Civil War to Civil Rights
— Downtown Heritage Trail —
The old City Hall/Courthouse endured hard use, was abandoned, and then was transformed. In 2009 it re-opened as the DC Court of Appeals, redesigned by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, which modernized the interior while preserving its historic features. A graceful glass atrium defined the new main entrance, and the limestone walls gleamed. A grand new ceremonial courtroom was constructed beneath the south lawn.
The Court of Appeals now stands among other dignified courthouses. But in 1822, when the mayor and council moved into the new City Hall, their neighbors were the hastily built Washington County poorhouse, the Washington Jail, and eventually the Washington Infirmary, providing medical care to the poor.
The jail was especially bleak, confirming criminals and debtors together with the insane. In addition the cells held fugitives from slavery, enslaved people, and free African Americans who had broken one of the Black Codes that governed their lives until DC emancipation in 1862. For example, African Americans could not be on the street past curfew without a permit. The city required all free African Americans to register and have a white sponsor.
By the 1870s the poorhouse and infirmary were long gone. The reviled Washington Jail was finally razed in 1878 after the new jail was built near the Anacostia River. In their wake, the city commissioners transformed the landscape of the tears into a beautiful city park, with curving paths, a watchman's lodge, and a marble fountain. In 1991 the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial opened where the park had been.
The Civil War (1861 - 1865) transformed Washington, DC from a muddy backwater to a center of national power. Ever since, the city has been at the heart of the continuing struggle to realize fully the ideas for which the war was fought. The 25 signs that mark this trail follow the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, and others, famous and humble, who shaped a nation and its capital city while living and working in historic downtown DC.
Civil War to Civil Rights Downtown Heritage Trail
is an Official Washington, DC Walking Trail. The self-guided tour consists of three distinct loops: West, Center, and East. Each one-mile loop offers about an hour of gentle exercise.
A free booklet capturing the trail's highlights is available at local businesses and institutions along the way. To download the free Civil War to Civil Rights Audio Tour, and learn about other DC neighborhoods, please visit www.CuturalTourismDC.org.