Black History Month Tribute to James C. Dent and the History of The Dent House Neighborhood

Living Classrooms’ James C. Dent House Community Center in Southwest Washington is an important Black history site in Washington DC. The home for our College and Career Readiness and other programs of service to Southwest DC is linked not only to James Dent, a man born into slavery who became a prominent citizen, but also to extraordinary Black women civil rights fighters like Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper. 

Two notable Black history narratives merge in the Dent House, which was designated a DC Landmark by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board in 2010. The first is the story of James C. Dent, who more than a century ago commissioned and built the two-story brick house where our community center is now located. Equally important is the story of the Colored Social Settlement, which was founded four years earlier in the same neighborhood and evolved into the Southwest Community House Organization with its headquarters in the Dent House. 

James Clinton Dent was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland in July 1855 and presumably gained his freedom when Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. In the 1870s he came to Washington, one of tens of thousands of Blacks who migrated to the capital after the Civil War looking to create a new life. He found shelter in what was then called “the Island” in Southwest Washington (it was cut off from the rest of the city by the Washington and James Creek canals), married, and worked as a laborer, at least for a while in a lime kiln. According to the 1880 census, he could read but not write. 

In 1885 his wife Mary, a member of Southwest’s Rehoboth Baptist Church, was part of a group of twenty-six worshippers who broke away to establish a new congregation that they named Mt. Moriah. Ten months later, the founding pastor moved on and thirty-year-old James Dent stepped in as minister, a position he held until his death 22 years later. He successfully built up the church membership and took Mt. Moriah from meeting in someone’s home to constructing and paying off a substantial church building near 2nd and M Streets. 

Reverend Dent secured a personal mortgage in 1906 and bought a large corner lot for himself four blocks south of his church, just across James Creek from the US Army War College. He commissioned a prominent White architect, William James Palmer, to design a freestanding, 2 two-story brick house. Most of Palmer’s work was in Northwest Washington, and that very year, the Washington Post praised his homes in Mt. Pleasant for their “architectural beauty, stability, and refinement of taste.” Although the Dent house was far from grand, it was the most prominent brick home in the largely empty area scattered with shacks and small wood-frame houses. 

Sadly, Reverend Dent did not get to enjoy his beautiful new home for long, as he passed away in 1908. With no children, his widow Mary took in boarders to stay in the house for several years after his death. Reverend Dent’s legacy lives on, however, in the still vibrant Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which moved to Capitol Hill when the federal government bought and razed the church building during the urban renewal of the Southwest neighborhood. 

Sixty years after Reverend Dent’s passing, the Dent House neighborhood was still an area of modest row houses, as well as hundreds of units of garden-style and mid-rise public housing that had been built as segregated housing in the 1940s. In 1975 the still-prominent brick house was bought by the nonprofit Southwest Community House Organization, a social service agency founded as the Colored Social Settlement in 1902. 

The Colored Social Settlement was established by prominent Black Washingtonians, many of them women, to improve the appalling living conditions of many people in Southwest Washington. Perhaps the two most notable early board members were Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, the first two Black women in America to earn Master’s Degrees (both from Oberlin in 1888.) Both were founders of the Colored Women’s League in the late 1890s and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which is still going strong today. Both became internationally known, as Cooper became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne (and the third to earn a doctorate while teaching at Dunbar High School), and Terrell remained a civil rights activist well into her 90s. 

Notable men in Washington’s Black society were also founders of the Colored Social Settlement. The first chair of the Trustees was Washington’s most distinguished Black doctor, John R. Francis, who had been a pallbearer at Frederick Douglass’ funeral. Also prominent was the Assistant Superintendent of DC Colored Schools Roscoe Conkling Bruce, son of the first Black US Senator and a protégé of Booker T. Washington, and Francis Grimke, a well-known Presbyterian minister from an abolitionist family and a founder of the NAACP. 

At a time when neither government nor most charities or churches were willing to assist poor Blacks, the Colored Social Settlement’s efforts were crucial. 

Southwest Washington, which had absorbed thousands of formerly enslaved men and women from Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, had some of the worst poverty and deprivation anywhere in the nation. At the turn of the century, more than 15,000 Blacks lived in a few blocks of Southwest DC within a mile of the Capitol, many in largely hidden alley dwellings without electricity, gas, plumbing, or running water, often with multiple families in a 3 single room. Mortality, particularly among children, was staggering. Jacob Riis, the New York-based photographer and reformer, testified to Congress that the Southwest alley dwellers lived under worse conditions than anywhere in New York City, and President Roosevelt made the deplorable housing and health conditions of Southwest a major theme of his 1904 State of the Union address. 

Much of the Colored Social Settlement’s early social work was focused on healthy babies, children, childcare, maternal care, and what later became known as home economics. It hosted a branch of the public library and afterschool homework help. It also sponsored a Mother’s Club, a low-cost food pantry, and raised money for a gym and a modern laundry. 

Unusually for that deeply segregated time, a notable aspect of the Colored Social Settlement was the close collaboration between Blacks and Whites on its Board of Trustees, its Advisory Board, its staff, and its donors. One contemporary account noted that discussions were “remarkably free from race consciousness, the one thought on both sides being the common welfare.” 

For more than a century, the Colored Social Settlement and its successor Southwest Community House assisted the residents of Southwest Washington to improve their educational and economic circumstances until financial and legal trouble caused it to shut down after 102 years of good works. The last thirty years of that important work were conducted from Reverend Dent’s home at 156 Q Street, after which Pepco bought and renovated the old building and offered a long-term lease to Living Classrooms to continue its long and honorable tradition of service. It is still remembered fondly by many neighborhood residents. 

The Living Classrooms Foundation is very proud to be walking in the footsteps of some of the nation’s most prominent Black Americans of the early years of the 20th Century. We are working hard every day to carry on their historic legacy in our Southwest Washington neighborhood.