Welcome to the Anacostia Community Museum Community Documentation Initiative

The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s Community Documentation Initiative (CDI) is an ongoing effort to document and make accessible to the public a wide range of original material on the social, cultural, economic and contemporary community life of urban neighborhoods. While we maintain an emphasis on the Washington, DC metropolitan area, our research and collecting activities include urban communities across the United States and around the world. The Community Documentation Initiative brings the resources of the museum—particularly research materials and archival/object collections—directly to constituents through public programs, gallery exhibitions, digital content, and special programs, as well as builds and enhances interactive dialogue with museum audiences. Using these research and collections materials, the CDI builds collaborative, community-based networks of neighborhood organizations, cultural institutions, and individuals; and works with our audiences to better understand the ways that the museum can help inform social causes of great contemporary concern.

Big Day For the Big Chair

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.

January 16, 2018 – Bolivian dance troupe Tinkus Tiatako dances near the Big Chair sculpture during the annual Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade in historic Anacostia.
Photo by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] Local residents who witnessed it talked about it for decades[4]

Chuck Brown performing atop the Big Chair.
Photo by Steven M. Cummings, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

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.”[5]

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.

Souvenir block from the original Big Chair. Object no. 2006.0007.0001

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.

[1] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 24, 1959, sec C, 20. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[2] The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1959, sec A, 4. Newsbank Inc., (accessed July 17, 2018).

[3] “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).

[4] 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).

[5] 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).

Juneteenth Resources

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas, June 19th, 2002. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-055_GT0097

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.

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas June 19th, 2002. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-055_GT0064.

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.

Juneteenth celebration in Galveston, Texas, June 19th, 2012. Photograph by Steven M. Cummings. ACMA_03-55_GT0140

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.

Juneteenth ’91, “freedom revisited” publication by Betty Belanus and the Anacostia Museum.

A Fashionable Journalist

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.

Ethel Payne, Portrait commissioned by Miller Brewing Company, 1987

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.

Ethel Payne’s Floral Hat, Anacostia Community Museum

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.

 

Say Their Names: The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Commemoration

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).

May 27, 2017 – The Reverend Segun Adebayo of Macedonia Church addresses the audience during the commemoration of a historic African American and Quaker burial ground located underneath Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC.
Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution (triptych photograph).

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.

May 27, 2017 – African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith (right) and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) (left) read names together during the Memorial ceremony. Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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.

May 27, 2017 – The crowd reading names during the commemoration of a historic African American and Quaker burial ground located underneath Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. Photo: Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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.

Celebrating Good Friday at Shrine of the Sacred Heart, Columbia Heights, DC

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.

Members of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart wait in front of the church before beginning their procession through Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights on Good Friday. Photograph by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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.

A young parishioner dressed as a Roman soldier waits to begin the procession outside the Shrine of the Sacred Heart on Good Friday. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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.

A penitent reenacts the role of Jesus Christ on the Via Dolorosa, his last walk with the cross before being crucified. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacosita Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

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.

The procession walked past row houses on the streets of Mt. Pleasant before heading through the central commercial district on Mt. Pleasant Avenue.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacosita Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

The youngest penitents in the procession dressed as shepherds.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

A life-size Jesus in a coffin was borne on the backs of a group of men, who carried their heavy burden while singing hymns in unison with the crowd that grew in numbers  as they approached the heart of Mt. Pleasant on Mt. Pleasant Street.
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

 

 

 

 

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