Letter From The Director #10 — In DC, Black People Literally Have Neither Church Nor State. What Happens Next?



Marcus K. Dowling

At some point soon, the once-great NW DC African-American community staple the Scripture Cathedral will become a nine-story apartment building with 66 units, ground-floor retail space and 68 underground parking spaces. Churches becoming mixed-use developments in Northwest isn’t much of a surprise given most of Northwest seems to becoming mixed-use developments. However, it’s the fact that the sale of black churches truly feels like Washington, DC has quantified the souls of black people as being worth 10.5 million dollars per church that makes this news especially problematic. Is there a way for black people in DC to wrest our very expensive souls away from the hands of re-development? Certainly. Keep reading, and I guarantee you’ll discover a defining DC community’s soulful salvation.

America is a nation that’s predicated on two driving (and separated) forces, church and state. For black people in America, “state” has never really been something that’s seemed unequivocally behind us. Thus, we’ve always looked to “church” to not just be our salvation, but our governing force, too. In America, when a population has no state, they only have church. However, when a population’s churches are sold and the state still doesn’t intrinsically serve their needs, the possibility arises that you’ve stripped them of everything.


The historically heavily black-populated Shaw neighborhood’s Scripture Cathedral hosted O.J. Simpson after he was acquitted of murder and Marion Barry after he was released from prison for possession and use of crack cocaine. At the time of both of these events, the population surrounding the church was 79.2 percent black. Also in the same neighborhood at 13th and R Sts., NW  once stood the legendary Metropolitan Baptist Church, an iconic American black church which was key in the development of gospel superstars like DC-native Richard Smallwood. At present, the Shaw neighborhood is only 44% black, and the locations where these churches once stood as beacons of hope and justice to black DC are now near a one million-square-foot project that features a Giant grocery store, 629 residential units and a 182-room Cambria Suites Hotel and a multi-ethnic and multi-faith spiritual living facility, respectively. Again, where black people have neither church nor state, in America, black people may also have nothing.

This isn’t a trend that’s only in NW, either. Churches across Washington are being “converted,” the properties being sold largely due to a lack of both congregations and income. While the Washington Business Journal points to “a decrease in religious affiliation or involvement among millennials has contributed to both declining memberships and financial struggles for a number of these congregations,” could it be that the lack of black DC residents attending black churches in the city could be to blame? Is this a cruel portrait of the forces of gentrification at play? The Shaw population’s 35% dip in black residents over the past two decades makes this sad hypothesis entirely possible.

Again, for America’s black residents, where there is no church or state, there’s ultimately nothing. Thus, for as much as say, PJ Harvey may sing about a “community of hope” in DC, for a once-significant population within the city, the space that has historically fostered that “community of hope” no longer exists. Is there potential for some other force to exist to spiritually galvanize and effectively serve as governance for DC’s remaining black population? Certainly. If DC’s not willing to actively look to the gospel of music to serve in that role, then there’s a major issue present.

Though the rightful high priest of funk Chuck Brown is no longer with us, go-go is still here. As well, there’s a healing vibe rising in the Nation’s Capital’s soul and rap communities, too. While black DC may have neither church nor state, we still have our music. Now, more than ever, the need for black musicians to play their music in public as much as possible is of absolute need. In DC, the argument exists that there are black Americans who aren’t adequately or respectfully governed by the state who now also lack their Constitutional right and social need for church. Therefore, black musicians in DC must realize that redevelopment and gentrification haven’t taken away our music, which ultimately provides us guidance, solace and solutions in this terrifying hour of need.

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