Built by DC’s Alley Dwelling Authority in 1942-1943, Barry Farm is historically significant as a center of Black activism in the 1960s. Named for original owner James Barry, a Washington city merchant and councilman who purchased the land in the 1860s. In 1868, officials in the Freedmen's Bureau obtained the property for the 40,000 refugees from slavery in the District who had arrived during the Civil War. Barry Farm became a thriving Black community that housed teachers, lawyers, politicans, and nurses. Well-known residents include Charles R. Douglass (Frederick Douglass's second son), Solomon Brown (elected to the House of Delegates and the Smithsonian's sole African American employee for numerous years), John Moss (attorney and justice of the peace), and Georgiana Simpson (one of the first Black women to receive a doctoral degree).
In 1941, the government took 34 acres of the community through eminent domain to create the Barry Farm Housing Development. At the time of its construction in 1943, the Barry Farm Dwellings were the largest subsidized housing complex for African Americans with 442 units. Connected by walkways on a parallel street layout typical of low-rent housing built during World War II, each unit contained between two to six bedrooms. Shared communal spaces were plentiful amidst the plain homes, and the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA) referenced the “unrationed” air and light available to incoming residents.
Families began to move into the units as early as November 1942, with priority given first to individuals displaced by war-related projects, and secondly to those in the military or war-related jobs. In the 1950s, multiple children from the Barry Farm Dwellings were involved in a lawsuit against DC’s segregated public schools. The case, Bolling v. Sharpe, was initially dismissed by local courts—but in 1952, the Supreme Court asked to hear it in conjunction with Brown v. Board. Barry Farm residents had worked diligently to raise money for their legal expenses by organizing raffles and fundraising dinners. Barry Farm residents proved essential to the larger case against segregation, and celebrated their civil rights victory in 1954 when Brown (and its associated cases, including Bolling) determined segregation to be a violation of both 5th and 14th amendment rights.
As the city began to transform at the beginning of the 1960s, redevelopment, “slum clearance,” and urban renewal programs displaced large proportions of African Americans. Demolition of Black neighborhoods forced many low-income African American families to seek refuge in public housing. In 1962, 94 percent of 5,000 families waitlisted for public housing were Black. Unfortunately, after only a little over 20 years of existence, the Barry Farm Dwellings were in incredible disrepair by the mid-1960s. Years of government neglect and a lack of consistent (if any) repairs to the buildings had introduced internal damage to the structures and left the community overwhelmed by cockroaches, rats, leaky faucets, burnt-out street lights, and crumbling ceilings.
Residents began to come together to demand better government treatment, forming the Band of Angels, a community activist group, in the mid-1960s. The Angels successfully achieved a $1.5 million renovation and ultimately formed the nucleus of the Citywide Welfare Alliance, which boasted 1,300 members from across the city by 1970. Etta Mae Horn, a resident of the Barry Farm Dwellings and civil rights activist who campaigned for welfare support, women’s parental and healthcare rights, and economic equality for African Americans, was essential in shifting the civil rights movement away from an emphasis on equal access to an emphasis on economic concerns. After a meeting with Etta Horn and the National Welfare Rights Organization, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first speech announcing the Poor People’s Campaign that would “establish that the real issue is not violence or nonviolence but poverty and neglect.”
Barry Farm was also a focal point for youth organizing in the 1960s, with the formation of Rebels With A Cause—a group of mostly young men who began agitating for community concerns and protesting against discriminatory policing and brutal police behavior. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael visited Barry Farm to attend a rally of 150 people; in 1967, well-known performer Eartha Kitt toured Barry Farm and testified with the Rebels before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. The Rebels gained national attention for their protests against police brutality and their establishment of community services (such as daycares, cultural activities, and employment assistance). They were viewed by many as a model for youth organizing in the city.
The Barry Farm Dwellings held a significant and diverse role in the Civil Rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s, and the remaining structures continue to highlight this history of essential community organizing in the District. By 2018, most of the Barry Farm Dwellings were demolished—but the units that remain are representative of the community as a whole. The structures remains under the ownership and administration of the D.C. Housing Authority.
DC Inventory: January 30, 2020