River Farms to Urban Towers
—Southwest Heritage Trail —
Jefferson Junior High School was built in 1940 after area residents persuaded the city to abandon the original dilapidated building. They hoped the new structure, which included a branch library, would be the beginning of section-wide improvements.
In September 1954, Jefferson was the site of a scene repeated across the city. For the first time, African American students took their seats next to white students in Washington's public schools. The Supreme Court had just ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were unconstitutional, so black students from nearby Randall Junior High all came to Jefferson. Washington's school integration was surprisingly peaceful. Former Jefferson student Carl Cole recalled that integration "had no concerns for me. I had played with white children all of my early life here."
Washington's system of separate schools had required many buildings, but they didn't always meet the needs. In 1954 Southwest had five overcrowded "colored" elementary schools, four under-enrolled white elementaries, and a junior high for each group. When integration began, the school-age population had already declined because urban renewal had been announced. Planners expected that residents of the new Southwest would be older and/or childless. So seven elementaries were demolished. The
new Southwest had just three: William Syphax, Anthony Bowen, and a new Margaret Amidon. By 2003, there were two, with Syphax being adapted for residential use.
Because this street ends at the waterfront, in the 1800s Seventh Street became a commercial thoroughfare. Businesses located themselves here and along Seventh into far Northwest Washington. Omnibuses (wagons pulled by horses) carried passengers up and down Seventh until 1862, when Congress chartered a horse-drawn street railway with a line along Seventh to the wharves.
From 1800 until 1950, Southwest was Washington's largest working-class, waterfront neighborhood. Then beginning in 1954, nearly all of Southwest was razed to create an entirely new city in the nation's first experiment in urban renewal. The 17 signs of River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
lead you through the Modernist buildings erected in the 1960s while marking the sites and stories—and the few remaining structures—of the neighborhood that was. Follow this trail to discover the area's first colonial settlers and the waves of immigrants drawn to jobs on the waterfront or in nearby federal government offices. Here Chesapeake Bay watermen sold oysters and fish off their boats. The once-gritty streets were childhood homes to singer Marvin Gaye and movie star Al Jolson. Later residents
included Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and other legislators.
River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
, a booklet capturing the trail's highlights, is available at local businesses along the way. To learn about other DC neighborhoods, visit www.CulturalTourismDC.org.