Professor Studies History of Race in Washington, D.C.
February 4, 2011 – Washington, D.C., regularly makes lists for cities with the greatest wealth or education levels, but only a subset of District residents enjoy those advantages, according to Georgetown African American historian and Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame member Maurice Jackson.
Jackson, associate professor of history and African American studies, has long researched Washington, D.C., and the city’s African American history and culture.
Washington’s racial divide is growing wider, he says, thanks to skyrocketing housing prices, a school system in trouble and undue pressures on the black middle class.
Stemming the Flow
“If you’re of moderate income, you cannot afford a house in Washington where there are quality schools,” says Jackson who is working on a social, political and cultural history of African Americans in D.C. “So you leave.”
But Jackson says if the city builds more housing for moderate-income people, that will help stem the flow of African Americans out of the city and bring in more young African American professionals.
“If this occurs, and the schools get better, that racial divide will diminish,” he says.
Jackson sees a connection with Washington’s founding and today’s racial climate. The city, he notes, was built partly by slave labor after Virginia and Maryland ceded portions of their territories to the city.
He says that while African Americans make up the majority of the city, they have never controlled the majority of the city’s wealth.
Jobs and Health
“Jobs must be created for African Americans,” Jackson says. “When you look at any high-rise construction site, you seldom see black workers. The trade unions have no programs aimed at guaranteeing that the people living in the city have job opportunities.”
He says the city doesn’t enforce residency requirements for its workers and that corporations do little to aid inner-city communities.
There are also race disparities in health indicators.
“Two examples are the low infant mortality rate for whites and a much higher one for blacks, and a 10-year or longer life expectancy among whites,” Jackson says.
Teaching Culture, Race and Class
Jackson takes every opportunity to explore issues of race and class in D.C. with his students, bringing in speakers who fought for equality during the civil rights movement and peppering lectures with stories about D.C. in the 1970s, when he moved here. He also encourages his students to get out into the city.
“A student who is at Georgetown for four years should not leave without a complete understanding of the culture of the city, as well as black history here,” Jackson says.
He notes that composer and band leader Duke Ellington, singer Roberta Flack and Shirley Horn, a singer and pianist who played with Miles Davis, all got their start in Washington. The father of Go-Go music, guitarist and singer Chuck Brown, began his career in the city, as did the well-known a capella group Sweet Honey In The Rock and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
“And my family friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones, a native of northwest, D.C., and recipient of an honorary doctorate at Georgetown, is perhaps the greatest writer, black or white, that the city has produced,” Jackson says.