Section of Boschke map based on surveys 1856-9. Reno City area outlined in red.
The Reno City community had its roots in the Civil War and Tenleytown's Fort Reno. Giles Dyer's farm occupied the high point in the city of Washington, making it a logical site for a fort. It became a magnet for contrabands, freed blacks, and enslaved people seeking a safe haven during the war. After the war ended, the Dyer land, stripped of its timber and orchards and encumbered by the remains of the fort and the people who had settled there, was returned to his heirs.
The Dyer heirs sold the property to real estate developers Newell Onion and Alexander Butts who, in 1869, laid out the Reno subdivision, later referred to as Reno City. The subdivision was bounded by Belt Road, Fessenden, Howard and Chesapeake streets. Lots were small and sold for $25 with a $5 down payment
During the war, the black settlers had worked at odd jobs for troops and some acquired skills such as carpentry. Over time, the rudimentary shelters built during the war gave way to more substantial homes.
Ellicott Street north of Belt road
In addition there were three churches, grocery stores, the Brothers and Sisters of Moses Masonic Lodge, a dairy, and at least one cemetery.
Organized in 1899 as St. George's Episcopal Mission (black) in a rowhouse in 1899, the congregation acquired land next to the Reno School site in 1903 and built a frame church.
Rock Creek Baptist Church (black) Corner of Nebraska Avenue (Howard Street) and Chesapeake Street was organized in 1872.
Mt. Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, (black) established by 1888 on Belt Road near Fessenden Street, was later called St. Mark's AME Church.
Belt Road Market between Donaldson and Ellicott Street
The 1900 census shows that the population was 75% black and 25% white and that the majority were unskilled laborers. Though there were likely no more than one hundred houses built, Reno City was an active community that reached beyond the platted subdivision.
As Tenleytown grew, so too did the need for municipal services. The first water reservoir had been built at Reno City in 1896. Though no homes were razed, the reservoir removed all traces of the old fort. In 1903 an elevated water tank and adjoining watchman's lodge were constructed at the crest of the hill on Donaldson Street.
c/o Burke/Quade Families
While Reno City appeared to be thriving, changes that would result in its eventual eradication were on the horizon, as statements from the following reports and articles make clear.
From Segregation in Washington, a Report of The National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital, November 1948, text by Kenesaw M. Landis
"...the old Negro settlements around the Civil War fort sites have been gradually whittled down. The white
population, once indifferent to these hilly regions because they were too far out of town, has come to consider
them highly desirable residential sections. Few colored families have been able to resist the methodical real
estate purchasing agent, or fight against the condemnation...of their property..."
"Originally the Citizens' Associations were neighborhood improvement societies, interested in such things as
trees and flowers, schools and parks, and improved city services."
"Not until the 1920s did they [Citizens' Associations] become actively concerned in the containment of Negroes,
and turn into a front for the real estate interests."
From Cuno H. Rudolph, president of the Board of D.C. Commissioners, to U.S. Congressman Frederick N. Zehlman, Chairman, House D.C. Committee, on February 3, 1926, (National Archives, Record Group 79) about H.R. Bill Number 5015, 69th Congress, First Session titled "A Bill to provide for the purchase or condemnation of property in the Reno subdivision and adjacent thereto..."
"The object of the bill is to authorize and direct the Commissioners of the District of Columbia to purchase or
condemn all of any property located within the territory bounded on the North by Fessenden Street and on the
South by Chesapeake Street, on the West by Belt Road, and on the East by Nebraska Avenue and Reno
Road..." "This irregular, ill-devised subdivision constitutes blight upon this part of the District ..."
"The territory surrounding Reno [City] is being developed by high class residents and it is evident to everyone
who has made a study of the development of the District of Columbia that this point will be the heart and center
of this section of the District."
By the late 1920s the city and federal departments had plans that would have lasting impact on Reno City: a new water tower and reservoir, new junior and senior high schools (for white students), a landscaped public park that would occupy the whole Fort Reno/Reno City site and a scenic Fort Drive to connect the city’s Civil War Forts. The first three of these plans were implemented. Only parts of Fort Drive were built, notably on the west side of Wilson High School.
The Friendship Citizens Association noted in its Top Notch newspaper of October 1930, that the
"Park and Planning Commission...following of necessity what may be termed the absorption process, has
already acquired something like three fourths of the Reno tract area. This is good news, welcome to
practically every reader of this paper."
There is little evidence of anyone providing constructive help to Reno’s displaced residents, black or white, some of whom had just improved their homes or built new ones. Homeowners were advised to take any purchase offer as they were too few in number to have any power. Those who refused to sell received nothing when their properties were condemned.
Demolition of homes on Emery Place
In 1938, Harold J. Doyle, a representative of the Chevy Chase Land Company and a member of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association, wrote the National Capital Park and Planning Commission:
"I and a number of my friends many years ago took over between 200 and 300 lots in the section [Reno City]
for the purpose of preventing further building for colored occupancy... There would seem to be no good
reason to retain this comparatively small area for the use of colored, ...occupied by small poor frame houses,
some of which are...tumbling down."
National Park Service photos taken in the 1930s to document the community tell a different story. Most of the Reno city houses that were razed, though perhaps modest, were definitely NOT 'tumbling down.'
4017-4109 Dennison Place
There had been a real sense of community at Reno City as expressed in the 1977 interviews with former residents, members of the relocated Rock Creek Baptist Church. The interviews were conducted by participants in the Neighborhood History Project sponsored by NPC 2 and 3.
August 2, 1977 A Moore:
..."when we lived in this row of houses...on Dennison, in this row up here was a white family... my mother's
family... a colored family... next was white family. Next was a colored family, Next was white..."
..."if my mother cooked a pot of soup, she'd pass some across the fence to the white lady next door. If she
cooked a big pot of soup here comes some over for us. And we all got along very nicely."
In 1928, the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission authorized the city's earlier recommendations for the purchase of land at Fort Reno for Alice Deal Junior High School - for white students. Alice Deal opened in 1931: cost for site and construction approximately $49,000.
Land for Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, south of Chesapeake Street, was purchased in 1930 and the school opened in 1935.
Sumner School Museum and Archives
The Brooks House on Davenport Street with Deal cupola in background
House on Chesapeake Street with 1926 water tank in background
As the Reno City population dwindled, so did the number of students at Reno School and the congregations of the three churches.
St. George's Episcopal Mission had disbanded in 1929. Asbury/St. Mark's Methodist Church also closed... Rock Creek Baptist Church, located at Chesapeake Street and Nebraska Avenue, lasted until 1945. In 1950, Reno School closed and its six remaining students went to other schools.
By the end of the 1950s only a row of six houses remained in Reno City. These were located on 41st Street, outside the platted Reno City. In 1973, the occupants, the last
residents of the Reno community, were forced to vacate. The houses were stripped down to their architectural framing, reconstructed, and refaced with the brick exteriors seen today.
c/o J. Holzwart
The spirit of community that had existed in Reno City persisted. As late as 1983, years after the school closed and the community dispersed, The Washington Post reported on a reunion of former residents. "Oh, but when we were young we got along so much better on the little we had...We didn't have to go to the grocery store for nothing. There were peaches and pear trees and grapes in our back yard. ..." "We're all family here."
Images courtesy of The National Park Service, Judith Beck Helm, Tenleytown, DC: Country Village into City Neighborhood, DC Office of the Surveyor, Sumner School Museum and Archives, The Quade/Burke Families, J. Holzwart, Tenleytown Historical Society