An American River
The Racial History of the Anacostia Is the Racial History of the United States
Photo: Crossing the Anacostia River outside the West Hyattsville Metro
By: Eliza Nellums
In these hazy days of social distance, I like to walk along the trails that follow the Anacostia River through Prince George’s County, Maryland. There I see my neighbors, mostly people of color, cooling off in the water and teaching their kids to fish.
But the fish in the Anacostia are dangerous to eat and, in some places, just touching the sediment at the bottom of the river is considered a cancer risk – due to “legacy toxins” from industrial development. I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy toxins – of all kinds – lately.
The Anacostia River is only nine miles long. It flows south from Prince George’s County, through Southeast D.C. – where it gives its name to a neighborhood in Ward 8 – before it empties into the Potomac. From there the water travels into the Chesapeake Bay.
But along its short length, it contains six different superfund sites.
The river has a rich role in American history. The name “Anacostia” is taken from the native peoples recorded by Captain John Smith. They were pushed from their lands by the 1700s. When the site of the capital city was first being decided, the Anacostia was part of the reason George Washington selected the present-day location of Washington D.C. – because it provided access to the wealthy port towns around Bladensburg. But by 1800, the city’s development had made the river too full of silt to be navigable. The Navy Yard, carved out of its banks, was key to the Union Army’s strategy during the Civil War. By 1892, the Army Corps of Engineers was required to dredge the river and fill the wetlands. Prevented from flowing naturally, the river was considered a source of disease. Barry Farm, a settlement for African-Americans, was established on the banks in 1867. It was eventually cut off from the river by the construction of a freeway in the 1950s.
As Washington D.C. continues to develop, people of color are pushed up the river into Prince George’s County. At one point, it was among the most affluent majority African American counties in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, industrial development has been pushed upstream at the same time. As fossil fuel plants in the city proper have been shut down, more have been built or proposed in Prince George’s County.
As my neighbors pull catfish out of the stream – a District Department of Environment study found that 74 percent of people fishing in the river were eating or sharing the fish they caught – I think about our toxic legacy.
A river can represent the struggles of the people that live along its banks. And like its nation, the Anacostia River will require a lot more work before we can all be safe in it.
Eliza Nellums is a writer and a resident of Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is the author of All That’s Bright and Gone, a novel.