iCrowdNewswire Dec 31, 2020 3:34 PM ET
There are countless stories about deep secrets and shameful cover-ups that have been orchestrated by government officials over the years in Washington, DC. While some may sound like conspiracy theories, there are some undeniable facts of DC History that are so perplexing and tragic that they seem unreal. “These untold histories are often right in front of us though many are unaware of the truth,” explains Marc Minsker, a teacher at Wilson High School and a community organizer.
Fort Reno Reservoir Tower
One of the least known but most painful chapters in DC’s history involves what is now an idyllic park managed by the National Park Service: Fort Reno. This 20-acre park, which sits at the highest point in the city (409 feet above sea level), now hosts a soccer field, basketball and tennis courts, as well as rolling hills and wooded glens that border a public middle and high school. There is an iconic tower that looks out over a reservoir as well as a community garden, walking paths, and a stage that hosts a famous summer concert series. Fort Reno is considered a treasure in the neighborhood of Tenleytown, where million-dollar homes grace tree-lined streets. But what many residents of the District do not know is that Fort Reno was once home to over 340 white and black families. This thriving community existed for close to sixty years before racist individuals, scheming organizations, and unjust government officials acted to forcibly remove families, condemn properties, and invoke imminent domain to dissolve and erase the community known as Reno.
The difficulty in piecing together this tragic history is that few newspapers and even fewer history books tell this heartbreaking story of racial discrimination that played out through nefarious real estate agents, unscrupulous businessmen, and racist neighborhood associations working in conjunction with one another to decimate a community. It wasn’t until November 2017, when the Washington City Paper published an informative eight-page article by local architect Neil Flanagan, that many of the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Originally from Tenleytown and growing up just block away from Reno, Neil Flanagan completed intensive research for his scholarly piece, which is now evolving into a larger book project. Since his article in 2017, Flanagan has continued telling the story of Reno through interactive tours of the property, which he conducts on a semi-regular basis, as well as being an active at history conferences and academic panels. Besides Flanagan’s work, there is sadly very little historic record concerning Reno City. One exception is George Musgrove and Chris Asch’s book Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. But even in this comprehensive work, Reno City only gets two pages. Thankfully, there are a handful of photographs and oral histories that help us piece together the sad and tragic story of the community that simply referred to itself as ‘Reno.’
Reno City’s history begins after the Civil War, when victorious Union troops finally left the Dyer Farm that was commandeered at the beginning of the war. Chosen for its strategic position as the highest point in the District of Columbia, the Dyer Farm property became part of the larger ring of forts, known as the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Originally named Fort Pennsylvania, it took on the name Fort Reno after Union Major General Jesse Reno died in combat in 1863. Fort Reno was the only location in DC that saw fighting during the war as part of the Battle of Fort Stevens.
The 25 acres at Fort Reno was heavily impacted by the stationed troops so when it was returned to the Dyer Family, it had lost much of its value as farmland. Selling off parcels of land for as little as $12.50, the Dyers sold lots quickly to buyers, including many freed African-Americans who had served in the Civil War. Many black soldiers began by building modest wooden shacks that eventually were renovated into larger homes with porches, fenced in yards, and even electricity. A plat from 1895 shows exactly how many lots were subdivided for houses and the general layout of streets and alleys:
Subdivision Plan for Reno (courtesy NPS)
By the turn of the century, over 300 homes had sprung up on these small parcels of land at Reno as well as three churches, two grocery stores, and a dairy. Unlike other parts of Tenleytown and the surrounding Northwest DC neighborhoods, this community known as Reno was extremely diverse with approximately 60% of homes made up of African-American families as well as Jewish and immigrant families. United by family and religious ties, residents of Reno enjoyed life in this village nestled in the Nation’s capital.
Rock Creek Baptist church at Reno, circa 1928 (courtesy NPS)
In 1977, an African-American woman named Augusta Moore was interviewed by students at nearby Wilson High School, inquiring about her life growing up at Reno City. Her memories of Reno and the good nature of her neighbors are helpful in understanding the demographic make-up of the community:
“I remember Mr. Ned Warren had a very good cheery tree on the corner. By my aunt had a cherry tree in her yard [so] I didn’t have to swipe any of his cherries! When we lived in this row of houses, before we moved across the street on Dennison Street, in this row up here was a white family named Fagan. Here was a family named Hurdle. Here was my mother’s family. Here was a colored family, Thomas. Next was a white family. Next was a colored family, the James. Next was white. And next was white…. And everybody got along grand.”
This oral history is one of the few remaining documents that provides a detailed picture into daily life at Reno. The scant photographic record of Reno, in the archives at the National Park Service (NPS), also provides insight into the beauty of a semi-rural existence within the District: yards with chickens running loose, orchids with fruit trees, vegetable gardens bursting with produce, and cows grazing by a dairy juxtaposed with attractive two story homes, with impressive front porches and sidewalks. Another sign of this growing and thriving community was the establishment of the Jessie Reno School, an African-American school that was built and opened in 1904.
Dennison Street, Reno City, circa 1910 (courtesy NPS)
By 1915, a threat to the Reno City community was growing. While racial diversity and harmony was seemingly reflected within the streets of Reno, the same cannot be said of the growing segregationist movement in DC and adjacent homeowners and residents of toney Chevy Chase, Tenleytown, and Cleveland Park. These upscale white neighborhoods universally employed racial covenants, which only allowed for real estate transactions with white buyers.
Reno City was seen as an anomaly and a threat to developers’ plans to charge for high-price houses in this desirable northwest neighborhood. By 1915, the all-white neighborhood Friendship Citizens Association was actively scheming to change the racial landscape of Tenleytown and Reno City. Led by North Carolina transplant and unapologetic bigot Luther Derrick, the Friendship Citizens Association began working with the DC governors to buy the land in hopes of forcing out the Black community at Reno. Along with real estate groups like the Chevy Chase Land Company (run by the particularly odious US Senator Francis Newland), developers and bankersteamed up with white citizens’ associations to formulate one plan after another for developing the Reno City area: creating a park, building a reservoir, and establishing schools. All of these amenities were intended to attract more residents to the growing all-white neighborhoods, and they were used to justify the eviction of the black community that developers described as a financial risk to surrounding areas.
The forces that worked actively to dismantle the Reno community were identified by a government commission who reported in 1935 that:
“…the old Negro settlements around the Civil War fort sites have been gradually whittled down. The white population, once indifferent to these hilly regions because they were too far out of town, has come to consider them highly desirable residential sections. Few colored families have been able to resist the methodical real estate purchasing agent, or fight against the condemnation…of their property…”
Sadly, by 1939, almost every home at Reno had been demolished and families had been displaced. The three churches at Reno, including the Rock Creek Baptist church, had to be relocated to other neighborhoods. It is true that families were paid for their property, but the amounts received (typically $2000 to $3500) could never fully compensate for the loss of their homes and their community. It should be noted that many of the families fought hard in the courts to retain their property and their homes over the course of two decades. James Neil, an African-American attorney and Howard graduate, represented the community of Reno before the DC Government in 1926 and fought vigorously for the rights of Reno citizens to no avail. As James Neil argued in court:
“They … say that this is an unsightly place, that it is a blight upon the District. Why is it a blight? Simply because negroes occupy it. They want a white settlement there.”
In the 1920s, the racist forces at work in the Nation’s Capital could not be overcome or defeated.
Reno home undergoing demolition in 1938 (courtesy NPS)
By 1940, what once had been blocks and blocks of homes was now open fields surrounded by two public schools, Alice Deal Middle School and Wilson High School. Remaining among the trees and throughout the park are a few traces of the community that once was: random fire hydrants, a few stone steps, and an overgrown curb. The history of this once thriving community may have been passed down orally and within family photo albums, but this tragic story has yet to receive the full recognition it deserves.
Marc Minsker is a founding member of the Coalition for Chesapeake Community Center at Fort Reno, a group consisting of local residents and community activists, who have been actively engaged with members of National Park Service and other stakeholders to discuss the future of Chesapeake House, a historic building located on the southwest corner of Fort Reno Park in DC’s Tenleytown neighborhood.
“The affluent neighborhoods surrounding once was known as Reno City now frame an appalling chapter in DC History that not only needs to be told but needs to be studied further to understand how race has impacted our city in the 20th century,” says Minsker, who recently hosted a panel on Reno City with colleagues at the 2020 DC History Conference: Remembering Reno City.