Midcity at the Crossroads
— Shaw Heritage Trail —
A post-Civil War building boom brought grand new houses to this convenient area. By 1881 Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, and Major John Wesley Powell, pioneering director of the U.S. Geological Survey, lived on this block.
Born enslaved in Virginia, Bruce (1841-1898) escaped from slavery, attended Oberlin College, then became rich buying abandoned plantations in Mississippi. The Mississippi Legislature elected Bruce to the U.S. Senate. From 1875 to 1881, Senator Bruce worked to aid destitute blacks and improve government treatment of Native Americans. Later, he served as register of the U.S. Treasury and recorder of deeds for Washington, D.C.
Bruce and his wife, Josephine Willson Bruce (1852-1923), a founder of the National Association of Colored Women (1896), lived in the Second Empire French style house at 909 M Street.
Major John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) and his family moved to 910 M Street (since demolished) in 1881 after he took over the U.S. Geological Survey. Powell, a scientist and war hero, lost his right arm during a Civil War battle. He led the first official survey of the Grand Canyon in 1869, and argued that Native Americans had the right to live according to their own traditions.
Small houses, commercial buildings, and immigrant churches developed here after 1910. By the 1930s the rich had moved on, and landlords divided mansions into rooming houses. In the 1960s, many small buildings across Ninth Street were cleared for urban renewal construction that didn't happen. In 2003 the Washington Convention Center opened on the site.
By 1943 the Bruce house, left, had become a rooming house complete with fire escapes.
Sen. Blanche K. Bruce and Josephine Bruce.
The six-story apartment house once stood at 1115 Ninth St. on the Convention Center site.
This 1887 map shows the rowhouses and churches that once occupied the site of today's Washington Convention Center.
St. George Syrian Orthodox Church, formerly located on Eighth St.
War hero and explorer John Wesley Powell with Tau-Gu, chief of Paiutes in Arizona, 1873. Powell and his family lived at 910 M St., since demolished.
This neighborhood has always been "a place between places," where races and classes bumped and mingled as they got a foothold on the city. It has attracted the powerful seeking city conveniences as well as immigrants and migrants just starting out. By 1900 the Shaw neighborhood lay just north of the downtown federal offices and white businesses, and south of the African-American-dominated U Street commercial corridor and Howard University.
Longstanding local businesses took root here, and leaders flourished: Carter G. Woodson, Langston Hughes, John Wesley Powell, B. F. Saul, and A. Philip Randolph. The nation's finest "colored" schools were here too. By the 1930s the area was known as Midcity or Shaw (for Shaw Junior High School).
Over time the shops of Seventh and Ninth streets became a bargain-rate alternative to downtown's fancy department stores. There were juke joints, Irish saloons, storefront evangelists, delicatessans, and dozens of schools and houses of worship. As the city expanded, Shaw's older housing became more affordable but crowded. In 1966 planners worked with local church leaders to create the Shaw School Urban Renewal District and improve conditions. Then in 1968, destructive riots followed the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Years later the community has succeeded in creating the mix of new and old that you'll experience along Midcity at the Crossroads: Shaw Heritage Trail.
Midcity at the Crossroads: Shaw Heritage Trail, a booklet capturing highlights of the 17 trail markers, is available in English and Spanish at local businesses along the way. To learn about other DC neighborhoods, please visit www.Cultural TourismDC.org.
In 1983 the Convention Center site was a mix of cleared land and parking lots. The Washington Post