Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Langston Terrace Dwellings

21st and Benning Road, NE

Langston Terrace Dwellings opened in 1938 as one of the nation’s earliest federally funded public housing projects for lower income residents and only the second one to be built for African Americans. Planned during the Depression, with its housing shortages, Langston offered working-class families a decent and affordable place to live at a time when the federal government, court system, real estate industry, and banks all denied African Americans equal opportunities in housing.

Funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration and largely built by African American workers, the 274-unit complex was designed by architect and Washington native Hilyard Robinson. Robinson had studied the work of the Bauhaus and Dutch modernists, especially their ideas about public housing. He believed in the ability of fine buildings and art to inspire and uplift residents, and he designed Langston Terrace accordingly. Two- and three-story apartment blocks and duplexes are sited around significant open spaces featuring celebratory sculpture and artwork, including The Progress of the Negro Race, a terra-cotta frieze that lines the central courtyard of the complex. The frieze, by white sculptor Daniel G. Olney, chronicles African American history from enslavement through World War I migration.

The desire to live at Langston, where subsidized rents were available for $6 per month including utilities, was great, and the government’s role in selecting its first 274 families out of thousands of applicants was a difficult one. Many of the applicants were government employees with regular salaries, or workers who held dependable skilled and unskilled jobs, but still found affordable housing elusive. Described in period accounts as a “planned Utopia” and as a “model community for the reclamation of human lives,” Langston Terrace proved a huge success. So well received was the project that federal officials often used it as a demonstration model for low-rent housing.

Langston Terrace honors John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), the abolitionist, founder of Howard University Law School, and US congressman from Virginia. Langston Terrace Dwellings was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

Architect Hilyard Robinson (1899-1986) was born on Capitol Hill. He graduated from M Street High School, and went on to study at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts before serving in World War I in France. While abroad, he was deeply inspired by French architecture in Paris, and upon his return to the US, Robinson set out to be an architect, receiving his graduate degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1931.