Anacostia Community Museum Explores “How the Civil War Changed Washington”

 An engraving of female employees exiting the Treasury Building, which was featured in Harper's Weekly on February 18, 1865. Photo: Anacostia Community Museum Collection, Smithsonian Institution 

When some think of the Civil War, they think of battles, soldiers, and President Abraham Lincoln; others think of the conflict's impact on African-Americans. However, the Anacostia Community Museum's (ACM) newest exhibit brings a new perspective to the war. “'How the Civil War Changed Washington' is not an account of the historic battles of the North and South,” says ACM Director Camille Giraud Akeju. “Instead, it is an examination of how this conflict impacted the nation's capital in terms of the city's infrastructure, social imperatives, and daily life.”

“Not Your Father's Civil War Exhibit”

When it came to curating the exhibit, ACM program specialist Alcione Amos said, “I thought, 'I don't want to do your father's exhibit, or your mother's Civil War exhibit for that matter.' I wanted to do something different.” Her research forgoes the usual focus on soldiers and politicians and focuses  on residents and their everyday lives in the city. “I wanted going to talk about the spatial changes, which were many, the changes in social mores, which were many, but not about the politics, battles, or the generals,” she explained. 

Throughout the exhibit, visitors will see reconstructed shoes or boots, signifying residents who embodied different aspects of Civil War life. For instance, a section focusing on opportunities for women in the workforce features low-heeled shoes to represent women like Clarina Nichols, who moved from Kansas to DC after her husband died in the war. To support her family, she worked as a government clerk, which was considered scandalous at the time. 

Slavery and Freedom

Another section features a pair of boots, representing George W. Young, the largest slave owner east of the Anacostia River. “There is a story: the day of the Emancipation Proclamation...he got on his horse and went over to the plantation to tell his people, 'You are all free now,'” Amos stated. “I envisioned him putting on his boots, climbing on his horse, and going to the plantation, giving them the news.” The section also introduced Tobias Henson, a former slave who bought his and his family's  freedom and became a property owner. However, these achievements did not come without struggles. “The story of Tobias Henson was that he bought his children, but he didn't free them,” Amos explained. “The reason a lot of African-Americans did that was because if you were free, you were in danger. You could be picked up and enslaved, and if nobody claimed you, you would be taken to the South and never be seen again.” 

Henson and Young's stories showed how slavery and freedom co-existed in the city. In fact, after the DC Emancipation Act was enacted in April 1862, DC saw an influx of fugitive slaves, later known as “contrabands;” the name came from Major General Benjamin Butler, who decided to hold three fugitive slaves as contraband war loot. As a result, many African-Americans settled throughout the city around military installations or in government “contraband camps.”

The Story of Barry Farm

Another section highlights Barry Farm’s history. Established in 1867, the original Barry Farm extended from ACM's current location to Suitland Parkway. Paying as much as $10 a month, African-Americans not only received land, but also building materials, training, and technical assistance. Many, like Solomon G. Brown, the Smithsonian Institute's first African-American employee, settled around Elvans Road. “I think the reason this street was a favorite of people was because it had two streams running through it,” said Amos. “This was very important at the time, because you would have to have a well to have water. But if you had a stream running through your property, you could get water right there.”

Today, when people think of Barry Farm, they think of the public housing development of the same name and Elvans Road is more known for poverty and crime than its history. “I hope that visitors will see that it started as a place of hope,” Amos explained. “It can be again be a place of hope, a place of development, and a place of achievement.”

Making Connections 

One major theme of the exhibit is making connections between the past and the present. For instance, an audio-visual section, “History of Place,” allows visitors to see how different neighborhoods changed from the Civil War to today, while “History of People” shows interviews with long-time Washingtonians and descendants of those profiled throughout the exhibits. Whether it is through an old map of the city or through personal stories of the war, visitors will leave with a better understanding of the city. “When you talk about DC, out there in the world, the discussion is about policy and politics,” said ACM Public Affairs Specialist Marcia Baird Burris. “People forget that people actually live here...There's a lot of wonderful things to say about Washington, DC, just like any other area. That is what this exhibit focuses on.”

“How the Civil War Changed Washington” is on display until November 15. The Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place, SE. Operation hours are from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily (closed on December 25). For more information, visit or call 202-633-4820.

This map, created in 1862 by civil engineer E.G. Arnold, details the “white,” “free colored,” and “slave” populations of DC, Georgetown (then its own city) and Alexandria, as well as location of Union forts (red dots) and roads. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Division
A portrait of an unidentified “contraband,” or fugitive slave. Photo: Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division