Civil Rights Tour: Education - Federal City College, Education is Power

425 2nd Street NW

Originally the headquarters of the Securities and Exchange Commission, this 1949 building at 425 2nd Street NW became home to the nation's first urban land grant school when Federal City College (FCC) opened here in 1968. Funded via the sale of government land, these colleges were historically focused on training students in agriculture and mechanical skills. However, FCC originated with a 1963 report commissioned by President John F. Kennedy addressing the need for a public liberal arts college in the nation's capital. Most of the city's Black majority could neither afford nor gain admittance to private universities, and FCC's establishment was a concrete step toward the goal of providing Black residents with educational opportunities equal to those of whites. With just a high school diploma or equivalency certificate required for admission, and an annual tuition of $75.00, demand was so high that a lottery was initially used for selecting students; thousands were turned away.

With its 96 percent Black student body, FCC was regarded by many as an opportune environment for reorienting higher ed curricula toward the study of Africa and the Black diaspora. The FCC was on the cutting edge of education: "I was taking a course in Black literary criticism at a time when there were no anthologies on the subject," reflected poet Aldon Lynn Nielsen in 2015. Gil Scott Heron taught creative writing at FCC; poet Essex Hemphill was among the many D.C. literary notables who studied there; and the Trinidadian historian and political theorist C.L.R. James was a longtime professor.

In addition to providing day care and a remedial skills center at its main campus here, FCC offered extension courses elsewhere in the city on subjects such as child care and nutrition. Most significantly, it established a partnership with the DC prison complex in Lorton, Virginia, where around 2,000 black Washingtonians were incarcerated. Participants housed in Lorton's minimum security facility were bused downtown, while others took classes on site. "We must intervene in the criminal justice system to extricate from it our young manhood,” wrote project co-founder Andress Taylor. Taylor worked with the federal government to provide students with internships leading to permanent federal jobs. Graduates of the program also went on to help run it.

FCC's campus grew to include about 20 buildings, including the old Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square and the Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q streets NW, which the city purchased after the JCC moved to Rockville in May 1969. In 1975, Federal City College joined with DC Teachers College and Washington Technical Institute to become the University of the District of Columbia which then established the UDC campus in the Van Ness neighborhood. The federal government later negotiated a $1.00 annual lease with Mitch Snyder's Community for Creative Nonviolence to operate a homeless shelter in the former FCC building. The building was renovated, re-skinned and today continues to house Federal City Shelter, the city's largest homeless shelter.