Pride was bouncing off the walls of the IDEA Public Charter School auditorium on May 17 as local citizens gathered to celebrate the publication of a new book about their neighborhood. “Deanwood” documents the history of one of the oldest African- American communities in Washington, DC, and is the result of research lovingly conducted by the Deanwood History Committee – Elaine King Bowman, Kia Chatmon, Deidre R. Gantt, Alverna M. Miller and Barbara J. Moore – and wholeheartedly supported by its residents. What began as a 16-page booklet developed to establish Deanwood’s designation as a historic area has become a handsome book with more than 120 pages of archival and family photographs, all extensively captioned, as well as informative essays on various aspects of life in Deanwood. “It was hard to track down all the proper names and dates for the photos,” says Bowman, “but it’s important for our grandchildren to have in 50 years.”
Their hard work has paid off in other ways as well. The First Baptist Church of Deanwood was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Strand Theater is expected to be similarly designated in June. A heritage trail is in the works for the fall. The project has been encouraged by Patsy Fletcher, outreach liaison of the DC Historic Preservation Office, who is credited with helping community members recognize the historic value of their stories. One grateful recipient of those stories was Alverna Miller, who remembers coming to Deanwood to visit a now-deceased relative named Arena Leppard. Miller recalls her initial challenge to Leppard over what appeared to be an overweening pride in Deanwood. “What makes you think you’re all that and then some?” she asked. “Sit down and I’ll tell you,” Leppard retorted. “And for the next 40 years,” says Miller, “over homemade mint tea and pound cake, that’s just what she did!”
Located just two Metro stops past RFK Stadium in far Northeast Washington, Deanwood today is a seemingly unremarkable community of single-family homes with well-kept lawns. Its history, however, is anything but ordinary. Part of a 1703 land grant to a white farmer named Beall, the area was later sold to the Sheriff and Deane families and subdivided in the late 1880s. Sales were not as brisk as in less rural areas, creating opportunities for blacks to purchase property. Craftsmen and businesses soon prospered. In 1909, Nannie Helen Burroughs established the National Training School for Women and Girls on Deane Avenue. Architects Howard Dilworth Woodson and Lewis Giles Sr. rose to prominence, designing countless buildings and homes from the 1920s to the 1940s. The black-owned and –operated Suburban Gardens, the only permanent amusement park located in DC, opened in 1921 and attracted performers such as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. A self-suffi cient black community had been created.
Joan Slade Gray, who with her twin sister, June, grew up in Deanwood, remembers Suburban Park and its Deep Dipper roller coaster. “It was closed by then,” she recalls, “but June and I would watch from our bathroom window as the boys would push the car to the top of the grade and ride it down.” She shakes her head and chuckles at the memory. As the microphone passes from hand to hand in the school auditorium, others reminisce about growing up in Deanwood.
Annie Broadus Bailey remembers watching movies on a sheet that somebody had strung up and going on community outings to Sparrow’s Beach. “And we never had to buy fruit,” she adds, because the yards were full of pear trees and berry bushes. “We were poor,” she says – and somebody chimes in, “but we didn’t know it!” – “but we had everything we needed here. Those were really good times.” Many people around the room grin and nod in recognition.
“I’m the clown of Deanwood!” declares Henry J. Miller. He remembers asking his grandmother why they couldn’t have grass in their yard like other people. “You can’t eat grass,” she replied. When Miller returned from the Air Force, he found that she had supplemented the string beans and corn in the yard with a crop of cotton. “Nobody even knew you could grow cotton this far north!” he exclaims. He says that Deanwood was such a quiet community that “if a fire engine came, we’d run behind it. Nothing ever happened here.” Like many of his neighbors, he lives in the same house in which he was born. And he appears to speak for many in the room when he concludes, “I was born in Deanwood, I live in Deanwood, and I’m gonna die in Deanwood. I love me some Deanwood!”
“Deanwood” is published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its “Images of America” series and is the first to document a neighborhood east of the river. Copies are available for $19.99 at local bookstores, through amazon.com, or from Kia Chatmon at 202-399-3408 or firstname.lastname@example.org.