A Little Bit of City History

We are in the middle of US history, but took a little time out for some city history.  If we lived somewhere else, we would do state history, but as you may know, we don’t live in a state.  Washington, DC is a federal district, and as such it has a unique situation.  Most notably, our status means residents here are not fully enfranchised citizens of the United States.  That’s right, we can’t vote for representation.  I like to gripe about it.

As there are so few homeschoolers in our fair city, this post on DC history probably isn’t much use to many readers, but I feel compelled to put it together anyway.  We deserve a “state study” as much as anyone, but I didn’t find nearly anything out there.

Because Washington is such an important city, there are dozens of books about it.  However, most of them are focused solely on the monuments and government buildings for tourist kids, not the city as a whole.  Some of the picture books for children are nice, like You Can’t Take a Balloon in the National Gallery, and there are many good books that use Washington as a setting, from chapter books like The Capital Mysteries to classics like The People in Pineapple Place.  Unfortunately, these aren’t that useful for a city study.  With one exception, none of the children’s books I found covered the voting and governance issues.  However, we found some useful resources.

First of all, the vintage M. Sasek book This is Washington, D.C. is a nice visual introduction to the city.  If you’re not familiar already with Sasek’s beautiful books about the cities of the world, then you’re really missing out.  The illustrations are lovely and full of character.  The text makes you feel like you’re taking a city tour, circa 1960, that is.  The DC volume focuses on the monuments, but if I were to pick a single book in this genre, this is the one.

The other vintage book I found that was useful was They Built a City by Janice Holland.  Like the M. Sasek books, this one has neat old-fashioned style illustrations.  The book actually covers a nice segment of early district history, from L’Enfant’s planning to the Civil War, with some nice bits about the War of 1812 and a focus on different neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill.  An updated, slightly more detailed book like this would have been perfect.  This is a bit hard to find used, but presumably if you’re actually doing this, you also live in DC, where many copies are still in the library system.

Another book that unexpectedly turned out to be useful was The USKids History book for The New American Nation.  We have all of this series and have really enjoyed using pieces of it in various ways.  Inside there are projects and everyday life stories about various topics in American history, primary social history.  This one had District-centric bits about the planning of the city, the role of early Black scientist Benjamin Banneker, and the War of 1812.  The more I’ve used these books, the more I’ve enjoyed them, I must say.

Moving forward in history, I found Eliza’s Cherry Trees by Andrea Zimmerman, which is about how the cherry trees came to Washington.  I also found too many books about Martin Luther King and the March on Washington to list.  However, I thought this was an important moment to include in the history of our fair city, and one which is gladly documented in picture book form.  We March by Shane Evans is one that’s good for younger kids.

The best resource, which my kids are sadly a little too young to appreciate, but which we’ll certainly use in the future are the collections from District Comics about the history of the city and its neighborhoods.  We own (as does the DC library system) an older collection of these wonderful comics, but a new one is scheduled to come out very soon, see?  It’s a must for anyone who wants to learn more about the District.

Online, a few places have some useful information.  The Historical Society of Washington, DC is sadly no longer open (so tragic considering what a cool building they have), but their website has a couple of good things.  And while it wasn’t exactly written with kids in mind, I thought this article from the Washingtonian Magazine about turning points in the history of DC was a nice snapshot look at important moments.

We also have taken some field trips.  Obviously, just walking around the National Mall is a worthy field trip and living in a century-old house around the corner from a park that exists because it’s where the trolley used to turnaround gives a bit of history.  There are also a number of great walking tours set up by Cultural Tourism DC.  These are self-guided with lovely signs.  We have passed almost daily many of the Columbia Heights one and plan to do the tour closer to when we study the Civil Rights movement so we can tie in the riots.  Another great field trip are the Fort Circle Parks.  These are ringed around the city for protection and were important during the Civil War.  Finally, you can find most of the original boundary markers around the edge of the city.  There’s a list here.  We went to find one down the street from the library and it was a bit like going on a geocache.  We had to wander into someone’s yard to spot it.  Finally, the National Building Museum maintains a permanent exhibit about the District.

Mushroom lays hands on one of the 1791 original District markers.

Lastly, I found a couple of video resources.  I was slightly disappointed by DC Vote’s educational resources, which are all geared toward high school, but they did link to this quick video about voting rights that would be good for older kids.  However, the best video I found was the one below which was made by a class at Two Rivers Charter School.  It’s pretty adorable and actually informative on voting rights.

One thought on “A Little Bit of City History

  1. Hi, We are in D.C. visiting your neck of the woods. We’re staying in the foggy bottom district which I think is so lovely. It reminds me a bit of our historical district back home in Wilmington, NC. This year we will be homeschooling for the first time so that is how I found you. Thanks for offering up some great tips and sharing your experience. Big help!

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