Power of Place in Washington, D.C.

The research question I had throughout this project was: how do DC residents feel and think about famous landmarks and neighborhoods in the nation’s capital? I wanted to highlight the stories of local Washingtonians since when people think of D.C., they think about the Mall, the Capitol, the White House, etc. and less about the local history of the capital. I was inspired to do this project during my summer internship at the Department of Homeland Security where I came across several oral histories of Anacostia and Congress Heights residents from the 1989 reflected on how they thought of the federally owned, historic hospital – as the unofficial dividing line of segregation between Anacostia, a historically Black neighborhood, and Congress Heights, a historically white neighborhood. St. Elizabeths Hospital was a psychiatric hospital established in 1852 by an act of Congress to treat Navy and Army personnel and D.C. residents, but the residents in those oral histories didn’t view the site as a historic place or as a hospital. Instead, the interviewees showed posterity how they viewed St. Elizabeths Hospitals in their daily lives. Through this project, I wanted to highlight similar stories of how D.C. remember and feel about famous landmarks and neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.

For this project, I delved into oral histories conducted of Washingtonians from the AU Humanities Truck, DC Public Library, DC History Center, and the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. I also included two oral histories conducted of American University students from the Class of 1969 since they resided in the District for a chunk of time during college and shed light on what was occurring in the city and at the university during a tumultuous time in U.S. history.

In order to find stories, I looked at various oral history transcripts. I looked for any mentions of specific places and neighborhoods in D.C. that detail how the resident felt about a specific place or remembered a specific place. The oral histories at the DC Public Library were largely organized by neighborhood, such as Barry Farm, Chinatown, and Marshall Heights. The oral histories from the DC History Center were also organized by neighborhood, such as one folder detailing oral histories from Anacostia residents and one for Congress Heights residents. In the oral histories from the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, the collections were not organized by location, so I read through each oral history to see any mention of a place, such as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Capitol, and Inauguration Parades. The AU Humanities Truck was organized by event, such as the Class of 1969 Reunion and the Knickerbocker Theater 100th Anniversary Commemoration. Even as several collections were organized by location or event, I scanned through the transcripts to view if the residents in that particular oral history mentioned a specific site or neighborhood in recalling various life events. In the end, I added over 60 stories to this project on the map.

In order to show these stories, I created a Google My Maps that shows each site. I chose to note each site with a red star to make it stand out on the map for people and to not confuse it with other icons Google Maps uses to designate different places. For each site, I included the name of the resident being interviewed, the excerpt from the oral history, and the link to the full oral history recording and/or transcription from the archives the oral history originated from. For some locations, I included a note about the historical context for certain sites that are not as well-known outside of the D.C. area. For instance, I included historical contexts for Ben’s Chili Bowl, St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the Knickerbocker Theater since many D.C. and non-D.C. residents might not know about these sites and their historical significance to D.C. local history. Additionally, for sites with numerous oral histories about it, I included a number on the label in order to make it easier for people to keep track which oral histories they have already read about that site and showing how many people have reminisces about this site or neighborhood. Barry Farm, St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the Capitol Hill Neighborhood all have the most recollections with seven each.

Overall, I really enjoyed this project. I learned so much about local D.C. history through these residents’ oral histories. Since I have lived and attended school in the District, I have been interested in uncovering and learning more about local D.C. history. It is important to remember that while D.C. is the nation’s capital, it is also equally as important to highlight and document the rich local history of America’s capital. For instance, I learned about the Knickerbocker Theater disaster and Camp Simms, which was a former D.C. National Guard site in Southeast D.C., due to this project. It was incredible to hear in Washingtonians’ own words how they felt and viewed national and local landmarks and neighborhoods, providing a view into what it is like to live in America’s capital.

For further research and if I continued to add to this project, I would add more oral histories from the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project I did not get to this semester. Additionally, I would add oral histories from the Rainbow History Project. I would also visit the Chevy Chase Historical Society to comb through the numerous oral histories that have been conducted of their neighborhood’s residents and look through the Washington Metro Oral History Project and The Lessons of the 1960s Oral History Interviews collections at George Washington University’s Special Collections. Since Google My Maps does not allow for me to add audio files, I would either look at other platforms that would support audio files or create an accompanying website (as Professor Owens suggested to me) or SoundCloud account for the Google My Maps.

Here is the link to the Power of Place in Washington, D.C. project: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/edit?mid=1X12_GLzbFX29uL2xbFyij4nPBxh-w0Q&usp=sharing

I hope you all have a great time perusing the site and learning more about our nation’s capital and the city we attend graduate school in!

-Meredith Jackson

4 Replies to “Power of Place in Washington, D.C.”

  1. I really admire how you dove into a complex topic headfirst. The incorporation of oral histories was particularly unique, as we discussed in class, oral histories are often undervalued and ignored in historical scholarship. Great work!

  2. Meredith, this turned out great! I love maps and I love oral history, so this was really fun to look at. I think placing oral histories on a visual plane like this adds a really interesting new dimension. I loved clicking through all the pins and reading what other people through history have had to say about places I pass by now.

  3. Meredith, I love your project and how great it turned out! It’s very interactive and engaging and one can easily get lost in all the neat things about the city. I really love your use of oral histories, because I feel like oral histories are often overlooked in the public as such an important source of research. I also really like the utilization of oral histories because it adds a personal touch to the tour. While people are learning more about the city, they are also learning more about the people who once lived / still live in the environment. And places are all about people’s connections to them, so I think it’s very cool!

  4. Hi Meredith! This project is really cool! I personally just really think oral histories have a lot to offer as an historical format, and tools like this are really effective ways of making oral histories much more accessible for folks in a way that isn’t really possible in non-digital spaces. This is a small comment, but I do think the stars were a good call, they do make it look really distinct from other markers that might be on the map. I also think you got a really interesting spread of locations, which is especially important given your focus on local history! That wouldn’t really wok if you didn’t actually show any histories in specific areas, so the spread was great to see!

    I hope you have good luck integrating the audio itself into this project, I’d love to listen to the curated excerpts on top of the written transcripts and other historical information you provided!

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