Washington, D.C. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As its nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is more a seat of government than an industrial or commercial center. Consequently, during the nineteenth century fewer Europeans immigrated there, relative to other mid-Atlantic metropolitan areas. However, Washington did attract large numbers of African Americans from the South after the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, and more immigrants came from Africa and Latin America during the late twentieth century.

Thanks to the natural resources of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, Piscataway Indians used the region that would later become Washington, D.C., as a trade center long before the arrival of European settlers during the seventeenth century. In 1790, sections of Maryland and Virginia–populated largely by persons of British ancestry and enslaved Slavery;Washington, D.C.African Americans–were ceded to establish the District of Columbia. However, Virginia’s portion was returned to the state in 1846.Washington, D.C.African Americans;in Washington, D.C.[Washington, D.C.]Washington, D.C.[cat]STATES;Washington, D.C.[cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;Washington, D.C.African Americans;in Washington, D.C.[Washington, D.C.]

After the seat of the federal government officially moved from Philadelphia in 1800, Washington’s population grew accordingly. Slaves, along with Irish immigrants;Washington, D.C.Irish artisans and laborers, helped construct the most important buildings, including the White House and the Capitol Building. Many more Irish arrived when famine struck Ireland during the late 1840’s, making them the largest immigrant group in Washington–peaking at 58.1 percent of the city’s foreign-born population (or 10.1 percent of the total population) in 1860.

Additional groups from Europe immigrated to Washington during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. German immigrants;Washington, D.C.Germans were the most numerous, many of them refugees from the revolutions of Revolutions of 18481848, laboring as artisans, merchants, and servants; the population of Germans peaked in 1890, when they represented 30.8 percent of the city’s foreign-born population (or 2.5 percent of the total). Other significant immigrant groups, especially between 1890 and World War I, included Greek immigrants;Washington, D.C.Greeks, who sought entrepreneurial jobs in barbershops, restaurants, and retail produce; Italian immigrants;Washington, D.C.Italians, many working as stonemasons and craftsmen on new government buildings; and Jewish immigrants;Washington, D.C.Jews, primarily from eastern Europe and Russia, many starting as peddlers before opening businesses of their own.

In 1860, African Americans constituted 19.1 percent of the District’s population; 22.2 percent of them were enslaved. Following the Civil War, many more African Americans arrived in the nation’s capital, seeking a fresh start. This trend continued throughout the nineteenth century; by 1900, 86,702 inhabitants (or 31 percent of Washington’s population) were black, thus forming the largest urban community of African Americans anywhere in the United States. The population peaked in 1970, when 71.1 percent of the District was African American. Although this percentage has since decreased–to 55.5 percent in 2007–Washington remains a center of African American culture, with many blacks working in the federal government (including, in 2009, the first African American president, Barack Obama).

As the district’s African American population declined, their place was taken by new immigrants, primarily from Latin America and Africa. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, many Spanish-speaking immigrants moved into the Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan neighborhoods, forging a distinct Latino identity. The civil war in Salvadoran immigrants;Washington, D.C.El Salvador during the 1980’s was a particularly powerful push factor. Similarly, African immigrants;Washington, D.C.conflicts in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone from the 1960’s to the 1990’s led thousands of political refugees from those countries to Washington. In 2000, the District had the highest percentage of any state of African-born residents: 1.6 percent of the population.

In 2006, 13.0 percent of the District’s population was born outside the United States. This represents the highest percentage ever recorded–topping previous highs enumerated in the United States decennial censuses: 12.9 percent in 2000, 12.6 in 1870, 10.7 in 1850, and 9.7 in 1990. Of Washington’s foreign-born residents in 2006, 48 percent came from Latin America, 18.7 percent from Asia, 15.5 percent from Europe, 14.4 percent from Africa, and 3 percent from other world regions. As a result, Washington, D.C., is truly an international city during the twenty-first century.Washington, D.C.

Further Reading
  • Cary, Francine Curro, ed. Washington Odyssey: A Multicultural History of the Nation’s Capital. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
  • Gittens, Anthony, et al. “Washington, D.C.: It’s Our Home.” In Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2000, edited by Carla M. Borden. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Kathryn Schneider. Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital. Northridge, Calif.: Windsor, 1988.

African Americans and immigrants

African immigrants

Ethiopian immigrants

German immigrants

Irish immigrants

Latin American immigrants


Salvadoran immigrants


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