The rise of Marion Barry and the Anacostia Community Museum

This morning Washington DC woke to the news that Marion Barry has passed away during the night. With the tributes and reflections will doubtless continue over next week, I wanted to contribute a small, relatively overlooked coincidence between the birth of the Anacostia Community Museum and the rise of Marion Barry in the civic sphere.

ACMA_riot clipping

Some of the early creation stories of the Anacostia Community Museum point to the creation of the Greater Anacostia People’s corporation (GAP) following a small disturbance in which some local youths threw bottles at the local police station. While community leaders did rally around the organization of youth activities, it wasn’t after a small tussle, but after a major clash between hundreds of youth and police.

On 9 August 1966 a youth meeting at the Southeast House was broken up by District Police from the local 11th precinct on the pretext of arresting two attendees for a stabbing that had taken place in recent weeks. Fed up with systematic maltreatment by the police, lack of opportunities for work or recreation, and , honestly, probably suffering some of DC’s notorious August heat, the youths – a group of 300 –attacked the 11th precinct police station. Throwing rocks, bottles and bricks at the station and assembled police force, the local youths were met with tear gas, clubs and German shepherds. In the end, more than a dozen youths were arrested and the city motivated to quick action to quell future uprisings.[2]

In response the City mobilized many departments and committees to create opportunities for the youth of Anaostia. Appointed District Commissioner Walter Tobriner called a committee to investigate the incident (and, by association, for the first time, the police)[3] The National Capital Housing Authority, LadyBird Johnson’s National Capital Beautification Committee, the District Police and DC Recreation Department all began allocating funds towards weekly parties and work opportunites for Anacostia youths. Several temporary pools were moved into the neighborhood to make up for disparities with the rest of the city. Within the DC Recreation Department “clean-by-day, party-by night projects” were created and soon formalized into the Roving Leaders and Trail Blazers youth programs operated by Polly Shackleton and Stanley Anderson.[4] While the Commissioner’s investigative committee quickly disbanded without results, the Police significantly shifted leadership at the 11th precinct. Anacostia and the problem of its youth became a pressing matter for national politicians and suddenly there was a pressing need to provide meaningful and significant investment in education and recreation East of the Anacostia River.[5]

The committee investigating the police, in particular, was a significant event. Following the 11th precinct riot, DC Commissioner Walter Tobriner called together a commission to examine the problem and report on solutions. Initial response to the committee was troubled as it contained no youth leaders or African American leaders. Quickly responding to the criticism, Tobriner appointed Marion Barry and Julius Hobson to the committee, but Hobson declined while Barry surprisingly accepted.  Prior to this committee, Marion Barry had focused his activism in Washington DC on social action and had been highly critical of participation in government and civic affairs. Barry stepped in and turned the commission upside down, in what I believe was  his first foray into public civil service.

From the beginning, Barry upended the process and composition of the Committee. With an organized group of young people crowding the committee chamber, he challenged the leadership, makup and governance of the committee. With a large crowd at his back, he compelled the committee to accept additional youth members and a vote for the chairmanship (which he won). Going against common practice, he called for the testimony of Tobriner and of the DC chief of police, demanding they be held to account for the response to the riot and the treatment of the residents of Anacostia. When they refused to submit, he quit, effectively ending the committee and the District’s response to the incident. By the end of the year, a grand jury had declined to indict anyone for the riot. With the incident and his participation in the committee, Barry appeared to have raised his public profile significantly and it marks, I believe, his ascendance in DC politics. 

This large-scale disturbance caused a widespread increase in social services in Anacostia. Youth programs were created and expanded and implemented at a rapid pace. The presence of these agencies and project leaders is important for the concentration of attention on Anacostia. Stanley Anderson, director of the Roving Leaders program, was “practically the mayor of Anacostia”[6] owning several properties along the main thoroughfare and serving as vice-Chairman of the Greater Anacostia People’s Corporation. Polly Shackleton, director of the Trail Blazers program, sat on Mrs. Johnson’s Beautification commission and, like Anderson, would be among the first District Council members appointed by LBJ and elected after home rule. Working with both of these two was Caryl Marsh a consulting sociologist to the District Department of Recreation who would move to the Smithsonian in late 1966 to work for Secretary Ripley.

According to interviews from 1985, “Carolyn Marsh—then a special consultant to the District Department of Recreation—discussed with Stanley Anderson the possibility of Anacostia as a site for a neighborhood museum. Anderson took the idea to a meeting of that organization. Despite initial skepticism, Anderson sold it to GAP and GAP in turn sold it to the community.”[7] Owner of the increasingly disused Carver theater, Anderson encouraged other members of the GAP to see that the neighborhood museum could open up the possibilities of jobs and creative outlets for a community in need of both. Connected to the DC Recreation department, he began to liaise with the Smithsonian’s Charles Blitzer.[8]

Marsh, on her end, worked to re-initiate the concept and appears to have worked with Secretary Ripley to reassign his Neighborhood Museum idea from Frank Taylor, Director of the U.S. National Museum (into whose portfolio the idea was apparently entered sometime around 1964) to Charles Blitzer, then Assistant Secretary for Education.[9] Blitzer was introduced to the project when he and Marsh met with Ripley “at a dinner one night and they talked about the new museum project. Neither Dillon Ripley nor Blitzer knew a lot about Washington, but Caryl knew a lot about it. One drizzly Saturday morning she guided the two of them to various sections: Adams-Morgan, Capital hill, Anacostia. As Blitzer recalled, Caryl felt the new museum ought to be in Anacostia and by the end of the day. Ripley and Blitzer felt that way, too.”[10]



[1] Stephanie Yvette Felix, African American Women in Social Reform, Welfare and Activism: Southeast Settlement House, Washington, DC 1950-1970, Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin Madison, 1992. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives. A. P2-3, 38.

[2] Richard Severo, “Melee in Anacostia Shows Police Isolation,” Washington Post 20 August 1966, B1.John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[3] John Matthews, “Anacostia Probers Shatter Stereotype From the Start,” The Sunday Star 21 August 1966, B-4. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[4] Aaron Latham, “Parties Planned to End Unruliness in SE,” Washington Post 29 August 1966. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[5] Meryle Secrest, “Mrs. Johnson Hits the Trail with the Blazers,” Washington Post, 18 August 1967. [Teppy James], “A Day in Anacostia: Gude Explores Problems ‘Across the River’ [Washington DC] The Evening Standard 11 February 1967. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[6] Charles Blitzer interview notes, John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[7] Frank X. Delaney, “From Gap to the Green Line; “Anacostia” in Transition,” unpublished manuscript, Spring 1985. P.17-18. See Also, Percy Battle, Interview with Dana Powell, 1 July 1991. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[8] “Interview with Almore Dale for the History of the ANM,” Spring, 1972. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

[9] Esther Nighbert, Interview with Gail Lowe, 1 September 1992. See Also: Julian Euell, Interview with Stephanie Felix, 5 July 1991; and Charles Blitzer, Interview with Gail Lowe, 30 March 1992. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.

[10] Charles Blitzer, Interview with Gail Lowe, 30 March 1992. John Kinard Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives.