Venable's Celebration of Washington's Black History

7 min

DC UnveiledVenable started a new Black History Month tradition this year, exploring and celebrating the rich Black history of the Washington, DC, region, neighborhood by neighborhood. Our focus this year is the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast DC, where we have identified six African Americans who made significant impacts on the country in the twentieth century.

Venable attorneys partnered with some of our clients’ in-house counsel to research the lives and contributions of these onetime Brookland residents. Then each pair compiled their findings into an informative poster and a presentation they delivered at a February 24 event at Venable’s DC office, where attendees enjoyed appetizers catered by Black-owned local businesses District Boards and SmokeDatt BBQ.

The emcee for the evening was Venable partner Claude Bailey, who has lived in the city for more than 4o years and was proud to note that five of the six people being honored were affiliated with Howard University, where he graduated from law school, “illustrating the importance of HBCUs in this country.”

All of the evening’s presenters spoke of gaining new knowledge through their participation in this project, something they were excited to share with the events’ attendees and with others who would read about their research findings.

The Brookland Neighborhood

Located south of Eastern Avenue, one of the borders between DC and Maryland, Brookland is adjacent on its west side to Howard University, which was founded in 1867. Middle-class African Americans, many of them Howard professors and staff members, began filling up the neighborhood in the early 1900s. Early on, they were restricted to the southwest corner of Brookland because of racially restrictive covenants that prevented many of the neighborhood’s homeowners from selling their houses to people of color.

That changed in 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court found in Shelley v. Kraemer that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause made these sorts of housing covenants unenforceable. Then by the 1960s, Brookland had grown into a vibrant neighborhood with a majority African American population.

Lucy Diggs Slowe

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable partner Karen Hermann and Venable’s friends and clients

Orphaned and raised by an aunt, Lucy Diggs Slowe struggled in school. But determined to succeed, she graduated second in her class at Baltimore Colored High and Training School—the school’s first female graduate. In 1904, she earned a scholarship to Howard University, where she founded the first sorority for Black women, Alpha Kappa Alpha. After graduating from Howard in 1908, Slowe went on to earn an MA at Columbia University. An accomplished athlete, she won the inaugural American Tennis Association national title, making her the first African American woman to win a major sports tournament.

In 1922, Howard University appointed her its first dean of women. In this role, Slowe advocated for female students and founded several organizations to help advance Black women’s education. Also in 1922, Slowe purchased a house on Kearny Street in Brookland, where she lived with Mary Burrill, another Black woman of great accomplishment, until her death in 1937. Slowe’s contributions to the advancement of African American women, at a time when racial and gender equality was met with great resistance, are immeasurable.

Lois Mailou Jones

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable partner Saminaz Akhter and Venable’s friends and clients

Lois Mailou Jones was a world-renowned artist who spent most of her life in the Brookland area, where she served on the faculty of the Howard University Art Department for almost 50 years. It was in Brookland that Jones, along with the French artist Céline Tabary, started the “Little Paris Studio,” a group dedicated to training and supporting local African American artists.

Although Jones’s work can now be found in collections in prestigious museums, she faced overwhelming odds as an African American woman to have her talent recognized. In 1941, she had to ask a friend to submit a canvas on her behalf to a competition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art because African Americans were not permitted to enter. The painting won the competition, but she had to ask the museum to mail the award to her, so her identity as a woman of color would not be revealed. In 1994, the Corcoran celebrated her 89th birthday and officially apologized for its discriminatory policies. Jones continued to create art well into her 80s and died in Washington, DC, at the age of 92.

Sterling Brown

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable partner Paula Hopkins and Venable’s friends and clients

Sterling A. Brown was a professor, folklorist, literary critic, and the first Poet Laureate of DC. Brown was born in Washington, DC, in 1901. He graduated from Dunbar High School and attended Williams College, and later Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in English. In 1929 he joined the faculty of Howard University, where he taught African American literature and folklore. In 1932 Brown published a collection of poetry, Southern Road, to critical acclaim.

A Washington Post article by Jacqueline Trescott describes Brown as “a legend among writers, teachers and students.” In his home in Brookland, Brown “created…an informal laboratory of ideas, where the cross-section of people he cultivated and loved were mixed together, where he read and he listened, where his priceless blues records were played on a worn-out phonograph and where talk was encouraged by a zest for debate, Haig & Haig Pinch and Georgia moonshine.”

Ralph Bunche

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable associate Jordan Jean and Venable’s friends and clients

Dr. Ralph Bunche graduated as valedictorian from Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles and later earned his BA at the University of California, Los Angeles. He went on to study for an MA and a PhD at Harvard, while simultaneously teaching at Howard University, where he ultimately served as department chair. From 1941 to 1947, Bunche lived in Brookland, where he worked in the Office of Strategic Services and at the State Department, and participated in the United Nations planning committee.

A distinguished diplomat, Bunche played a crucial role in mediating the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, leading to the 1949 Armistice Agreements. His diplomatic prowess earned him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first African American and person of color to receive this honor. Beyond the UN, Bunche was a staunch advocate for decolonization and was active in the civil rights movement.

Rayford Logan

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable partner Gueter Aurelien and Venable’s friends and clients

Rayford Whittingham Logan was born in 1897 in Washington, DC, to working-class parents. He earned a scholarship to Williams College, and upon graduating enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a first lieutenant in the all-Black 93rd Infantry Division during World War I. Logan coordinated the second Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1921 before returning to the United States to begin his teaching career at Virginia Union University. During the next decade, Logan spoke out against Jim Crow laws and assisted local Blacks with voter registration.

In 1932, Logan was appointed to the Black Cabinet by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where he drafted the president’s executive order prohibiting the exclusion of Blacks from the military in World War II. Jordan earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1932 and a PhD in 1936. He was a history professor at Howard University from 1938 to 1965 and authored The Betrayal of the Negro and Dictionary of American Negro Biography, which continues to be revised and updated.

Pearl Bailey

Researched and presented in a collaboration between Venable partner Lisa Tavares and Venable’s friends and clients

Pearl Mae Bailey was an actress, singer, and author. At age three, Bailey moved with her family to Washington, DC, where she lived at various times in her life. She began performing in the late 1940s at Republic Gardens and at various U Street jazz clubs and went on to become a star of stage and screen, earning a Tony award and an Emmy over the course of her career.

In recognition of her contributions to the country, Bailey was appointed as delegate to the United Nations by President Ford and continued to serve under Presidents Reagan and Bush. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan in 1988. Pearl received an honorary degree from Georgetown at age 58 and then returned to Washington, DC, to attend university. She died on August 17, 1990, at age 72. A memorial service in her honor was held at the United Nations.