Dupont Circle

This walking tour highlights eight national women’s activist organizations that have made Dupont Circle their home, and some of their founders, members, and impacts they have had over the last century in Washington, DC and across the United States.

WHY DUPONT CIRCLE?

There is no single answer to the question of why these organizations converged on Dupont Circle. Today, Dupont Circle is a Metro stop, home to a bustling Sunday farmers’ market, a street scene of shops, restaurants, and bookstores, surrounded by residential streets and an extraordinary array of organizations and museums.

The District of Columbia, however, began as a compromise between the North and the South and was carved out of Maryland and Virginia farmland and swamps on either side of the Potomac River. In 1791, Pierre L’Enfant’s plans for the new capital included a circle at the crossing of three grand avenues in the northwest quadrant of the city, just north of the White House—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire Avenues.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War, however, that Dupont Circle became the center of the elegant residential neighborhood that L’Enfant had envisioned in the heart of the burgeoning capital. Following significant investment in roads and other infrastructure, Dupont Circle attracted wealthy individuals from across the United States who bought mansions designed by some of the leading architects of the day and often built by developers speculating on the growth of the Capital.

Black Washington also expanded following the Civil War. Residential neighborhoods such as the Strivers’ Section and Logan Circle - north and east of Dupont - became magnets for an emerging Black elite and the first homes of NACW and NCNW. Dupont Circle and adjoining neighborhoods also became centers for abolitionists and education for African Americans. The School for Colored Girls, founded in 1851 in Dupont Circle, became a national model for Black teacher education. Just over a mile northeast of Dupont, Howard University was founded in 1867. Two of the sororities on the walking tour, Delta Sigma Theta (1913) and Zeta Phi Beta (1920), were founded at Howard.

Over time, some residents moved as infrastructure and transportation improved in other parts of the city and suburbs, and Dupont Circle became more mixed economically, commercially, and racially. Many of the old Dupont mansions were torn down and replaced by apartments and commercial buildings or purchased by embassies and a variety of organizations including six of the organizations on this tour.

A HUB OF ACTIVISM

In the early 20th century, Dupont Circle also became a destination for a new generation of progressives—including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It would continue as a center of activism—for example, lobbying for the United Nations in the 1940s and 50s, civil rights in the 1960s, and gay recognition and rights in the 1990s.

The women and national organizations celebrated in this tour were deeply involved in women’s fight for the vote, other civil and human rights, and the welfare of their communities. Founders of the LWV, NACW (later NACWC), and the WNDC were among the leaders of the struggle for the 19th Amendment. The first public act of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was marching in the Woman’s Suffrage Procession in 1913.

Writer, educator, and activist, Zitkála-Šá worked with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to establish an Indian Affairs Committee and advocate for citizenship for American Indians. The DC chapter of the LWV, called “The League of Voteless Women,” and WNDC’s founder Daisy Harriman fought for Home Rule for the District of Columbia. The National League for American Pen Women (NLAPW) fought barriers to women’s entry in the press and the arts.

Two women’s organizations moved to Dupont Circle shortly after the passage of the 19th Amendment—the GFWC (1922) and WNDC (1927)—purchased large mansions and repurposed them to suit their needs. In the 1950s four more of these organizations established headquarters in Dupont Circle: The NLAPW, Delta Sigma Theta, NACWC, and Zeta Phi Beta. In part, the prices of large mansions had become more affordable. But an important part of the story was that Black Washington was expanding and important changes were beginning to take place—some driven by the very women we are celebrating:

  • Mary Church Terrell, who marched with the Deltas in 1913, was the first president of NACW (1896) and a lifelong educator and activist. She was a passionate advocate for suffrage and social justice. At the age of 88, in 1952, she led the fight to desegregate Washington DC restaurants.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of a number of these organizations, fought tirelessly alongside NCNW founder and President Mary McLeod Bethune and President Dorothy Height for social justice throughout their lives.

These organizations by virtue of their leadership, national memberships, and strategic locations also established close relations with the White House, particularly with the First Ladies, as well as with the Congress. As an example, in 1954 the Deltas purchased a house at 1814 M St NW for their first headquarters. They were welcomed to tea at the White House by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower to celebrate the dedication of the house.

Despite their many efforts, progress was not easy or fast. In 1948, NCNW attempted to purchase the Boardman House at 1801 P St., NW for their headquarters but was rebuffed by neighbors despite a $150,000 proposed cash down payment. NCNW later rented an office in the Dupont Circle Building and, in 1995, purchased an imposing building at 6th and Pennsylvania for their headquarters strategically located between the White House and Congress.

Each organization included on this tour has a storied history of sisterhood, national leadership, activism, and impact—and all are still actively engaged in civic life today. And each of them came to Dupont Circle for their own set of reasons and circumstances drawn by its architecture, its civic life, and proximity to the institutions and activities of government.