Help us as we embark on a project to improve storage of our large photographic collections! Photographs fare better when they are stored in a cold environment (40-55 F), and we have just finished building a state-of-the-art cold storage unit at the Museum. Over the coming year, we will be moving around 30,000 negatives and 87,000 transparencies into this unit.
We are seeking an archives professional to lead this project, including rehousing some of the photographs, and planning the move of all negatives and transparencies into the cold storage unit. The contracted archivist will work with museum staff, and will have access to the results of a recent survey that documented the types, materials, condition, and housing of all the assets.
Do you know someone with experience working in archives or collections? Please send them our way!
We will be reviewing applications through January 31, 2018. Project start date is flexible. Email us at ACMCollections at si.edu with a letter of interest, CV or resume, and hourly quote. Full project description is available upon request.
The Anacostia Community Museum offers unpaid internships year-round to students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs who wish to learn and gain professional experience in various fields including archival science. Here, our 2017 summer intern, Shannon Wagner shares her experience processing the Fractious Family papers.
I spent my internship processing a collection of papers that document the lives and achievements of several generals of the Fractious family of Washington, DC.
The collection was minimally processed using some suggested guidelines in the archival science article “More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner (2004). The authors suggest a processing strategy that takes less time while focusing on the most important parts of the collection to reduce backlogs and provide faster access to archival collections. Using the museum’s processing guidelines and in accordance with Frederic Millers’ processing suggestions, I removed “metal fasters such as rusting staples. . .” and other harmful elements to the collection. Photocopies and folded papers were flattened, certificates were placed in protective mylar sleeves to prevent tearing or bending, and photographs were separated from papers.
Processing this collection was a great way to enhance my understanding of preserving archival materials and the technical side of archival work, while also learning about life in the the Anacostia neighborhood in the 1940s and beyond. I found the correspondence in the collection by far the most interesting; it includes over 100 letters written between 1917 and 1948. Most of the letters were written during WWII (1939-1945) between Blanche Queen and her future husband, Robert Fractious.
At the time she wrote the letters, Blanche Queen (Fractious) was approximately 21 years old, and Robert Fractious was serving his third year of duty overseas. The letters reference several pivotal events in the country during the course of WWII. Blanche writes to Robert about the lack of cigarettes in the US in December of 1944, the citizen curfew in March of 1945, and President Roosevelt’s death on April 16, 1945. She states:
“Everybody here is very much broken up about the death of our President. We had Saturday off and I don’t think the US will ever go into complete mourning for any one [sic] else as they did for him. There were no places of amusement open, all the leading chain stores were closed, all the department stores, infact [sic] everything was closed. Sunday was a day of nation wide [sic] memorial services in churches army camps and the radio. All programs of entertainment were completely cut out. The whole thing was indeed the sadest [sic] affair I have ever witnessed. The streets of the White house were so full of people it was almost impossible to pass. Everybody who could went to the processional that took place at 10:00 am on Conn. Ave. That was truly an occasion I have never seen so many people crying in all my life.”
Besides documenting momentous events in her letters, Blance describes daily life and events such as weddings, deaths, church gatherings, and various happenings in the community.
The Fractious Family papers offers a wealth of information about the everyday life experiences of Washingtonians during WWII. The correspondence is fascinating but there are also photographs and other materials in the collection that document family and community life.
I’m happy I had a role in making this collection accessible to the public!
Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner “More Product, Less Process: Revamping TraditionalArchival Processing,” The American Archivist, Vol. 68 (Fall/Winter 2005) : 208–263. http://www.archivists.org/prof-education/pre-readings/IMPLP/AA68.2.MeissnerGreene.pdf
Miller, Fredric. Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990
Fifty-nine years ago today, Curtis Brothers Furniture Company declared July 25, 1959 Big Chair Day to celebrate the oversized chair that stood as a conspicuous advertisement in front of their showroom at the corner of V Street and Nichols Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue) in southeast Washington, DC. A piece of the original Big Chair is in the Museum’s collection, bearing testimony to one of the Anacostia neighborhood’s most famous landmarks.
Modeled in the Duncan Phyfe style and crafted out of mahogany, the 19 ½ foot, 4,600 pound chair was installed atop a four foot high concrete pedestal with a plaque touting it as the “World’s Largest Chair.” It took skilled laborers from Bassett Furniture Industries 900 hours to construct it in late 1958, and once erected, it became an immediate attraction, drawing visitors from all over the city.
The Curtis Brothers Furniture Company capitalized on people’s curiosity and celebrated Big Chair Day extravagantly with a carnival-like atmosphere. The company gave away furniture and other prizes, offered pony rides for children and orchids for women, hosted live music by The Buckskins, and offered free photographs of customers with the Big Chair. The crowning moment of Big Chair Day 1959 was the coronation of Maureen Reagan, daughter of future President Ronald Reagan, as Miss World’s Largest Chair.
The Curtis Brothers continued advertising their company as the “Home of the World’s Largest Chair” until it folded in 1975. Just months after hosting Big Chair Day, the company celebrated the Christmas holiday with advertisements calling on Washingtonians to “come and see the World’s Largest Santa sitting on the World’s Largest Chair.” Another marketing gimmick featured a 9×10 foot furnished glass house placed atop the chair. A young woman named Rebecca Kirby, a model who went by the name Lynn Arnold, lived in it for forty-two days. The event was widely advertised by the furniture store and covered by the local press. Local residents who witnessed it talked about it for decades
Since its construction, the Big Chair has functioned as more than an advertisement for furniture. It has served as a gathering place for local residents, a way-finding marker for those giving directions, and a focal point of Washington, DC’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Even after the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company closed in 1975, the chair remained at the same street corner, unchanged for decades save for repairs and painting by its caretaker, John Kidwell. George Curtis III, son of the original furniture store owner, stated in 1986 “There’s no difference between that and the Washington Monument. It’s a landmark.”
As befits a landmark, the Big Chair has shown great longevity. Although the original mahogany frame had to be dismantled in 2005 due to weathering, a new Big Chair was quickly erected in the same location, largely funded by the Curtis Investment Group. It was unveiled on April 25, 2006, in front of 250 invited guests, civic leaders, and politicians, including then-Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams. The new Chair is cast proportionately to the original, but made of 2,600 pounds of painted aluminum, which requires less maintenance and lasts infinitely longer than wood. It continues the tradition of anchoring the community and standing as a landmark of Anacostia.
As to the remainder of the original Big Chair, the discarded mahogany was cut into souvenir blocks, one of which was eventually donated to our Museum. Though a simple wooden block, it carries the weight of a neighborhood’s history – conveying some of what the Big Chair has meant to Anacostia in the six decades since the Curtis Brothers Furniture Company crafted it to draw in customers.
The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1959, sec C, 20. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).
The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1959, sec A, 4. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).
 “Model Gets Her Feet On the Ground Again,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 24, 1960, sec A, 8. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).
 Paul Schwartzman, “The Return of the Big Chair: A Very Big Deal,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501682.html (accessed July 17, 2018).
 Sandra Fleishman, “It May Not Be the Biggest but It’s Ours,” The Washington Post Magazine, November 23, 1986, 17-18. Proquest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post (1877 – 2001), (accessed July 17, 2018).
Across the nation last week various communities celebrated Juneteenth with a parade, festival, or both. The holiday is the best-known emancipation celebration in the United States, commemorating June 19, 1865, the day that Union troops under the command of General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with the announcement of the abolition of slavery. Until Granger’s arrival, some enslaved Texans were unaware of the end of slavery.
Growing up in a military family, I fondly recall attending Juneteenth celebrations in most of the States I called home. The festivities included speeches and actors recreating events in the life of historical figures, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There were also games, music, arts and crafts, and great food! The holiday brought together a diverse population of my local community to commemorate this event and celebrate African American heritage and culture.
Years later when I started working in the Archives at the Anacostia Community Museum, I was thrilled to discover the museum held Juneteenth community festivals from 1989 to 1998. In addition, the museum documented Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas for its 2005 exhibition: Jubilee: African American celebrations exhibition.
Our archival holdings consist of a sizable collection of contemporary Juneteenth materials, from photographs and programs to video recordings. We are now hard at work on an onwill be more accessible as we move towards making our collections more publicly accessible online.
On this day 36 years ago, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. declared June 12, 1982 Ethel Lois Payne Day in Washington, DC. Collections Researcher Bailey Ferster commemorates the day by digging into the museum’s collections for a personal look at this grande dame of journalism.
Known as the “First-Lady of the Black Press,” Ethel Payne earned a reputation as a no-nonsense journalist who asked some of the most challenging questions. We’ve written about her accomplishments before in this blog, and today we reflect on her personal sense of style.
In line with her fearless journalistic practice, Ethel Payne was a bold and charismatic dresser, unafraid to stand out in a crowd. Photographs show her wearing bright colors and eye-catching prints, and a 1987 painting portrays her elegantly attired in a loose-fitting multicolored dress with a long bead necklace, pendant earrings, bracelets and large rings. The background is painted in muted tones that accentuate her strong presence.
Some of her personal effects in the museum’s collection include a set of patterned deer hide suitcases and fur trimmed capes she used while traveling. Many of the clothes she donned were custom-made outfits from overseas, tangible connections to the cultures she experienced while traveling for work. One of her most treasured accessories, however, was a wide-brimmed green hat decorated with artificial flowers, leaves, and berries. Wide-rim hats as well as floral hats were popular during much of her career, from the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ethel’s pistachio green hat took the fashion to its zenith. More eccentric and expressive than most, the hat was decorated by hand, each flower, berry, and leaf stitched into place with green thread that is visible on the inside and underside of the brim. This hat, and Ethel’s other eye-catching fashion choices, lend credence to historic tales of her commanding presence on the media circuit.
An ongoing museum project to document objects in our collection is adding depth and texture to our understanding of important community leaders. Ethel Payne’s hat and other personal accessories speak to her unique style and provide a sense of her striking personality. Her fashion choices offer an intimate look at the remarkable woman who earned a national reputation for her trailblazing work in journalism.
From the Collection: Last year on Memorial Day weekend, descendants and friends of the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries gathered to commemorate the people who are buried in this busy urban park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. The Museum’s photographer was on hand to observe and document the ceremony.
The park’s history is not widely known. Long before it acquired a dog park, soccer field, basketball court and children’s play area, the land served as the city’s only Quaker cemetery, the Friends Burying Ground (active 1807-1890), and a large African American cemetery, Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery (active from 1870-1890).
In the early 2000s, neighbors were concerned about development plans that risked disturbing the burials. They joined forces with Howard University anthropologists and spearheaded efforts to document the park’s historical significance. Over the course of three years, the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team documented the artifacts and remains of over 8,000 people buried in Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery and the Friends Burying Ground. In 2015, the National Park Service named the Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.
Local resident Mary Belcher has been active in organizing The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization and commemorating the park. Last year, on Memorial Day weekend, participants recited the names of those buried in the park, and some told the stories of their interred ancestors. African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) sat close together as a light rain cloistered the groups. Descendants T.J. Thomas and the Reverend Joanne Braxton addressed the crowd and told of their respective interred ancestors’ stories, and how they discovered their relationship to the ground. It is estimated that around a million people have ancestors in the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries.
The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization will be hosting the commemoration this Memorial Day weekend on Saturday May 26, 2018 at 11 am at Walter Pierce Park.
From the Collection: As part of the Museum’s documentation of communities of faith, museum photographer Susana Raab photographed the Good Friday Procession at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart on April 14, 2017.
If you spend any time in Latin America around Easter you may be familiar with the ritual of Good Friday processions just prior to the celebration of Easter Sunday. Every year, penitents and clergy gather to reenact the crucifixion, on the path known as the Via Dolorosa, or “Way of Grief” in Latin. Processing on foot, and bearing biers with images of Saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, the marchers perform this act of penance in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life for mankind’s sins.
Here in Washington, DC, perhaps no other parish is as identified with carrying on this tradition as the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Established in 1899, this Roman Catholic church in the Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC has a long history of social justice ministry. Run by the Franciscan Capuchin Order, it is the spiritual home to many Latin American families, including a large population of Salvadoran-Americans.
In 2017, the procession began at the church at 3211 Sacred Heart Way, moving past townhomes on Park Road before entering Mount Pleasant Street, continuing on Irving Street NW to 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, and forming a loop that ends at the church.
Numbering several hundred people, the procession travelled in a wide loop, traversing through the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood before reaching 14th Street in Columbia Heights on Park Rd. Various songs and hymns were sung in different languages within the procession, representing the Latin American, Vietnamese, and Haitian immigrants who have found a spiritual home at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. A Haitian man held his hand to his heart as he brought the Virgin Mary back to the Church at the end of the procession. Over an hour later, the parishioners return the Shrine to say Mass on after the Good Friday Procession.
“Among the things that have made teaching of chemistry an inspiration have been the intrinsic challenge of the subject matter, and the enthusiasm of the students—above all, witnessing their later successes in life. . .” –Elaine M. Kilbourne, circa 1967
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we would like to highlight the achievements and influence of high school chemistry teacher Elaine M. Kilbourne (1923-2014), who taught locally from 1948 to 1993. A collection of scrapbooks and other memorabilia she compiled was recently donated to the Museum by her friend and former student, Mr. Guy A. Toscano. It documents her distinguished career as a teacher and educator, and her ability to mentor and inspire generations of students.
During her tenure at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC (1948-1968), and later at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, MD (1979-1993), Ms. Kilbourne earned a national reputation for her teaching. She pioneered the use of experimental and hands-on learning in her classroom, even discussing “atomic and ionic dimensions and molecular structure from student-constructed models”. In 1958 and 1963, Ms. Kilbourne received Principal Awards for Excellence in Science Teaching by the District of Columbia. The American Chemical Society recognized her contributions to the STEM field with numerous awards, including the Second District James Bryant Conan Award in High School Chemical Teaching in 1967.
Not a person to rest on her laurels, Ms. Kilbourne created a series of national curricula for high school chemistry seniors while serving as Science Education Specialist for the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also worked for the National Science Foundation’s summer program, training chemistry teachers.
Throughout her long career, Ms. Kilbourne demonstrated a passion for chemistry and a keen ability to influence students’ learning achievements. Her impact is evident in the letters and notes of appreciation she received from students, which are preserved in her scrapbooks. Actions speak even louder than words, and as one of her awards noted, an “average of nine to ten of her students per year” went on to major in science at college, leading in several cases to illustrious careers in STEM fields.
Ms. Kilbourne graduated from Eastside High School in 1940, received her B. A. in Physical Sciences from Montclair State Teachers College in 1944 and completed a M.A. degree in Student Personnel Administration at Columbia University in 1947. The collection contains limited personal information, and I am left to wonder about this remarkable woman’s early life and school experiences, what sparked her interest in chemistry, and how she experienced being a woman science teacher during the mid-20th century. What is undeniable is that she contributed to the advancement of STEM education, and that she instilled a love of learning in generations of Washington, DC area students. Her contributions are now duly documented among the Museum’s collections.
In honor of National Quilting Day, research conservator Annaick Keruzec takes a closer look at several quilts with photographic patches in the museum’s collection.
Quilts are made for comfort, to decorate a home, or to tell a family story. For a textile conservator like myself, each quilt is unique and fascinating. Crafted from small pieces of fabric, they carry within them things that were part of the quilt maker’s environment. I can spend hours researching each fabric square, identifying fibers through the microscope or combing through historic sales catalogues to date and source the fabrics. I can examine how they were selected, arranged, and stitched together. I can document and admire the handiwork, the color combinations, and the artistry. Quilts are richly textured objects, full of connections and personal choices made by the maker. Indeed, researching quilts can offer remarkable insights on the person who made them.
Several quilts in the museum’s collection incorporate squares with photographic images printed on them. This gives an added layer of complexity. How were they made? Why were these photos chosen? What was the artist’s intention? I am collaborating with a photo conservator and conservation scientists at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) to document these photographic quilts historically, technically, and personally from the artist’s perspective. In the next few months, we will analyze the fabrics, inks, emulsions, and binders used to create the photo patches – and we will report on it in this blog.
I’ve been examining a set of seven quilts created in the early 1990s by the artist Fay Pullen Fairbrother (1948-1997). Collectively titled The Shroud Series, they incorporate turn-of-the-century photographs depicting family portraits, lynchings, and the Ku Klux Klan. In an artist statement shortly after she made the quilts, Fairbrother wrote that the photographs of the KKK activities, studio portraits of black and white families, and lynched men clearly reflected a dissolution of family values and morals, Christian or otherwise. She chose to accentuate the dissonance of the violent imagery by juxtaposing it with quilt making, which has associations of comfort and family. The images stand out among the patchwork of the quilt.
I’ve been sourcing the images for the 50 photo-patches Fairbrother created, although I am not sure where and how she located them pre-internet. She reused some images, so they constitute a total of 24 different photographs. Among them are eight photographs depicting lynchings. Lynchings were public events that were described and recorded in local and sometimes national news. Some were depicted on early 20th-century postcards. I have identified the men in four photographs as Bennie Simmons (1913), Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (1930), Claude Neal (1934), and Rubin Stacy (1935), whose photographs are published in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). Four other scenes remain unidentified.
On three of the quilts in the Shroud Series, Fairbrother incorporated family portraits. They show well-dressed black and white families posing against draped studio backdrops. In contrast to the lynching photographs, the portraits are private and personal. Family portraits are also ubiquitous, and it is hard to describe them in a way that is unique. As a result, portraits are difficult to research and document. I have contacted archives to which Fairbrother might have had access, but have not yet located the images she used.
Please help us identify the five family portraits shown above and below! Have you seen these photographs or any like them? Let us know in the comments section.
Our scientific research on the quilts will continue to reveal Fairbrother’s technical processes. Meanwhile I am hoping to discover more about the artist’s life and sources of inspiration for her exceptional quilt series.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, the Museum’s Registrar highlights the museum’s curious connection to President Wilson.
From George Washington’s first inauguration until the present, Americans have been captivated by the nation’s highest office, and immediately that fascination extended into collecting and preserving objects associated with the Presidency. What started as a personal pursuit in the early 19th century has become the purview of museum and library professionals who collect, preserve, and curate objects related to each Commander in Chief.
As the Smithsonian’s community museum, our interest is in the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people. As such, we are most interested in the local and personal manifestations of the Presidency. Our collection includes campaign buttons worn by community organizers, and pens that signed legislation into law.
One item in our collection, a small porcelain box with lid, recently caught me by surprise. The box was labeled as an archaeological artifact, part of a group of objects excavated in 1991 prior to the construction of the Anacostia Metro station in Washington D.C. It was stored in a cabinet with other archaeological finds from this dig, including early 20th century glass bottles, broken porcelain, keys, and other small items. At first glance, the attribution made sense because these things were all early 20th century household items. A maker’s mark on the bottom of the box, ‘Victoria Carlsbad, Austria,’ identified it as a fairly common item, readily available for purchase in Washington in the early 1900s.
However, two recent discoveries caused me to question this attribution. Our friends from the D.C. office of Historic Preservation came to do an inventory of all the archaeological finds and field notes, and found no specific mention of this box. While not entirely unusual, this was intriguing. Meanwhile, a team of collections researchers were scouring through hundreds of files related to past exhibitions at the museum. One file referenced a china pin box donated by Mrs. Rosa Ware Jones, which was displayed in the museum’s 1977 exhibition The Anacostia Story, 1608-1930. This reference immediately attracted my attention.
What was so distinctive about this reference? I noticed the word “donated” – implying the box in the exhibit was a gift to the museum – yet I knew of no “china pin box” documented as such in our collection. Exhibit documents recorded the box’s provenance: given by one of President Woodrow Wilson’s wives to a dressmaker named Lillie Green, born in 1882, who lived on Elvans Road SE in the 1910s.
Could this be our box? I looked for additional sources that might corroborate the box’s origin. Inventories conducted by museum staff over the years all list the porcelain box, but offer little additional information. Yet I noticed that an inventory conducted in 1988 described a “china pin box,” using the same words as the Anacostia Story exhibition script and thus confirming that the museum kept the box after the exhibition. Later inventories continue to list this box and no other, even after the 1991 acquisition of the archaeological artifacts – casting further doubt on the archaeological provenance. Finally, a grainy photograph of the exhibition surfaced, showing a small white object on display. The poor quality of the photograph makes it difficult to see, but the item could be our box.
Knowing all of this, and looking again at the box and lid, its attribution to the archaeological dig is suspicious. It is in good condition, with a few scratches but no breaks – unlike virtually all of the material from the dig.
So assuming this is indeed the “china pin box,” does its story hold up?
First, who was Lillie Green? Federal Census records for 1900 and 1910 list her as a dressmaker born in 1882, living at 93 Elvans Road SE with her father, brothers, and sisters. She is listed with the same address and occupation in the 1913, 1916, and 1918 Washington, DC city directories. Better yet, this corresponds to President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, making its story plausible: that the box was given to Ms. Green by one of President Wilson’s wives.
Ms. Green died prematurely on August 21, 1917, as recorded the next day in the Washington Evening Star. What happened to her china pin box? It appears to have been passed down in the family, a treasured heirloom with a remarkable story. Federal census records and newspapers – as well as ancestry.com – identify Ms. Rosa Jones as the daughter of Lula Green, Lillie Green’s younger sister. It was Rosa who, six decades later, donated her aunt’s box – along with its exceptional story – to our museum.
We cannot corroborate beyond a doubt that this pretty porcelain pin box was a gift from the President’s wife. However, all the pieces available to us coincide to support Rosa Jones’ statements at the time she donated the box to our museum. Significantly, Mrs. Jones’ gift attests that Washington residents, like others around the country, have long treasured objects with a presidential connection.