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When Fran Curro Cary, editor of Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C., calls the District “a city of migrants,” she’s not talking about congressional staffers’ ebb and flow between the hinterlands and Capitol Hill. “The emphasis in Washington history is often the politics of the federal city…so most people think Washington is devoid of an ethnic past,” says Cary. “This is the first book to ask: Who are the people who came here, why did they come, what did they do, and what kept them here.”
The 17 essays in Urban Odyssey, most written by local historians, peer into forgotten corners of the city’s attic and find communities that vanished (or all but vanished) as the District grew up. Who knew that Washington’s original inhabitants, the Piscataway Indians, were driven northwest until they finally settled in upstate New York? Or that anti-immigrant rioters murdered Irish Washingtonians on Election Day in 1856? Or that the government bulldozed D.C.’s original Chinatown to make way for the Federal Triangle buildings? Urban Odyssey also devotes three chapters to the African-American community, the city’s richest in history and culture, and explores the new Asian, Latino, and African populations.
Odyssey represents a five-year labor of love for Cary, who works as the executive director of the Humanities Council of Washington. In 1991, she helped organize a conference on D.C.’s multicultural history, recruited scholars to present papers on the District’s immigrants, and eventually persuaded the Smithsonian Institution Press to publish the edited manuscripts. The finished book, she says, constitutes only “a beginning” to this area’s grass-roots history. When the contributors began their research, many had trouble locating records on ethnic groups. But now, Cary has fielded numerous inquiries about those left out of Urban Odyssey. “I had people calling me up and saying, ‘Where are the so-and-so?’ ‘Where are the Russians?’ ‘Where are the Scotch-Irish?’ ‘Where are the Lebanese?’ ‘Where are the Muslims?’ ” she says cheerfully. “I thought it was fantastic—this from a city that supposedly has no ethnic history. CP