The history behind DC's push for statehood

On Monday, the U.S. House will hold a hearing on D.C. statehood, but there are still some lingering questions that remain: How did Washington, D.C. become the nation’s capital? Why is it still a District?

We turned to the DC History Center and the co-authors of the book, "Chocolate City," to discuss the city’s story of democracy and race – and how both led to the District of Columbia we know today.

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"We’re kind of stuck in the same – in the same rut that the founders were stuck in. Which is, on the one hand, they want to have exclusive control over the national seat of government. And that made a lot of sense to the founders and a lot of people today, right? The federal government should have exclusive control over its seat of Government, but that’s at war with another fundamental principal, which is this idea of no idea without representation – right? That’s the rallying cry of the revolution," said "Chocolate City" Co-Author, Chris Myers Asch.

Look around the District and you’ll see daily reminders on D.C. license plates.

What does that mean? D.C. has a member of Congress, but she cannot vote. Congress must review all local legislation before it becomes law. There’s a host of other differences.

On the topic of race and District, D.C. History Center Historian Jane Levey told FOX 5, "After the civil war, when black people were given the right to vote, the denial of representation to Washington D.C. was directly linked to the number of black people in our city who were going to have political power."

That was in the 1860s. Let’s go back even further.

During the time of European exploration during the 17th century (you may have heard the tales of Captain John Smith), the area where D.C. now sits was originally native territory.

READ MORE: South Dakota Congressman’s bill looks to ‘circumvent’ call for DC statehood

Fast forward to the late 1700s – Philadelphia is operating as the temporary capital.

Some historians say a situation unfolded, where a crowd of angry soldiers demanding payment for their service and Pennsylvania’s governor sympathizing and refusing to have the soldiers, led Congress to both flee to New Jersey and later create a seat of government that Congress can have control over.

"In the beginning, that was more of a political matter and because the government thought that the people of Washington D.C. could just come into Congress if they needed something because we all lived here … that’s a very foreign thought today right?" said Levey.

"One of the major reasons that they wanted to do that was they were worried that if the capital of the country were placed within a particular state, then that state would have undue influence of power over the federal government," said Asch.

George Washington selected the location. The city’s website says DC was officially founded in 1790, after Maryland and Virginia ceded land to create this new federal city.

Article One, Section 8 (Clause 17) of the U.S. Constitution says the District cannot exceed 10 miles.

READ MORE: House Oversight and Reform Committee to hold DC statehood hearing March 22

The city’s website says the location was a compromise between Alexander Hamilton and northern states wanting the federal government to assume war debts – and the south, which reportedly paid most of its debts, wanting a location more friendly to slave-holding states.

"When DC was first chosen, the site for what became Washington D.C. were first chosen, actually did have the right to vote," said Asch, who explained those on the ceded Maryland side voted in Maryland elections, and same went for Virginia.

However, Asch says that changed with the 1801 Organic Act, which placed the District under Congress’ exclusive authority, stripping Washingtonians of all rights to vote and locally self-govern.  

"Washingtonians went ballistic, writing in the local newspapers, complaining to representatives in congress saying, look, this isn’t right," said the "Chocolate City" co-author.

We are told Washingtonians were able to win back municipal self-government for a few decades.  

Though that time, D.C. was home to the slave trade. Smithsonian magazine called it the "slave capital." The book Chocolate City also details a thriving Black society despite slavery, and the city’s growing Abolitionist Movement.

Then reconstruction came -- and what Asch called a "flowering of interracial democracy" that lead the country.

"You had Black men were elected to office in every ward of the district. You had an interracial city government that passed the most incredible civil rights legislation, anti-discrimination legislation. Unlike anything we saw, really until 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. Congress got very concerned about Black political power," he told FOX 5.

"At the end of reconstruction, the white leaders of Washington relinquished their ability to vote in order to stop black people from voting," said Levey.

For almost a century, the "Chocolate City" co-authors highlight how Washingtonians did not vote in any elections. Congress had control through presidentially appointment commissioners. Historians say attempts to fight this were squashed until the 1960s and 70s, when D.C. became part of the civil rights movement, drawing activists like Marion Barry to the majority Black city that still did not have equal representation in Congress or the right to fully self-govern.

"And so here are these veterans from the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, and the struggle in Georgia and Alabama and many of those battles had been won, those legislative battles had been won with the Civil Rights Acts of ’64, Voting Rights Act of ’65. Then turn around and they say, ‘Wait, the Nation’s Capital’ doesn’t even have voting rights," said Asch.

Asch said the activists found an ally in President Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped create the city council model.   

DC residents were finally allowed to vote in Presidential Elections in 1964 and finally allowed to elect their own mayor in 1973.

"In the 1980s, there was voting rights amendment that would’ve given DC votes in Congress. But it had to be approved at the states. And the state legislatures around the county had no idea why it mattered," said Levey.

"That would have been our answer a year ago today, that there was just no possibility for statehood in the foreseeable future. And then of course, we have George Floyd and the aftermath of George Floyd and the entire political word shook. The ground shifted in ways that no one could’ve predicted. And many people started to look at DC statehood with new eyes. Through a fresh lens and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is an issue of racial justice that has not been addressed. It’s an issue of basic – Democratic, small D, Democratic justice," said Asch, who also noted the Constitution only give a max city size of 10 miles per square feet. It does define the minimum size.

Asch and Levey agree, DC not being a state is a moral issue. Activists today say it is voter suppression.

D.C. is no longer a majority Black city, but the District is predominately liberal.

Last May, President Trump essentially said there was no way D.C. would become a state if it adds two Democrats to the Senate. Now with a Democrat in the White House and Democrats leading Congress, some historians believe this might be the closest the city has come to possibly becoming a state.