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Marc Minsker Talks About the Power of Memory, History and Social Justice

Discover what’s happening in the world today, and how Marc Minsker is making big movements forward.

Marc Minsker is an educator, a community organizer, radio DJ (WOWD-FM in Takoma Park), and a concert promoter.   At Wilson High School where he teaches, he founded an organization with students called the Coalition for Chesapeake House Community Center (CCCC), a student/faculty organization that is working with National Park Service and other community organizations to repurpose the historic Chesapeake House as a community center where the tragic history of Reno City can be studied and shared through interpretive exhibits.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Marc Minsker and learn a little more about his project and passion.

How did you first learn about Reno City?

When I moved to the District of Columbia in 2000, I became familiar with Fort Reno Park, an open green space to play frisbee with friends and as well as see amazing concerts during the annual summer concert series held there.   In August of 2018, I started teaching at Wilson High School where a colleague in the history department drew my attention to the “secret history” of Reno.  From there, I borrowed a copy of Chocolate History: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, which features a short passage on Reno City and its demise.  I became both fascinated and angry that an entire community of over 150 families of color could be driven from their homes and displaced by white homeowners, nefarious real estate companies, and discriminating neighborhood associations.  Why was this history a relatively unknown chapter in the history of Washington, DC?

What motivated you to get involved and raise awareness?

Near the beginning of 2019, a grassroots organization known as the DC Collective for History and Justice formed, made up of Wilson parents, alumni, students, and teachers.   The initial goal of this non-profit organization was to raise awareness about Woodrow Wilson’s  segregationist policies and his impact on race in the District of Columbia, with the larger goal of forcing DC Public Schools to change the name of the school to one that better represents Wilson’s diverse school community.

I got involved with the DC Collective for History and Justice, not only to help solicit signatures for our Change.org petition but to find ways to educate Wilson students about the legacy of President Wilson.   Students were shocked, horrified, and dismayed by the overlooked sides to this American president.   With members of the DC Collective, we organized in-school programs and assemblies to highlight the history of Reno City and help students understand that Woodrow Wilson was part of a larger history of discrimination and oppression in Washington, DC, including right across the street at Fort Reno.   Once we began this work, we recognized that the Chesapeake House at Fort Reno could hypothetically be repurposed as a community center to tell the Reno City history.   So I started a student/faculty organization known as The Coalition for Chesapeake House Community Center.

What is the Chesapeake House?

The Chesapeake House is one of the last remaining houses at Fort Reno. It was built in 1937, during the final days of Reno City, as a two-story structure with a storefront on the first floor and residence on the second.  Known informally as “the Chesapeake House” (because it is on the corner of Chesapeake Street NW and Belt Drive), for many years it was referred to as “Miss Mattingly’s house,” named for the matriarch of the family who built the structure and who lived there with her children during the 1940s and 1950s.

By 1957, the building was purchased by the National Park Service and was rented out to a plumbing supply company which operated on the premises throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.   By 1968, the empty building became headquarters for the Neighborhood Planning Council #3 (NPC), a group of Ward 3 volunteers who organized local educational programs as well as a summer concert series during the tumultuous year of 1968.  NPC #3 was led by Father George Dennis and community activist Barbara Luchs, both of whom believed that the national “Summer in the Parks” could use music programs to help integrate Fort Reno.  Beginning in 1968 and continuing up until 1997, the Chesapeake House served as a community center for NPC #3, a park planning office, and a working location for student interns employed through DC’s Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.   Since 1997, the building has stood vacant.

What are the goals of the planned renovation?

In the spring of 2019, I hosted a meeting at Wilson High School for National Park Service rangers, including Park Superintendent Julia Washburn (Wilson, Class of 1981), as well as other community organizers, who all have a vested interest in the future of the Chesapeake House.   The goal of this meeting was to brainstorm future uses of the building.  In the meeting, NPS officials outlined the agreement between the NPS and a local developer who agreed to provide $250k to the rehabilitation of the building (as part of a community package tied to a much larger building project on Wisconsin Avenue).   NPS was open to ideas on how the renovated building could be used in conjunction with other park improvements.  On September 7, 2019, we hosted a second meeting at Wilson for the larger community to seek input and diverse opinions on the renovation.

In the fall of 2020, I was invited to serve on the NPS consulting party for the Chesapeake House.   NPS provided detailed schematics and architectural plans for the building, including designs for a large community meeting room on the first floor and NPS offices on the second floor.   And while other groups (such as the community organization dedicated to the history of Civil War Defenses of Washington) provided input on how to best incorporate interpretative exhibits for the community room, I have been pushing for a compelling educational space to tell the complicated and tragic history of Reno City.   We are now in the third round of planning and I am hopeful that not only will the Reno City story be memorialized there but that future Wilson classes will be able to access and utilize the community meeting room as an educational resource.

In 2020, in the United States, social justice and racial equity were very much in focus.  What are the important lessons we can take away from your work on Reno City?

It is shocking to me how many students and teachers at Wilson are unaware of the blatant racism and oppression that occurred 70 years ago across the street from our high school.   In a diverse school that is 30% African-American, 30% Caucasian, 20% Hispanic/Latino, and 10% Asian/other, Wilson students deserve to know that their school was constructed on the grounds of a dismantled neighborhood, where over 150 families once lived, worked, and played.   The sad fact that these families were displaced to make space for a park and two “white” public schools must be shared and studied.   It is equally surprising to me that very few people in Washington know the tragic tale of Reno City.   

In the fall of 2020, I submitted a proposal to the DC History Conference to present “Remembering Reno City,” which was accepted and included in the program.  With Wilson students and alumni, we hosted a panel on November 13th that shared the tragic story and identified how racist and oppressive forces in our communities often exist beneath the surface.   One important lesson in this program is that if we are unaware of these histories in America, we must self-examine our own privilege and position in society.   There is a reason why these stories aren’t generally known and we must all work diligently to correct this.    Using the Chesapeake House to tell the story of Reno City is just one step in addressing the past, no matter how painful, and working towards a more equitable future for all people.

Kristel Staci

Written by Kristel Staci

Kristel Staci is an entrepreneur and freelance writer that focuses on everything related to social media, online marketing and finance. To see what Kristel is currently working on, you can visit her blog at KristelStaci.com.

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