From left to right, Cynthia Davis (cousin); Tracye McQuirter (sister); Ann Barnett (aunt); Marya McQuirter; Veronica Hale (sister).
From left to right, Cynthia Davis (cousin); Tracye McQuirter (sister); Ann Barnett (aunt); Marya McQuirter; Veronica Hale (sister). Credit: Courtesy Marya Mcquirter. Photographer: Louis Barnett.

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In the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968,riots, protest, and rebellion plastered D.C. But what happened next in the District? 

Fifty years later, Marya McQuirter is committed to reclaiming the narrative of that year with her initiative, the dc1968 project—a digital storytelling project that captures stories from each day of the year in 1968.

“I chose 1968 because it is one of the critical years for the city,” McQuirter says. The purpose for her project is to move past the hyper focus of the uprising after the assassination of Dr. King.

“When you search [for] ‘D.C. 1968’ you get awful riot stuff,” she says. “I want to update the browser search for ‘D.C. 1968’ through my project. I hope that by the end of the year when you type [D.C. 1968], sites like my project will be at the top and not [ones] about the riots … I felt like if I was able to change the narrative, what I call the ‘single story,’ I can counteract that single story with … other stories regarding history, activism, and art. From there, we can really truly have a conversation about what is going on in D.C.”

In 1968, McQuirter was only three years old. Both of her parents were born in the South, making her a first generation Washingtonian. She recalls the groundbreaking experience she had attending a predominantly white, small alternative private school in Upper Northwest. She wanted more of a classic high school experience and went on to transfer to H.D. Woodson High School, an all-black high school of 2,000 students in Upper Northeast. She graduated from Woodson in 1982. 

“That had an impact on me, there were black people doing everything. I got to a place where people were brilliant and it opened me up in a new way,” she says. “That kind of grounding in blackness and excellence I took with me and that’s what I brought to this project.”

McQuirter went on to get her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, and has been a historian for over 20 years. “That grounding in blackness and excellence is what I took with me, and that’s what I brought to this project,” she says. As a historian, she’s found that 1968 marks a moment where there was a fracture in the city after the 1968 riots, especially in corporate media.

“Many things happened after April, 1968 and the reality is that [there] are people who don’t want to talk about violence and [the] things [that] can come out of violence,” says McQuirter.

It’s a narrative she felt was wrong, racist, and a disservice to the history of activism in the city—placing the importance of Dr. King only on his death and its aftermath. The truth is, many important events took place in D.C. in 1968: The local think tank Urban Institute was founded, the historic Ford’s Theatre reopened, and more than 800 Howard University students took over the school’s Administration Building for a five-day sit-in to protest the school’s policies.

“There’s so many stories. People are really only focused on the story from April 4th through April 10th. That’s the story for 1968 in D.C., that so much gets lost,” McQuirter says.

With her project, McQuirter posts daily photos that include a story of that day in history in 1968. McQuirter’s commitment to archiving and showcasing history has received grants from Humanities DC, The DC Commission on Arts and Humanities (for her to do preservation workshops with senior citizens), The Awesome Foundation, and Parkmount School—a private school on 16th street.

McQuirter also has established partnerships with the D.C. Public Library and the National Park Service that provides her access to school newspapers and yearbooks and the rights to post photographs from their collection.

“Part of my project initiative is looking at the entire city and [looking at] how black folks have been central to all areas of the city as a means to understand the history of whiteness and the continued power that white individuals in organizations have maintained up until the beginning of Chocolate City,” she says.

McQuirter feels the impact of dc1968 is multi-fold and changing, and in some cases, the change in D.C.’s narrative is already happening.

“Through this project I hope to give voice and a large historical reservoir of the centrality of black folks to the city that we havethe history of activism, organization, family life, art, and culture,” she says.