Built from 1935-1938, the Langston Terrace Dwellings was the first public housing development built in the District of Columbia, and the second ever built in the United States. At its inception, the complex of 274 housing units provided affordable housing to working-class families at a time of extreme housing shortages in the District. Langston was named after one of the earliest and most well-known local African American public figures of the time, John Mercer Langston, who was the first African-American elected to Congress during the Reconstruction era, and founded the Howard University School of Law.
Construction began in 1935 as part of the New Deal legislation initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was staffed by a mostly African-American workforce under the supervision architect Hilyard Robinson, and the architectural firm of McKissack & McKissack, the first African American owned architectural firm in Tennessee. Langston Dwellings was designed to reflect the architects’ belief in the European model of large-scale housing and urban planning, which incorporates well designed open spaces and sensitively scaled details. Another unique feature of Langston Terrace is the public art incorporated into its original design. The Progress of the Negro Race, a terra-cotta frieze by Daniel Olney, lines the central courtyard and traces African American history from enslavement through World War I migration. Olney’s Madonna and Children is also found in the central courtyard, and original sculptures of animals double as climbing structures for young children.
Beyond all of its cultural and historical significance, Langston Terrace is best known for being one of the closest-knit, family oriented housing developments in the District of Columbia. In its early years, it was a place that allowed blacks the same semblance of community and safety afforded to white residents in other parts of the district, and became one of the first permanent establishments for African American residents. Many of its residents have gone on to lead successful careers and lives, and attribute those successes to the strong sense of community they learned while growing up here.