About Reno City
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.
These black settlers 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.
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.
In addition to homes, there were three churches, grocery stores, the Brothers and Sisters of Moses Masonic Lodge, a dairy, and at least one cemetery. The Jesse Reno School was built in 1903 to serve the black children.
In the 1920s, politicians, developers and the residents of the surrounding all-white, middle-class neighborhoods worked together to remove Reno City and use the land for the construction of Fort Reno Park and Deal Junior High and Wilson Senior High Schools, to serve white children.
The city began to acquire Reno City properties and ultimately condemned those that the owners refused to sell.
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.”
“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.”
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.
For an in-depth look at how this thriving community was destroyed, we recommend Neil Flanagan’s excellent article, “The Battle of Fort Reno.”