Monday, November 15, 2010

Mappy Monday: Covington Street, Washington, D.C.

The family of former slaves from Volusia who I’ve been working on initially moved into Alexandria in the early post-emancipation years. By 1880 at least one member of the Hughes family had moved to Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac. I found Levin Hughes in a city directory living on Covington Street NW in the 1890s. But when I tried to locate Covington Street on current maps, it was nowhere to be found. How could I find a family in slavery and then lose them in freedom in our nation’s capital?
This was especially puzzling in a city so perfectly laid out in a grid, with numbered streets running north and south, lettered streets running east in west, and state streets running diagonally. Even further out, streets follow an alphabetical order which increase in syllables. But between Buchanan and Decatur streets, where logically Covington might be found, is Crittenden Street.
I started looking for references in the historical Washington Post and I found several articles that mentioned Covington Street! In 1889, a three-inch water main was to be installed, in 1895 police arrested Carrie Coggle for assaulting Nannie Perry there, and the following year, Mary Ann Johnson was arrested for operating an unlicensed bar in her Covington Street home after unhappy patrons tipped off police to her establishment.
An article published on August 1896 further explored life on Covington Street:
“Covington Street is short, inhabited solely by colored people, and is harmless enough in the daytime, but reeking with hidden dangers after dark, that more colored people live with shady reputations than perhaps any other section of the Second Precinct. It contains by actual count, no less than five “speak easies” and one policy shop, although no one – not even the police – can locate these places unless acquainted with the fraternity that infest them. Strangely enough, this street with the bad record, if somewhat aristocratic in name, is located just around the corner from one of the fashionable residence section of the city, and all along R street, between Ninth and Tenth, only the best class of people reside. These persons naturally look with disfavor upon the obnoxious neighborhood.”
The article provided the surrounding streets and later described its close proximity to Engine No. 7, a fire station at 931 R Street NW in the photo below, but it didn’t explain exactly where Covington Street was. Did it run east-west or north-south? Was it really a street or more like an alley?


I called the main number at the Washingtoniana collection of the DCPL to get some ideas about what late 19th century maps they might have and the librarian suggested starting with the Library of Congress online map collection. Great idea and as often as I’ve used it for 19th century Northern Virginia maps, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that for D.C.
Well I didn’t find anything for the 1890s but LOC did have several digitized editions of Baist’s Real Estate Atlas Surveys of Washington, D.C., for the early 1900s.

Covington Street didn’t show up in all of them but in the 1919 edition, there it was! I could see that it ran south from R Street and then turned west in a narrow alley that opened onto 10th Street. To the south, Rhode Island Avenue cut through the full block.


More articles in the Washington Post revealed Covington Street to be the site of chronic criminal activity. During the Red Summer of 1919, Frank Holmes and Robert Cole were arrested on Covington Street and convicted of carrying deadly weapons during the race riots. Two months later, John Marshall was arrested after stabbing Ernest Buckner on Covington Street. In 1921 Harry Parker was shot to death on Covington Street in what police deemed a dispute over a whiskey deal, and in 1925, Raymond Milberry was shot by police in a scuffle after officers responded to investigate a dice game in an alley behind Covington Street.

By the mid-20th century, Covington Street wasn’t visible on aerial images and nearly all the homes on the northwest half of the block were gone. In 1977, the new Shaw Junior High, named for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts, opened there, and to the southeast stands the Phillis Wheatley YWCA.

4 comments:

  1. You made that very interesting. I can picture the nefarious street.

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  2. Thanks, Kristin. I feel bad that Levin ended up in such a sketchy place.

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  3. That was a lot of good detective work. Each blog I read gives me ideas on how to proceed with my research.

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  4. I think it is also in the 1909 Baist map. The Phillis Wheatly YWCA was built in 1910 just south of Covington Street.

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