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Fort Reno was built in 1861 as part of a ring of Civil War defenses constructed on the highest ground of the city. It was originally named Fort Pennsylvania, but was renamed in 1863 to honor General Jesse Lee Reno, who was killed in battle. Like other forts, Fort Reno attracted African American freedom seekers who needed to find work in order to support themselves and their families. During and after the war, these settlers were joined by freedmen and women as well as whites who bought small plots of land on which they built modest houses. The Fort Reno community grew alongside the larger Tenleytown community.

In the late 1920s, a number of DC and federal government agencies decided to build a new junior high school (Alice Deal) and a high school (Woodrow Wilson), construct a water tower, develop a public park, and design a scenic Fort Drive to connect the city's Civil War forts. All but the Fort Drive were carried out, and in order to do so, the DC Board of Commissioners condemned much of the modest Fort Reno housing. Commissioner Cuno H. Rudolph called the community "a blight upon this part of D.C." despite the fact that not all of the housing was dilapidated. Residents protested, but the government purchased the properties and over a ten-year period forced out black and white families who had lived on what had been the grounds of the Fort for two or three generations. As their communities moved away, two churches closed: St. George's Episcopal Church (established 1899) at Fort Reno, and Mount Asbury (later St. Mark's) Methodist Church (organized 1888) on Belt Road near Fessenden Street. A third church moved away: Rock Creek Baptist Church (organized 1872), corner of Nebraska Avenue and Chesapeake Street, relocated in 1945 to 24th and H streets, NW. The Jesse Lee Reno Elementary School's population dwindled to 16 children in 1947, and it closed soon after, forcing Fort Reno's few remaining African American children to travel east of Rock Creek Park to attend "colored" schools. The Reno School's building remains behind Alice Deal Junior High School. It is marked with an African American Heritage Trail plaque.

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