- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

The historic St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church on Virginia Avenue Southwest stands as “a silent sentinel in a field by itself,” says noted author, scholar and historian Carroll R. Gibbs.

The small stone church, whose parishioners included the abolitionist Anthony Bowen, sits in stark contrast to the steel and concrete beams casting shadows that mark the troubling transformation of yet another Washington community.

“Our history is being hijacked,” Mr. Gibbs said. “We can’t let that happen.” Nor can the D.C. Council as it moves forward in this painful process to forestall the inevitable expense of public dollars pledged for a new baseball stadium. Mr. Gibbs, known as “C.R.,” recently led an “imaginary tour” of Southwest from the Navy Yard to the Waterfront to document the destruction of primarily black history sites in my favorite D.C. quadrant.

Mr. Gibbs calls it an “imaginary tour” because few of the landmarks or longtime residents remain. Thousands of low-income residents have been displaced from housing projects now standing desolate behind chain-link fences, awaiting demolition. Few folks will be eligible to return to new housing, laughingly called “affordable” but requiring annual incomes of up to $80,000. Only the high-rise for senior citizens has been spared on the east end of M Street Southwest.

Southwest was once home to singer Marvin Gaye; black mechanical genius Jeremiah D. Baltimore; George White, the last black Reconstruction-era congressman from North Carolina, and the family of yours truly.

Thank the Williams Demolition Team for what another Washington historian, Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review, boldly calls “the socioeconomic cleansing of D.C.” Indeed, gung-ho gentrification rules the day in the District at the hands of ignorant and insensitive outsiders and interlopers. So who will remember our indigenous history when scholarly folks such as Mr. Gibbs and Sam Smith are silent? Mr. Gibbs will be giving free weekly Black History Month lectures at the vulnerable Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library until early March. “Vanished Past, Hidden Present: The Black History the New Stadium Will Hide” can be heard at 7 p.m., Feb. 21. An encore is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Lamond-Riggs branch of the D.C. public library.

Mr. Gibbs is among those who hanker for a substantive museum to be built inside or near the new baseball stadium, as promised. He also would like to see prominent historical markers placed throughout the Southwest/Southeast community to preserve its rich history, which dates back to 1796, when blacks worked the tobacco plantation of Jonathan Slater.

Like St. Paul’s Church, Friendship Baptist Church, which is now dwarfed by a hotel and residence, also is battling for survival, Mr. Gibbs noted. “The parishioners are fighting a last-ditch battle to keep the historical structure alive,” he said.

I remember roller-skating and playing hopscotch and trying to jump double Dutch on the William Syphax School playground a block from my home on Half Street Southwest. It is now reserved parking spaces for owners of the condominiums designed from the historic structure.

During our tour, we watched movers taking boxes and belongings out of 21 N St. SW for a disheartened Ken Wyban.

“I’ve been in my house mourning,” he said. “It looked so elegant before. Now it’s a mess,” he said of the home that circa 1809 belonged to a white brick manufacturer, William Alfred Richards, and later a black family whom he invited for a reunion.

Mr. Wyban seemed more distressed that the house’s history will be lost to make way for the baseball stadium than the possible loss of $2 million. That is the figure his lawyers and assessors estimate his property was undervalued by when the city forced him out through eminent domain.

Photos of the Richards family were forwarded to Mr. Gibbs by Mr. Wyban, who also donated architectural artifacts — including the fireplaces — to a student apprentice program in Baltimore called Second Chance so “the history of the house will not be forgotten.”

Mr. Wyban also is worried about his neighbors, renters, who have been given until March to move. Many, like the Butler family, have lived on the street for generations. Another, Al Majette, is known for the beautiful garden he cultivates each year. Mr. Wyban and Mr. Gibbs bemoaned the loss of the fruits of Mr. Majette’s labor, which he gave away to anyone who asks.

“People coming across the bridge often stopped to look at his garden,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Mr. Majette, Mr. Wyban said, has been in and out of the hospital recently with heart problems. He suspects the stress from relocation in part for his neighbor’s illness.

Want irony? “They used to play baseball back there,” Mr. Wyban said, pointing to an industrial area behind their row houses. “Now all they’re getting is a free trip out of Washington.” A stone’s throw away, Mr. Gibbs points to the site of an early community of blacks who worked for the masonry. This land, currently a quarry, has been purchased for further condo-commercial development.

What price progress? And at whose expense? Where is the fair trade-off? The history and character of entire communities must not be lost to line the pockets of developers and businesses or to provide self-serving politicians with lopsided legacies or pedestrian political platforms.

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