Swann Street has a new name: Swann Street. The road in Northwest DC is believed to have been named for Thomas Swann, a 19th-century congressman and governor of Maryland. But recently, the Dupont Circle ANC passed a resolution to honor a different person with the same surname: William Dorsey Swann. The signs won’t change; their meaning very much will.
Though the two Swanns shared that same quintet of letters, they could not have been more different. Thomas, born into privilege, was a slave owner who lived in Leesburg’s Morven Park mansion. William Dorsey, meanwhile, was born a slave, then moved to Washington and became a remarkable queer-rights pioneer. In the late 1800s, he staged a series of secret balls where a group of formerly enslaved men—dubbed the House of Swann—dressed up in women’s clothes. He called himself the Queen of Drag. When the cops raided one such gathering in 1888, Swann fought back, and the ensuing fracas is considered one of the earliest acts of LGBTQ+ resistance.
One person who was intrigued to hear of this name switch is Geoff Turner, best known as the frontman for DC punk greats Gray Matter and Three. The latter band’s “Swann Street” has become one of that scene’s most enduring songs. When Turner wrote it in the ’80s, he was living in an apartment on Swann Street. One day, he was fired from his job at Graffiti Video. Walking home “was one of those kind of voyages of self-doubt,” he says. “I was trying to run back over where I had failed in building my new life in the city—contemplating that while looking at the sidewalk. When I got home, it became critical to my self-worth that I create a song to capture that feeling. The song popped out in about 15 minutes.” The words “Swann Street” don’t actually appear in the lyrics; the title just captures that time in Turner’s life. “It could have very easily been called, like, ‘39th Place,’ ” he says with a laugh. In the years since “Swann Street” came out, the track has grown in stature—an anthem of youthful confusion that still resonates.
Turner was excited to learn about the Swann Street name change. (The ANC resolution isn’t official; that would require action from the DC Council, which could happen.) “When individuals take their own path, I love stuff like that,” he says, referring to William Dorsey Swann’s story. “I grew up in the punk community, where making your own path through the world and doing it your own way is, like, job number one.”
So now that Swann Street has a new moniker, will Turner be altering the song title as well? “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I’m definitely changing the name of ‘Swann Street’ to ‘Swann Street.’ ”
This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Washingtonian.