Historic Barry Farm: A Place of Pride and Achievement

“We decided to expand the research in order to … change the image of crime and destruction, at present, to one of pride and achievement [in the past]” Ella B. Pearis, 1974.

When Mrs. Pearis made this statement, more than a hundred years after the creation of Historic Barry Farm, she was talking from experience. Her family, the Howards, had been early settlers on a stretch of Elvans Avenue (later Elvans Road) which had been home to a long list of luminaries. Her grandfather Mr. James Thomas Howard had been a minister in Macedonia Baptist Church, the first Baptist Church in Barry Farm. A close neighbor on Elvans Avenue, Solomon G. Brown, had been the first African-American employee of the Smithsonian Institution. Another resident Miss Francis Hall, a white teacher who had come from New York to teach newly freed African-Americans in Barry Farm and had stayed for life, was just a few houses away.

Mrs. Pearis had heard the stories of these and other residents of Barry Farm as she grew up. These early settlers had bet on a new experiment, a “new town” created by the Freedmen’s Bureau on rural land just across the Eastern Branch (the name used for the Anacostia Rover in the 19th century), and had built their houses with their own hands and in the process created a stable and nurturing community.

Mrs. Pearis had also seen the slow disintegration of the dream, and thus her desire to “… change the image of crime and destruction” that was prevalent when she diligently worked with the Anacostia Museum to record the history of Historic Barry Farm.

Historic Barry Farm had been created by the Freedmen’s Bureau as a remedy for the appalling housing conditions in which many immigrant African-Americans lived in Washington at the end of the Civil War. The new endeavor had provided financing for the acquisition of one acre lots and the opportunity to buy materials for the construction of a modest 14ft x 24ft two room house. These houses would be later described by government officials in the 20th century as “cheap little houses.” Yet, they were mostly built by the owners themselves and had become the place of residence for generations of some of the original families.

One resident of Barry Farm, Rev. Millard F. Newman stated very eloquently in 1944 that although his residential area was easily described as “blighted” by the government officials, what was being ignored was “this more profound and deeper thing of people who owned a home they had built.”

Perhaps that is the key to the early success of Barry Farm, the fact that the houses, which then turned into homes, were built by their owners.  Those long stretches of one acre lots cultivated by the hands of the owners to provide sustenance to the family and as a source of income by the sale of the surplus, and which could also be comfortably subdivided to make room for family members to build their homes, were sources  of economic stability.

Perhaps the pride of ownership was the source of the community providing “education and support for the children’s spiritual growth and physical well-being” as stated by James G. Banks who had been born and raised in Barry Farm, in 2004.

By 1968, one hundred years after the auspicious creation of such a community, “the area which had been sparsely populated was suddenly becoming a high density urban area…” with haphazard and uncontrolled growth. The decline would be swift and sad.

It is utopic to think that there were no problems in Barry Farm or that this large expanse of land, which had retained its rural flavor, would remain untouched in the 20th century. But perhaps the story would have been different if the African American owners who had “struggled through the years to maintain a healthy, wholesome social attitude…” had been given the support to repair and improve their homes instead of having them replaced by multi-family unit buildings.

Today the name Barry Farm lives in the development built in 1943 as housing for African-Americans working for the war effort. Ironically we might pinpoint the beginning of the community’s decay on the building of this housing development and the opening of the Suitland Parkway, also in 1943, to connect Bolling Air Force Base to Camp Springs (today Andrews Air Force Base.)

In 2015 Historic Barry Farm has receded from the memory of local residents. Nevertheless, it remains an example of a successful African-American community, created right after the Civil War, by sheer force of the individual effort of its early settlers.