Civil Rights Tour: Political Empowerment - John A. Wilson/District Building

1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Constructed in 1908 to serve as DC's city hall, this building at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue was historically known as the District Building. It was re-christened in 1994 to honor John A. Wilson, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and chair of the D.C. Council. 

In 1874, as DC's African American population and political clout grew during Reconstruction (1865-1877), Congress stripped DC residents of the ability to elect their own mayor and city council, denying them the right of self-governance. For the 100-year period between 1874 and 1974 when DC regained home rule, three presidentially appointed commissioners governed the city, overseen by Congressional committees charged with managing DC's affairs and budget. 

In the early 1970s, John A. Wilson (1943-1993) a civil rights activist in the 1960s, emerged as a leader in DC's successful home rule campaign; he represented Ward 2 on the City Council for 16 years, and chaired the Council in 1991-93. Wilson and many of his city government colleagues, including Marion Barry, worked as organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. From 1969-1975, he ran the DC office of the National Sharecroppers Fund, which helped purchase property for the benefit of black farmers who were otherwise beholden to white landowners.

The Wilson Building has seen numerous home rule and civil rights demonstrations. For example, on June 14, 1963, Bishop Smallwood Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led a prayer there for 3,000 protesters who had gathered for a march led by activist Julius Hobson. As reported by The Washington Post, Williams prayed for the “impaired vision” of Congress, “for the opening of their eyes to the denial of voting rights, adequate educational opportunities, fair employment and equal protection under the law of all citizens.”