‘Chocolate City’ Is Older than You Think

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By James Wright, Special to the AFROjwright@54.204.251.142

George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was the guest speaker at the Ward 8 Democrats meeting on July 22 at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast. Musgrove, one of the Washington area’s leading historians, is the co-author of the book, “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.” He told the 50 attendees of the meeting that the District’s history is deeply steeped in race.

“D.C. has been a Chocolate City since its inception,” he said. “Blacks, free and enslaved, worked on the building of the U.S. Capitol and other buildings and that was designed to keep White laborers in check. In the 1830s, D.C. became the only slave jurisdiction where there were more free Blacks than enslaved.”

George Derek Musgrove, a history scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, new books explores the history of ‘Chocolate City.’ (Courtesy Photo)

“Chocolate City” chronicles the Black presence in the District before the country’s founding. Musgrove and his co-author, Chris Myers Asch, noted the nation’s capital is located where it is to appease the slave states of the new United States. The book talks about the struggles of free and enslaved Blacks in the antebellum District and during the Civil War.

It also talks about the progress and digression Blacks had during Reconstruction and the period after. In its final chapters, the book talks about the city becoming the first major urban center to have a Black majority in 1957, White flight in the 1960s, Home Rule in the 1970s and the rise, fall and rise of Marion Barry. The book ends with the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty by then D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray in 2010.

Musgrove said the selection of “Chocolate City” in the title was deliberate. “We chose ‘Chocolate City’ for a title because Washington has always been a chocolate city, with a substantial number of Blacks living here,” he said.

Musgrove said another reason for the title is the strong African-American culture that has existed in the District since its founding, mentioning night clubs, Black musicians, and entertainers that had substantial influence in the city and throughout the nation.

“Culturally, Black folks were doing something special here,” he said.

The third reason for the moniker has to do with the politics surrounding the heavy Black presence. “Washingtonians of all colors want self-determination,” Musgrove said. “Advancements took place during and after the civil rights movement with the 1969 election of a school board and a non-voting congressional delegate in 1971 and culminating in Home Rule in 1973. All of these things took place even in the face of a growing Black population in the city.”

Musgrove told the AFRO that Barry, who was born in Mississippi and came to the District in 1966 as the chairman of SNCC, rose to power by paying attention to the needs of working class and low-income Blacks in the city.

“Barry knew how to count,” Musgrove said plainly. “While many Black politicians walked away from the Black empowerment message in the 1980s and 1990s, he never did and that is why he was so successful.”