The Washington Post
Agnes Meyer’s dreary portrait of 1963 D.C. still rings true
“Fear haunts the citizens of the nation’s capital. It is not safe to walk the streets at night. Crimes of every description — murder, rape, robbery, housebreaking, mugging — are at an all-time high. The rate of increase in the last decade is 50 percent. Last year there was a sudden jump of 17 percent. Women remain at home in the evening because they are afraid to be out alone. The movies, and the department stores that are open on Thursday night have suffered a financial loss. When we pick up the morning paper we ask ourselves the question with which Western frontiersmen greeted each other every day — who got killed last night?”
— Agnes E. Meyer, “The Nation’s Worst Slum: Washington, D.C.” The Atlantic, August 1963.
Those words of Meyer, staunch D.C. advocate, civil rights defender, journalist and widow of former Post publisher Eugene Meyer, are reminders of yesterday’s Washington. But to read Agnes Meyer’s piece in 2023 is to be gobsmacked by the resemblance to the nation’s capital of today.
Her nearly 60-year-old article was a harbinger of things to come. I recall the moment because 1963 was the year I returned to the place of my birth after two years of Army service and with a wife and year-old child in tow. I found a city — distant from the Mall, Capitol Hill and White House — in the throes of despair and simmering resentments.
Meyer took note of widespread unemployment and terrible living conditions for Black residents. And she cited racial tensions that exploded in a 1962 Thanksgiving Day clash involving two high school teams, one Black and one White; hundreds were injured. Revisiting that incident, along with the sad state of the District’s impoverished population, and the exodus to the suburbs of more well-to-do White families, she wrote: “I nominate Washington, D.C., as our most underdeveloped Northern city, where many thousands of Negro children and adults never get a chance to live a decent, fruitful, and humane existence.”
Meyer called attention to thousands of young Black men “who are out of school and out of work” and frustrated by the lack of opportunity. Meyer said she feared a catastrophe was looming. That catastrophe would occur five years later, when D.C. erupted after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Meyer trained her sights on those who put the city in such dire peril.
“The primary fault lies with the District Committee in Congress, whose Southern membership has for many years deliberately starved all community needs of the city out of sheer hostility to a population of 800,000 which is now 54 percent Negro and which has an 84 percent Negro attendance in its public schools.”
And she turned to the issue of her day — which is ours now.
“The surest method of reducing crime in Washington is to improve its educational system — more schools, more and better teachers, more guidance experts.”
“Yet,” she wrote, “the school budget is always trimmed by the District Committee.”
Meyer didn’t let the city’s power structure, of which her family was a part, off the hook. Observing that the federal government was the chief source of employment for Black residents, Meyer said, “The civilian labor market, on the other hand, is as rigidly discriminatory in Washington as that in the most backward Southern city.” Black Washingtonians, she declared, “are not considered for the better jobs. The labor unions have been just as guilty as management.” Words that might be mistaken as applying to today.
She struck home with this Howard University alumnus with this observation: “It is ironic that the unions refused to let Negroes work on a federal building project at Howard University.” The secretary of labor, she said, had to threaten the contractors with enforcement action by the Justice Department to force compliance with nondiscrimination on a federal contract. “And this happened on a Negro campus,” Meyer wryly noted.
Six decades ago, Meyer declared: “Discrimination in housing in the entire metropolitan area is firmly enforced by the real-estate interests. There is little decent low-cost housing within the city limits.” And now?
“To all intents and purposes,” she wrote, “the Negro population lives in drab concentration camps without hope of escape. The barbed wire that fences them in may not be visible to most white people. But it is there.”
Meyer’s frustration with the laggard pace of change and slight government attention to a boiling kettle of Black discontent spilled out: “Some of our fair-weather liberals who have long supported equal rights are now losing their nerve and claim that the Negro wants to go too far too fast.” Meyer countered that to do any less was to invalidate the city’s Black residents as full American citizens with rightful claims on the government.
She placed her trust in a young President John F. Kennedy, who promised the District that he would use the public schools as the best available focal point for taking on youth crime and delinquency.
Four months later, Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Agnes E. Meyer, tireless advocate for social justice, died in September 1970 at 83.
Her language, looking back now, was perhaps archaic. “Negro” isn’t in vogue anymore. And some of her characterizations may be off-putting to today’s ear. There are better, more euphemistic words for “sexual promiscuity” and “illiterate folk Negro.” Her criticism of “intellectual, professional, and well-to-do” Black D.C. residents having only “a mild interest in the less fortunate members of their race” applied to some — but hardly to all.
But Meyer struck home, and she went where many feared to tread, then and now. Which, in my book, makes her a Women’s History Month exemplar.
In this city, an academic achievement gap, unequal job opportunities, scarce affordable housing, crime fears and congressional hostility live on.
So, too, must Agnes E. Meyer’s struggle to right those insufferable wrongs.