Colbert King, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, grew up in Foggy Bottom in the 1940s and 1950s, when the area was majority African American. We interviewed him on February 16 in conjunction with the Foggy Bottom/West End Village. King shared bittersweet memories of growing up in Foggy Bottom and was honest about the challenges of poverty and racial discrimination. You can listen to this important and moving hour long interview, here – https://youtu.be/BF87-eA3Ucg.
King was born at Columbia Hospital for Women in 1939. He grew up in a three story-row house on the corner of 24th and L Street, the current site of the West End Library. His grandparents lived nearby and the King family had a long history in Foggy Bottom. He attended Stevens Elementary and Francis Junior High School, before attending Dunbar Senior High School and Howard University. He described “The Bottom” neighborhood as a close-knit and caring community, centered around the many churches in the area.
King’s house originally had a coal stove for heat and cooking and an ice box instead of a refrigerator, but it had indoor plumbing, which many houses lacked. His family shopped at the old “Western Market” (21st and K) and milk, and ice trucks – some horse-drawn – delivered goods in the neighborhood. He travelled using roller skates and trolly cars. He recalled Foggy Bottom’s long-gone industries, including the Heurich Brewery, and the huge Washington Gasworks tanks, which were located on Virginia Avenue. He described the dangerous conditions of alleys like Snows Court. He also recalled the Warring brothers gang who controlled numbers racket in the neighborhood.
Although the neighborhood was majority African American, there were some white families and King had white friends. Washington was segregated until the mid-1950s, and King could not attend school or go to the movies or to the swimming pool with his white friends. Segregation also severely limited the economic opportunities of African Americans. They were also subject to abuse by the all-white police force. King also recounted the loss of boys in the neighborhood, one who was murdered and another who drowned in the Potomac.
In the 1950s, the industries closed and Foggy Bottom became a desirable neighborhood. Developers evicted people who were renting houses and demolished houses to build new apartment buildings. The Potomac Freeway also destroyed the neighborhood from 26th Street to the River. King noticed change happening when people no longer showed up at church services or for church events. With their neighbors gone and churches closed or relocated, the fiber of the neighborhood as the King family and many other African American families knew it had deteriorated. King’s family moved out of Foggy Bottom in 1959.