Ruth Ann Overbeck:
Hill Historian ... and So Much More
by Robert Hughes
From The Hill Rag, October 2001

How do you write about a life, any life, in the space allowed by this or any other newspaper?  Where do you start and how do you end?  Ruth Ann’s curriculum vitae is a ten-page, single-spaced document that does not even touch her personal life. ...

Ruth Ann Overbeck, a true daughter of Texas, came to Washington, D.C. the first time in the 1950’s as part of an urban-work-study program from her high school in Denison, Texas.  She fell in love with the city.

She returned to Texas where she later received her B.A. in an honors program in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin and her M.A. in American Social History at the same institution a few years later.

Ruth Ann returned to Washington in 1968 and bought her house on Capitol Hill, a few weeks after the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a time when a lot of people were leaving the city.  She recalled going to the grocery store past armed National Guard troops on each corner.  She came here and bought her house much against the “advice” of a lot of people, both black and white, who thought this (Capitol Hill) was the wrong place for a white female.  But, to paraphrase Ruth Ann, this is the nation’s capital, and this is the capital’s neighborhood, and, by _ _ _ _, she was going to live here!

I met her in 1970 shortly after her return from the University of Texas Masters Program.  She believed in neighborhood and community and her responsibility to both as a resident, and she spent the next 30 years restoring her own house and giving much to Capitol Hill and Washington, D.C.  Her real passion had always been and continued to be land and the people who used it.

Ruth Ann chaired the team (the first 1 ½ years) to research, define, and nominate the Capitol Hill Historic District to the National Register.  During the remainder of her life she completed many hundreds of individual house histories here and elsewhere, and designed and conducted more than 35 study and walking tour packages for the Smithsonian Resident Associates on subjects ranging from the Anacostia River, the Evolution of the Row House, and the Washington Sea Wall to Blacks in Washington’s History, and much more.  She presented many of her tours at least 12 times during a tour season.  She brought a lot of people to Capitol Hill.  She began recording “oral histories,” almost always on her own initiative, in the early 1980’s and continued the practice until her last interview in 1999.  During the course of many years, she worked on the history of Eastern Market, both on her own and through the Eastern Market Preservation and Development Corporation.  She knew her way through the National Archives, the D.C. Archives, the Census Records, the Tax Records, and the Deeds/Wills records better than anyone I know.

She believed history belonged to everyone and acted accordingly by establishing Washington Perspectives, Inc. in 1975, the first and perhaps oldest (as far as we knew) for-profit public history firm in the United States.  She was a member of CHAMPS, the National Trust for historic Preservation, The Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, The Preservation Trust (a façade easement trust that she founded), Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the East Texas State Historical Society, and the Kiwanis Club of Capitol Hill.

Ruth Ann Overbeck always gave more than each project required and added details to reports and testimony that were above and beyond expectations.  She used paying contract work as platforms to collect information beyond the scope of those contracts, and she always prepared everything she did so it would “stand up in court.”  Because she was so meticulous, she was usually late in delivering her work, but was able to slay many Goliaths with her single stones.

In spite of all she did for the Capitol Hill community, she chafed at being labeled (and therefore limited to) a “Capitol Hill Historian.”  She completed projects for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Fannie Mae; The U.S. Department of Justice; the U.S. Naval Academy; the Falls Church Historical Commission; the Historical Society of Lewes, Delaware; Thunderbird Archeology Associates; and the National Park Service; to name a few.  She was qualified as an expert witness before the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

She was an adjunct professor of Public History at West Virginia University.  She was either the prime contractor or participated in research, survey, and industrial archeology projects in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, not to mention her home state of Texas.

She has at least fifteen publications to her full or partial credit and thirty-six lectures and seminars through the Historical Society of Washington, Kreiger Press, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Windsor Press, American Association for State and Local History, Appalachian State University, the U.S. Congress, the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program, and others.

There is much more I could write here, and it is difficult to know where to stop.

On a very personal note, Ruth Ann Overbeck was never “allowed in” to a PhD program, neither at her alma mater, nor at a local university (which shall remain nameless) where she once tested the water.  The reasons given were either very sexist, or weakly stated at the time.  I believe it was because she threatened the monastic order at both institutions.

Ironically, there are, this day walking the earth, no less than four individuals with PhD’s who owe part or all of their accomplishment to Ruth Ann Overbeck.  Many who read this article will not have known Ruth Ann.  However, I promise you that I, as her partner, husband, and best friend, and we, as the Capitol Hill community, are missing her very, very much.

Her collection of information, in the form of countless notes, reports, file folders, tapes, and unpublished documents is still here (or there) for someone else to find, but an enormous intellect and the synthesizer is gone.  She was proud of being from Texas, proud of her Cherokee heritage (25%), and she was proud of her community, Capitol Hill.  I am proud of her.

This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck
Capitol Hill History Project. Not to be reproduced without permission.