Washingtoniana: How Did Adams Morgan Get Its Name?

It’s back! Our feature Washingtoniana—where we collect your questions about Washington and do some sleuthing to find the answers—has returned. It’ll appear in this space every Thursday. Kicking it off is Claudia Bahar of Potomac, who asks: “How did Adams

By: Emily Leaman

Photo by Flickr user rachaelvoorhees 

Editor’s note: Washingtoniana was a monthly feature that first appeared in The Washingtonian magazine in the 1980s. It was penned by then-senior editor Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. Subsequently written by other editors, the feature appeared on-and-off in the magazine through the mid-1990s.

In our search for Adams Morgan’s history, we tracked down Josh Gibson, the guy who literally wrote a book on the subject; the Adams Morgan resident and local historian coauthored Then & Now: Adams Morgan.

In the early 1900s, he says, the lively nightlife neighborhood we now know as Adams Morgan was known more by its geography than anything else; people simply referred to it as its cross-streets, 18th and Columbia. As a whole, it comprised parts of four other neighborhoods, including Lanier Heights to the northeast and Kalorama to the west.

The name Adams Morgan was first tossed around in the 1950s, when the principals of two segregated elementary schools in the area—the all-white John Quincy Adams School on 19th Street and the now-defunct all-black Thomas P. Morgan School at 18th Street and California Road—came together to improve education and their schools’ facilities. Their partnership was informal at first, but after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954, they made it official.

Together with activists and concerned residents, they created the Adams-Morgan Better Neighborhood Conference. Its efforts were crucial in quickly and peacefully desegregating the two schools. Recognizing the group’s accomplishment, the city formalized the neighborhood soon after, drawing the boundaries as we know them today and naming the resulting neighborhood Adams Morgan. 

An aside for punctuation geeks: Gibson stresses that the neighborhood’s name is not hyphenated as Adams-Morgan. He insists it’s Adams Morgan. Period.

Though originally hyphenated in the title of the neighborhood partnership, the hyphen has fallen out of usage, Gibson says. His argument, codified in a 2001 letter to the editor in the Washington Post—the last local publication to use the archaic punctuation—was simple: A hyphen would be useful only if it joined the names of two easily identifiable geographic areas—which the schools Adams and Morgan are not. Plus, he wrote, “It would be unfair to make Morgan a subsidiary of Adams, as a hyphen would do.” The Post listened and finally dropped the hyphen that June.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to eleaman@washingtonian.com, and we might answer it in an upcoming column.

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