Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - Howard Woodson, Advocate for Northeast

4918 Fitch Place NE

Howard Dilworth Woodson, a civil engineer and civic leader, led successful campaigns for better services in neglected African American neighborhoods in far Northeast DC. Born in Pittsburgh, Woodson (1876-1962) earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Pittsburgh in 1899. He moved to Washington in 1907 and began working as a structural engineer in the supervising architect’s office for the Public Buildings Administration. One of the few black licensed architectural engineers in the District, Woodson designed portions of Union Station, the Metropolitan Baptist and Vermont Avenue Baptist churches, and hundreds of private buildings in D.C., as well as government buildings throughout the United States.

Woodson also served as supervising architect for the Universal Development and Loan Company, Inc., a real estate and development company that owned considerable property in the upper Northeast section of the city. Most notably, Universal built the nine-acre Suburban Gardens Amusement Park in 1921 at 50th and Hayes streets NE in Deanwood, which for about two decades offered a recreational haven for African Americans who were barred from whites-only amusement parks.

Woodson was an active civic leader in Deanwood and the far Northeast section of the city. He was a founder and the first president of the Northeast Boundary Civic Association and the Far Northeast Business and Professional Association. Through these organizations he led residents in battles for public schools, parks, water and sewer systems, street paving and lighting.

In the 1950s, Woodson, along with other residents of far Northeast began agitating for a public high school as students on that side of town had to go across the river to Spingarn or Eastern, or much farther south to Anacostia High School. In 1972, ten years after Woodon’s death, the city finally opened a new high school in Deanwood and named it Howard D. Woodson Senior High School in honor of the pioneering civil engineer and crusading neighborhood activist. The high school building—a nine-story concrete tower dubbed the Tower of Power—was a state-of-the-art facility designed during the heyday of Brutalism. The school building, which began falling into serious disrepair in the late 1980s, was replaced in 2011 with a new school building, still bearing Woodson’s name.

Woodson built his own house at 4918 Fitch Place NE in 1913, along with the adjacent houses on the street.