Civil Rights Tour: Political Empowerment, Walter Washington

408 T Street NW

Walter Washington (1915-2003) became the first African American mayor of a major American city, and the first mayor in DC since 1871 when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the position in 1967. Washington served as mayor-commissioner from 1967-1974, but after the city finally won the right to self-governance in 1973—thanks to campaigns waged by Rev. Walter Fauntroy, SNCC's Marion Barry, and grassroots activists across the city—he then became the city's first elected mayor (1974-1979).

Congressional passage of DC's home rule act was a milestone in local politics and a major achievement for many veterans of the southern Civil Rights Movement who moved to DC in the late 1960s. Washington served during this seminal period in the city's history.

A native of Jamestown, New York, Washington first came to DC in 1934 to attend Howard University where he earned bachelor’s and law degrees. Although engaged in community and civil rights groups, such as the Washington Urban League and the New Negro Alliance, Washington was not a radical activist. He focused instead on a career in housing, moving up the ranks at the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA) and in 1961 becoming executive director of ADA’s successor, the National Capital Housing Authority. After a stint in New York City heading up the larger Housing Authority there, Washington returned to DC in 1967 when President Johnson made him the city’s mayor-commissioner, replacing the three-man commissioner form of government that had ruled the city since 1874.

Walter Washington and his wife Benetta Bullock Washington—a national leader in education policy —moved to her family home at 408 T Street NW when they married in 1941. Following Benetta Washington's death in 1991, Washington purchased and connected his house to the adjoining house at 410 T Street.