Privacy veil lifted, 1940 census opens window to past

Older D.C. residents remember the way things were

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Others paint 1940 as a simpler, better time, but Richard F. Shontere’s father was a no-good drunk. That left him growing up in Southwest with his mother and grandparents on the dividing line between black and white neighborhoods, with an outhouse for a bathroom.

His block, census records show, was a mix of fishermen, the down-on-their-luck, and — in Washington fashion — one congressional staffer.

“On the waterfront, there was a row of restaurants, and for a quarter, I’d buy a whole bag of fried shrimp, scallops, french fries. The black cook would throw it all in a bag, and I’d go up on the railroad tracks where there was a plant that slaughtered cows. We’d sit up on the hill sharing these fries, watching them slaughter the cows,” Mr. Shontere said.

The records also were released at a time that, like 1940, is bringing sweeping demographic changes to the region, and in a city strong on history, architecture binds a forgotten past to a future.

Today, much of Southwest is covered by freeways, and like much of the quadrant, the Shontere home was razed in the 1950s in the nation’s first attempt at large-scale urban renewal. Across the street now resides a gay couple who bought their home for $535,000. One partner was born in Laos and makes $90,000 a year as a federal worker; the other holds two master’s degrees and works as a graphic designer. Next door is a Ph.D. meteorologist.

‘Just a hint’

The changes occurring in 1940 began to provoke racial tensions.

When black schoolteacher Edna Holland moved in near Columbia Heights in 1940 — which, like now, included many densely packed boarding houses — her home was bombed with a blast of dynamite so strong it shattered 200 windows on surrounding homes. A note read: “Negroes shall not live among us white people and destroy the value of our property. Better move quick. Not safe to wait for a second warning. Remember you are a Negro. Keep your place. Just a hint.”

By 1990, the neighborhood was 80 percent black. But in a reversal, the white population has since grown to one-third, with an additional heavy contingent of a group that was nonexistent in 1940 District of Columbia: Hispanics.

“It was separate living. Whites west of 16th Street, blacks east, unless they came to help,” said Betty Bond, who spent her days at the Academy of the Holy Names and said that by night, “we danced our way through Washington.”

“But it wasn’t just race. The nuns told us that we were special because we were Catholic, and the Protestants in public school — well, they were not.”

She married her husband after meeting him at a dance, but her new family glimpsed a changing Washington: “His father, Frank Kelly, was murdered, one of the first murders in Washington.” (Mrs. Bond, like other women in this article, is being referred to by her maiden name, as she appeared in U.S. census records.)

Only 72 years ago, many lived without amenities that were widely available far earlier. Even as radio programs crackled through the airwaves, huge chunks of the city had no electricity with which to receive them.

That’s to say nothing of the surrounding counties and beyond.

Herbert Atwell grew up as a waterman on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, one of 11 children in a town in which a branch of the Atwell family occupied nearly every street. “Hell no, we didn’t have water or electricity,” he said. His family’s toilet was situated above the Bay — an improvement over nearby farmers, who had to clean their waste out.

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