If you have been in Anacostia more than once in the past forty years there is a good chance you have come across William Alston-El. Over the past two years I have come to know William, writing about him for stories on Greater Greater Washington. Like Frederick Douglass, he once ran the streets with a reckless abandon. But William has since turned a new corner in his life and takes leadership roles in Anacostia not many others can take. “I show up at all the meetings to speak for those who aren’t there,” he has often told me. When walking the neighborhood William employs tough love as well as encouragement to many of the men and women he has known for decades but are still struggling with substance abuse issues. “If I can change, and make a difference in my community, so can you brother/sister,” he often says. Additionally, William is in touch with the younger generation often imparting advice to them. He can speak their language and has a legitimacy which few others have. William, a painter by trade, advocates the “mechanical arts” much like Douglass did in his later years.
It is through men and women like William that the spirit of Frederick Douglass lives on in today’s Anacostia.