This post was written by Natalie Shanklin, Creative Producer and Historian at Meridian International Center.
Meridian gets its name from its location along 16th Street, otherwise known as the White House Meridian, one of four longitudinal lines in Washington that were at one point used as prime meridians in the United States. The hill atop which Meridian’s campus sits is a significant spot in the nation’s capital, positioned just north of the original border of the city as Pierre L’Enfant had outlined in his 1791 plan.
Though the area boasts humble origins, as it was mostly rolling farmland in the early days of American independence, it soon grew into a social center of Washington over the course of the 19th century, with such fixtures as a horse racing course, the elaborate estate of naval officer Commodore David Porter and the quaint log cabin of California poet Joaquin Miller. And as the Civil War brought thousands of freed African Americans and refugees from enslavement into the city, Meridian Hill became home to a vibrant Black community, which put down roots that would tie families to the neighborhood for generations to come.
By the 1880s, wood-frame houses had replaced the Union army camps, hospitals and barracks that dominated the area during the war. The Wayland Seminary on the corner of 15th and Chapin Streets was established in 1865 and trained hundreds of Black clergy and teachers throughout the latter half of the 19th century before being relocated to Richmond, VA, in 1899. The neighborhood was also the original grounds for Columbian College, now George Washington University, and a community elementary school.
The turn of the 20th century brought immense changes to Meridian Hill, particularly with the arrival of Mary Foote Henderson to the neighborhood. Wife of former U.S. Senator John B. Henderson, one of the drafters of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, Mrs. Henderson built an elaborate brownstone mansion — often referred to as Henderson Castle — at the base of Meridian Hill for she and her husband to retire to. She had ambitious plans for the area surrounding her home, envisioning it as a grand and ceremonial gateway to the nation’s capital. She began buying up lots and commissioning the building of elegant mansions that she then sold to foreign legations for use as embassies or to other wealthy families. Meridian’s own White-Meyer House was built on property sold to Ambassador Henry White by Mrs. Henderson, who was very pleased to see the addition of the stately mansion to the area.
When the City Beautiful movement hit Washington in the early 1900s, it spurred development on Meridian Hill in accordance with Mrs. Henderson’s hopes for the neighborhood. In 1902, the Senate Park Commission introduced the McMillan Plan to establish the monumental core and park system of the city, which included the construction of a park on Meridian Hill. Mrs. Henderson was an enthusiastic champion of this initiative, and pressured Congress to acquire the land across from her house between 15th and 16th streets for the development of the park. Although a portion of this land was already vacant and being used as a public park, Congress, in its efforts to acquire the land, extended the boundary north to Euclid Street to include the homes of 40 mostly Black families, intending to purchase or condemn the houses for their destruction. Nearly $500 thousand was offered to cover the cost of the parcels, and while a few of the owners accepted the payment, most fought to hold onto their homes without success.
The park’s construction began in the summer of 1912, though to the costly process of acquiring the land, the development started slow and would take more than 20 years to complete. When it was done, much of the Black community had left the area and relocated further away from the city center, largely due to restrictive covenants that segregated the neighborhood in the mid-1900s, as well as the forces of gentrification that continue to shape it. Small pockets of the community can still be found nearby, and many of the dispersed families remain deeply affected by the displacement that has echoed through their generational histories.
Meridian Hill today looks much different than it did in those decades after the Civil War when it was a flourishing community of economic and educational opportunities for free African Americans who made a home there. Now host to one of the city’s most frequented parks, luxury apartment buildings and embassies, it reflects the waves of development and gentrification that have affected much of Washington. Still, it brings a wealth of activism and cultural celebrations to the area. One example is the weekly Drum Circle that has been held in Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, since the 1950s. The hilltop became a center of Black activism during the Civil Rights Movement and still is a popular rallying site of the current movement for racial justice in DC. Though its history has been marked by injustice, Meridian Hill remains central to understanding the evolution of Washington and the Black stories that have defined and continue to define the nation’s capital.
Meridian is committed to learning about and sharing this local history as part of our equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, hosting periodic conversations and cultivating resources for the education of our staff and network.
The thumbnail image is courtesy of the National Park Service.