Initially incorporated under the name Union Town, Anacostia began as a working-class community removed from the city and dominated by Navy Yard employees. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Union Land Association controlled the property and restricted land deeds to white owners only, making it an appealing place for individuals who resented the “encroachment” of Black individuals and families in other areas of the city. Shipbuilders, boilermakers, plumbers, carpenters, and blacksmiths filled the area, in addition to enlisted/commissioned Navy personnel.
The Civil War altered the fabric of the community through an influx of Union soldiers—and waves of the formerly enslaved, many of whom sought freedom and refuge in the Union capital. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Anacostia became a hub of Civil War activity by providing space for soldier’s healing and care, in addition to becoming a source of employment for those in the surrounding area.
In 1867, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (most commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau) purchased a sizeable amount of property located south of Uniontown. The space became a resettlement site for African Americans (particularly the formerly enslaved), with cheap plots of land and often a provision of lumber for building a modest home. Known initially as Barry Farm, the community grew quickly and was referred to by various names (Barry’s Farm, Potomac City, Hillsboro) before residents officially chose Hillsdale in 1874.
Three years later, the esteemed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass purchased Cedar Hill, the former property of John Van Hook (owner of the Union Land Association). Initially nine acres, the home and property eventually expanded to fifteen, and became a site of both solace and social calls for Douglass.
In 1886, the popularity of the name “Uniontown” across America prompted Congress to officially change the name of the suburb to Anacostia. This designation included the original Uniontown property and the surrounding subdivisions. Streetcar lines provided transportation for residents into the city center, and commercial development expanded steadily to meet increasing demand. Businesses proliferated along Nichols Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.) and Good Hope Road, including bakeries, drug stores, laundries, cobblers, warehouses, and grocery stores.
Development in Anacostia did not always extend from the majority-white center into the surrounding communities such as Hillsdale, which was majority-Black. Living conditions were not equal—as many individuals in Hillsdale continued to lack access to public water and electricity. However, the construction of an African American School in Hillsdale in 1901 (one of only two schools built for Black students that year) provided educational opportunity to surrounding children in the area.
During the 1930s and 1940s, land development of the area continued alongside increased racial diversification of the region. At the end of World War II, white flight into suburban Maryland and Virginia resulted in a majority-Black Anacostia. Damaging urban renewal programs, continued lack of access to basic living necessities, and highway construction that demolished established neighborhoods led to the area’s association with rising levels of poverty and crime. However, Anacostia also operated as a center of community organizing, civil rights activism, and Black activism. Continued investment in the community by its members is a defining aspect of Anacostia’s longer history, and the evidence is seen in neighborhood programs, restoration of historic buildings , and the preservation of public space.
The Anacostia Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978—with approximately 550 buildings comprising the historic district, dating from 1854 to about 1930. Most of the early houses in the historic district are free-standing or semi-detached frame structures with front porches and Italianate detail. Some larger, brick row houses and two business streets with early 20th century commercial buildings reflect the early history of the Anacostia community.
In October 2021, the historic district was expanded and additional documentation was published. The historic district’s period of significance now extends through 1948.
DC Inventory: November 27, 1973 (expanded February 3, 1978)
National Register: October 11, 1978
Additional Documentation and Boundary Expansion: October 28, 2021