It’s common for long-established communities to ignore the history that preceded them. The history of the Americas didn’t begin in 1492. Football didn’t begin with Rutgers-Princeton. And the area that became Georgetown has a rich story that began long before our university and cobbled sidewalks came along.

Our neighborhood’s narrow grid plan of townhouses and ivy is merely the latest incarnation of Washington, D.C.’s first community, which boasts the city’s oldest building, bridge, tavern and university. How they and the surrounding area came into being is as much a story about our country as our neighborhood. And the lessons we can learn from it might make us better Hoyas.

In 1687, entrepreneurs John Evans and Robert Mason laid claim to 600 acres of what was then Prince George’s County from the Potomac to the current site of the Russian Embassy. Planning to develop a plantation, their plans were doomed by the harsh soil and swampy southern Maryland climate. By 1734, their development was known simply as “Knave’s Disappointment.”

Evans and Mason would eventually sell their land, unable to capitalize on their investment. Not to be intimidated, wealthy Englishman and Georgetown namesake George Gordon planted the area with tobacco and built a factory near the river to process and ship his crop and that of neighboring planters. In spite of the land’s low productivity, the factories and harbor that Gordon and others built were well-situated at the Potomac fall line – the farthest point to which ocean-going ships could sail. In 1751, Gordon co-founded the Town of George, later called Georgetown, alongside his Rock Creek Plantation, and the community quickly became a hub of shipping, industry and a burgeoning slave trade.

The area was incorporated as part of Frederick County in 1754, and Gordon would become its county judge and sheriff. Gordon’s career was one that gave the town an importance in the region that would not be exceeded until many years later when a new Federal City was developed just a few miles away.

Following Gordon’s death, his nephew sold much of the remaining plantation to land developers Beatty and Hawkins, who were interested in expanding the size of Georgetown. Today, we refer to these two separate phases of Georgetown’s development as East and West Georgetown, respectively. In 1769, the latter expansion was divided into 300 new plots, which established the property lines that surveyors and real estate agents use today.

Development did not continue without interruption, however. Georgetown experienced existential threats during the British sacking of Washington in the War of 1812 and the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. The second half of the 19th century resulted in the closure of Georgetown’s lucrative slave markets that had supported much of the local economy.

ost of D.C.’s buildings that were constructed before the Civil War were built with slave labor; Washington’s two oldest remaining buildings, the Old Stone House and the City Tavern Club, are in Georgetown and were built during this period. The demand for laborers in Georgetown’s taverns and nearby plantations, such as Mount Vernon and Arlington, led to the establishment of a large and permanent African-American population that lived among, and at the pleasure of, wealthy planters and industrialists.

Colonists’ early interest in the area that became Georgetown created for it a tradition that has remained separate from, and older than, the rest of the District of Columbia. By 1886, Georgetown was the only separately incorporated city in the District of Columbia other than Washington, and its historical disconnection from the rest of the city may account for differences in its treatment by local authorities.

In the early years of the 20th century, ideas of Georgetown’s affluence and stylish location were unknown to its residents. Georgetown’s factories and shipping industry declined, and by the end of the First World War, Georgetown was generally regarded as one of Washington’s largest slums. This perception, however, is misleading, because, though poor, Georgetown had completed a radical transformation from one of the country’s leading slave markets to a thriving center of African-American culture in Washington. The neighborhood retained this culture until the 1930s, when a large population of laborers, who had moved to Washington pursuing jobs in construction projects like the university’s Copley and White-Gravenor Halls, began to compete for housing with the large number of new bureaucrats hired to administer the very New Deal-style programs that the workers were seeking. Government employees’ need for housing and the proximity of Georgetown to the rest of Washington resulted in a renewed interest in the old neighborhood.

But Georgetown did not become a wealthy enclave in a poor city again until Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act, which codified the size and location of the Georgetown neighborhood within the District and established the Old Georgetown Board with authority to regulate the appearance of buildings within its boundaries. The board’s regulation of the colors, appearance and features of homes within the neighborhood created impossibly expensive standards for the community’s relatively poor residents, who were soon forced to move out to make room for the wealth and fashion that characterizes Georgetown today.

Popular stories of Georgetown – its establishment, growth and latter-day affluence – largely overlook the foundation of racism and economic exploitation that provided much of the area’s early success. Today, official histories and campus tours which mention the experience of our university and neighborhood during the Civil War describe the conflict as divisive and sufficient to depress enrollment, but look past the support that many members of our community gave to those fighting to preserve an inhuman practice. This dual tradition has had a direct consequence on our university’s reputation and relationship with Washington.

It is a legitimate criticism to say that the establishment of our neighborhood came at the expense of anyone who was not wealthy, “white” and powerful. But perhaps in spite of these injustices, our university was able to draw on the prestige of its surroundings and become an important producer of knowledge, respected advocate of social justice and forum for debate on an international scale.

As Georgetown students, we have an obligation to be mindful of our neighborhood’s history and not to hide from it, and to use the gifts of our university to become leaders who call for justice and an end to exploitation.

It may be the prevention of stories like that of Georgetown’s which will be our community’s most valuable contribution of all.

D. Pierce Nixon is a senior in the College and contributing editor for THE HOYA. This is his final installment of DAYS ON THE HILLTOP.

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