Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Barry Farm Dwellings

Sumner, Eaton, Stevens and Wade roads SE

"They say we have outside agitators . . . . Heck, when you're living like this, you don’t need anybody from outside to agitate [for] you." (The Washington Post, December 25, 1966).

Barry Farm Dwellings was just over 20 years old in 1966, and already falling apart when a Washington Post reporter interviewed residents for her article, "Hope Ebbs and Tempers Rise: Underground Poor Fight Funds Cuts." Driven by poor living conditions combined with constant harassment by welfare investigators in the 1960s, tenant activist Etta Horn went from organizing her neighbors at Barry Farms, as it became known, to becoming a leading national welfare rights activist. A neighbor of Horn's, quoted above, agreed that conditions were bad. Rats and cockroaches ran rampant, faucets leaked, and one resident's ceiling had crashed onto her stove.

Although the majority of the tenants at Barry Farm received government assistance, most could still barely afford to feed or clothe their families. They risked losing access to welfare benefits by taking jobs that paid even less, such as babysitting for a neighbor so they could go to work. Welfare investigators visited at all hours, entering without permission in search of boyfriends or husbands, whose presence could disqualify women from receiving public funds. From the perspective of Horn and her neighbors, the city directed more resources toward surveillance than it did toward basics such as maintaining furnaces and planting grass.

While public housing residents had endured such conditions for years, in February 1966 an infusion of federal dollars suddenly provided resources and funds for Barry Farms residents to organize. President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, announced in 1964, called on "maximum feasible participation" by the poor and, via DC's United Planning Organization, directed funds to Anacostia's Southeast Neighborhood House to organize tenants.

The newly formed Band of Angels—an all-women tenant association—soon began picketing the city's welfare department and the Alexandria home of its director. Rebels with a Cause—comprising at least 250 young adults and teenagers—demanded improvements around Barry Farm Dwellings, from functional street lights to recreation facilities, job training, and responsive, respectful policing. Participants were coached by seasoned activists and attended seminars at the Institute for Policy Studies to hone their skills and network with grassroots leaders from other cities. Within a year, funds for fixing up Barry Farms were increased and re-allocated to essential needs, recreation programs were established, day care and job counseling were provided, and a black police captain was assigned to the local precinct.

As of 2019, Barry Farm Dwellings was partially demolished in preparation for redevelopment of the site.