. “The city is gentrifying and the city’s past history needs to be remembered and celebrated.”
Aaron Holmes, running for the Democratic at-large position on the D.C. Council in 2018, told the AFRO he likes Todd’s bill for its grant-making authority. “I think it is important for the District government to give grants to organizations that work to help African Americans in the city,” he said. “These organizations will help African Americans prosper in the city and preserve our history and legacy.”
Todd, who chairs the Committee on Government Operations, held a hearing on his legislation on July 6, with the majority of witnesses indicating the bill is needed. The council member emphasized during the hearing that his bill would put the OAAA on par with the Mayor’s Office on Community Affairs such as Latino Affairs, Office of Asian and Pacific Islanders and African Affairs.
While the OAAA bill has support, there are also doubters. “I don’t like this bill at all,” Ralph Chittams Sr., told the AFRO. He said the District has always had a strong Black presence and for many years was run administratively and or vicariously by Black people, and that the city has long had Blacks in management positions even before the Civil Rights Movement.
“This bill is saying that Black people need help in order to function in D.C.,” he said. “To me that is racist. Council member Todd is saying that we as Blacks are incapable of succeeding in a city that we play a major role in managing.”
Chittams said that Todd’s grant-making authority to OAAA is suspicious. “To me, those grants are going to go to the usual cronies,” he said. “You will have these fake non-profits that will get D.C. government money and the leaders of these non-profits will pay themselves a big fat salary while doing nothing for Black people. This is welfare for the well-connected.”
The bill is headed to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) for her consideration. Bowser is a political ally of Todd’s and she is expected to sign it.