Back at the Gantois 75 years later

From left to right Hilda of Oxum; Celina of Oxalufan; Carmen, daughter of Mae Menininha and leader of the Gantois today; Mae Menininha; Cleusa, oldest daughter of Mae Meninha and her successor in the leadership of the Gantois; America of Obaluae Kneeling in front: Floripedes of Oxossi; and Titia Amor of Obalue
From left to right: Hilda of Oxum; Celina of Oxalufan; Carmen, daughter of Mae Menininha and leader of the Gantois today; Mae Menininha; Cleusa, oldest daughter of Mae Meninha and her successor in the leadership of the Gantois; America of Obaluae
Kneeling in front: Floripedes of Oxossi; and Titia Amor of Obalue

During his stay in Salvador, Bahia in 1940-41 Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner  visited several houses of Candomblé worship including the Gantois (Ilê Iyá Omin Axé Iyá Massê) founded in 1849 by Maria Júlia da Conceição Nazaré. Since then the leadership of the Gantois has followed a consanguineous hereditary tradition, in which the rulers are always female. In 1940-41 Mãe Menininha (Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazaré,) great- granddaughter of the founder, was the iyalorixá or leader of the house. Dr. Turner spent hours interviewing her. He also took several photographs of her and the people who lived in the compound. One of these photographs reproduced here depicts Mãe Menininha and seven other women wearing traditional garb. This photograph and many others are part of the collections of the Anacostia Community Museum Archives.
On November 18, 2015, 75 years after Dr. Turner had visited the Gantois I went there for an interview with Mãe Menininha’s daughter, Mãe Carmen de Oxalá (Carmen da Conceição Nazaré de Oliveira,) great-great-granddaughter of the Gantois founder, and at present the iyalorixá of the house. She has been in this leadership position since 2002. This incredible opportunity was possible because I was in Salvador, Bahia for the opening of the exhibit I curated Gullah Bahia África, which tells the history of Dr. Turner’s life and work including his visit to Bahia. The exhibit is traveling in Brazil under the auspices of the American Embassy and in Salvador was being shown at the Palacete das Artes under the auspices of the Fundação Pedro Calmon. The conduit for the interview were Mariângela Nogueira from the Fundação Pedro Calmon, and Déa Márcia Federico who is the equede of the Gantois, an important position in the hierarchy of the house.
Mãe Carmen, a very youthful 86 years old, graciously received us for an interview that lasted almost one hour. I was told that this is not common; she does not have much time within her activities as leader of the house and her community to give to visitors. Mãe Carmen exuded charisma, peace, security, and, reassurance that all would be well. I was very touched when she told me during the interview that when she looked at me she knew I was trustworthy and that she could deal with me without concern. She was ecstatic when Mariangela produced a high-resolution copy of the photograph taken so long ago by Dr. Turner and proceeded to identify the women in the photo and to my surprise herself. She remembered well the day Dr. Turner came for the interview, and she described the scene of her mother singing into a microphone contraption of old, set at the end of a very long pole. This scene is shown in a photo in the collection of Dr. Turner’s research companion at the time Dr. E. Franklin Frazier which is held by the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center
And so Dr. Turner, represented by this photograph, returned to the site of his research 75 years later. Salvador is much changed from that time, he would not have recognized it. What would have been the outskirts of the city in 1940-41, the Federação neighborhood where the Gantois is located, is now very near the center of town connected by large avenues which would be unpaved roads at the time, and well developed with tall buildings. The Gantois has had its importance for Bahian and Brazilian culture well recognized. The Gantois has been designated as a historical site by Iphan (The Brazilian National Institute for the Preservation of Historic and Artistic Sites) in 2002, and Mãe Carmen received the UNESCO Five Continents Medal in 2010. Dr. Turner would be happy to know that the traditions he researched and recorded in 1940-41 are still maintained by the people of the Gantois.

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.

The Taliaferros of Stanton Road SE

For over 130 years, a formidable farmhouse stood at the corner of Stanton Road SE and Suitland Parkway, watching the comings and goings of countless people inside and out before being abandoned at the end of the last decade. When an application for a raze permit came across the desks of officials in the DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO), they realized that it was one of the last standing structures associated with the historic Barry Farm subdivision, settled after the Civil War by formerly enslaved individuals under the aegis of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

I first became aware of the property and its history while working as a volunteer in the office, and was invited to take on initial research and cataloging of a collection of objects pulled from the house’s attic. A team from the HPO presented the collection to the Anacostia Community Museum, which recognized its significance and agreed that further research should be done. To that end, the Museum applied for and was awarded a DC Community Heritage Project Grant, and I was brought on to continue work on the collection. During my time at the Museum, I worked with Collections Manager Josh Gorman to research and catalog the items in the collection, in the process helping tell a story that otherwise would have been lost to the effects of development.

Your writer, getting her hands dirty!
Your writer, getting her hands dirty!

As an archaeologist by training, I’ve occasionally come across interesting finds down in the dirt, but I don’t always see the rest of an artifact’s “life cycle.” Once an artifact is removed from its original context, it’s generally shunted off to a lab for cleaning, analysis, and storage, which are often done by someone other than the original finder. Over the course of the Stanton Road project, I had the opportunity to carry out some of the steps that I don’t usually get to be a part of.

The Stanton Road collection isn’t archaeological, but archaeological artifacts and the objects from the attic of Stanton Road are both examples of material culture. Material culture is any tangible evidence of how people led their lives, whether in the past or present. In this case, the lives in question are those of of Annie and Olivia Taliaferro, a mother and daughter who lived in the Stanton Road house for more than six decades.

The Taliaferros were an African American family who moved to the Hillsdale (now Barry Farm) community in the latter part of the the 19th century. Based on U.S. Census records, we know that Annie and her children were all born in Virginia, and can guess from Annie’s age that she was likely born into slavery (she was born in 1852 or 1853). D.C. property records show that Annie herself purchased the Stanton Road property in 1885. She lived in the house until her death in 1935, as did her daughter Olivia until her death in 1947. The Stanton Road collection is a glimpse into the lives of two women who made comfortable lives for themselves and were deeply connected to their community.

A clipping from the digitized 1900 U.S. Census showing Annie Taliaferro and her four children
A clipping from the digitized 1900 U.S. Census showing Annie Taliaferro and her four children

Working at the Anacostia Community Museum allowed me to have experiences that any budding material culture researcher would dream of. Being allowed into the collections area of a Smithsonian museum, for example, is almost a holy experience. You feel like you should hold your breath and say a little prayer as you walk through the heavy doors into the rows of cabinets and crates, lest you disturb the collections in their slumber. It was exciting for me to think that some of the objects I would be researching would have a home there.

As a lifelong book nerd and former library worker, my favorite perk of working for the Smithsonian was access to the library system. I took advantage of it to visit an obscure but fascinating collection: the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History. The term “trade literature” refers to publications that describe or promote products for sale – catalogs, technical manuals, and advertising brochures, to name just a few examples. These can be invaluable resources for information such prices, fashion trends, and marketing techniques.

Here, we have a coffee grinder taken from the Stanton Road attic...
Here, we have a coffee grinder taken from the Stanton Road attic…

I was hoping to find some of the items in my collection, or at least comparable examples, in turn-of-the-century Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogs. These two mail order companies reached consumers in every corner of the United States and sold everything you could ever hope to buy, from the tiniest pins and needles all the way up to farming equipment and entire houses. If anything was going to give me a decent snapshot of common material culture during the early 20th century, it would be these catalogs.

... and a similar item being sold in the 1908 Sears catalog. Can you get anything for 44¢ nowadays?
… and a similar item being sold in the 1908 Sears catalog. Can you get anything for 44¢ nowadays?

While I didn’t find exact matches, looking at the catalogs did help me get an idea of what some of the items would of cost, and place the Taliaferros in a solidly middle-class socioeconomic stratum. It also affirmed my belief that Annie and Olivia tended to “shop local,” preferring to purchase from local businesses rather than from mail-order catalogs (this may also have had something to do with living in a city, where goods were more readily accessible).

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This bottle has not only the name of a pharmacy, but a date, dosage instructions, and a prescribing doctor’s name as well.

A number of the bottles we took from the attic were marked with names and addresses that indicated they had been purchased locally – Bury’s Pharmacy at 300 Monroe Street in Anacostia, or Mackall Brothers Druggists at the corner of 9th and H Streets NE, to name a couple. I used these names and addresses to sift through D.C. city directories on microfilm in the Washingtonia archives at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, and emerged with not only solid dates of operation for these businesses, but also a sense that the Taliaferros were quite mobile, travelling to all four quadrants of the city to make purchases.

Lest you think that my work was all diving into archives and drawing thrilling conclusions, I’ll point out that other parts of my work were more mundane. Writing tags for the objects and entering data (dates, dimensions, and descriptions) into the collection management software are less glamorous tasks, but they’re equally as important as the research. Without these steps, collections staff wouldn’t be able to track the location of the objects or have any knowledge of their contexts. And without that, the research wouldn’t have much point!

Getting a crash course in curation and registration has helped me think more profoundly about the lives of objects in museum collections, and appreciate a small piece of all the work that goes unseen when you walk into a museum exhibit. Now that the collection has been cataloged, I hope that it can continue to provide insight into the lives of Annie and Olivia, and other African American families living in Barry Farm and Washington, DC. In particular, we know that Olivia was a midwife, and I think looking into how the collection reflects her work would be a very rich line of pursuit indeed. I hope that the story of Annie and Olivia and the Stanton Road collection will continue to inspire curiosity and appreciation in those who hear it, and help make residents of Washington and the Barry Farm area proud to call those places home.

With a Focus on Future Careers—Anacostia Community Museum Hosts a Career Day Program

On Thursday, October 22, the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) hosted a Career Day program to educate and inform students about some of the exciting and rewarding careers in the museum field. Career Day is a bi-annual one of a kind program (held every October and May) where the museum opens its doors to schools in the community to take part in an all-day experiential field trip to learn about the inner workings of the museum, received a behind-the-scenes tour, meet the museum staff and learn about their circuitous journey which lead them to work at the Smithsonian. A box lunch, educational resources and an afternoon field trip to another cultural institution are all highlights of this special day.

For this Career Day, ACM hosted an enthusiastic group of delightful 5th grade students and their teachers from Miner Elementary School (601 5th Street NE) in Ward 6. Career Day began with a welcome from the museum’s Director of Education and Outreach, Paul Perry, who discussed with the group his work at the museum working with his staff to develop public programs; followed by a guided tour with the curator Alcione Amos of How the Civil War Changed Washington; then a treasure hunt in the galleries with Education Specialist Linda Maxwell, to locate toys from the Civil War era.

The Miner students and teachers were divided into 2 groups to continue with a behind-the-scenes adventure with ACM staffer, Jenelle Cooper Tolson, Public Affairs Specialist who guided them to the staff areas of the, Library, Archives and Collection areas. In the staff areas we met Tykia Warden, Director of Advancement and Ingrid Faulkerson Advancement Specialist, who talk about how they raise funds for the museum and the Friends of the Museum program. In the Collection area, Dr. Joshua Gorman, the Collections Manager, displayed some artifacts that were excavated from a site in Southeast DC (in the Henson Ridge area) that showed how people lived during the Civil War. The students and teachers were all fascinated by the sled, horse saddle, various bottles and materials that people used in their everyday life back then. Jennifer Morris, Archivist, displayed a never seen before photographic portrait of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, standing on a boat to Santo Domingo when he took on United States efforts to acquire the nation. Career Day ended at the Anacostia Community Museum with a box lunch and applause of gratitude and thanks from both students and teachers.

Our last stop and tour of the day was at the African American Civil War Memorial Museum, located at 1925 Vermont Ave NW., where students took part in a treasure hunt in the exhibition The Glorious March to Liberty: Civil War to Civil Rights and got a chance to meet and ask questions with a Union solider from the Civil War. The students receive a basic introduction to the Civil War and learned what life was like for soldiers from their duties, the items they carried on the battlefield and uniforms.

Group Leader and Librarian from Miner Elementary, Michelle Williams commented that,

The staff members at the Museums were very welcoming. They are passionate about what they do. We appreciate the time they took out of their busy schedule to share their role and responsibilities with our students. Our students enjoyed the program. They’re still talking about it.

Thanks again for inviting and hosting us!

As the students and teachers boarded on the bus back to Miner Elementary, they were all tired yet happy to have experienced Career Day at the Anacostia Community Museum.