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.

Doing Research with the Dictionary on Hand

When I created the exhibit Word Shout Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities through Language, I was able to obtain through inter-library loan or by downloading files from the internet, a variety of dictionaries related to the more than 30 languages that Dr. Turner had identified as being part of the vocabulary of the Gullah in South Carolina and Georgia. I was trying to determine the relationships between words in African languages, Gullah, and the Portuguese, spoken in the Candomblé houses of worship in Brazil.

Eventually, I chose from hundreds of words a small list to display in what I called the “Wall of Words” of the exhibit and to be spoken in a video by native speakers. This video was shown continuously in the exhibit. It was a way of demonstrating how words from African languages had migrated into Gullah, colloquial English, and the Portuguese spoken in the Candomblé houses of worship in Brazil. The display of words and the video proved to be great hits with visitors to the exhibit both here in the United States and in Brazil where the exhibit is now traveling under its title in Portuguese: Gullah Bahia África.
In fact, I had done a similar exercise earlier. In 2007 I published a book in Brazil titled Os que voltaram: a história dos retornados afro-brasileiros na África Ocidental no século XIX [Those Who Returned: The History of the Afro-Brazilians returnees in West Africa in the 19th century.] At that time I had learned that the Portuguese language brought to Africa by these immigrants had influenced languages spoken in Benin, Nigeria, and Togo three of the countries where Afro-Brazilian returnee communities had been established.
Recently I began translating my book into English with the intention of eventually having it published in the United States. As part of this endeavor I created a table that trace these Portuguese loan words in three African languages: Fon (spoken in Benin), Ewe (spoken in Togo), and Yoruba (spoken in Nigeria.) This process included obtaining a few dictionaries to do research.
One of them was an 1894 dictionary published in France: Maurice Delafosse’s Manuel Dahoméen. The book came through interlibrary loan, and right away I noticed the pencil annotations throughout its pages, in a handwriting that was very familiar to me. It was a dictionary that Dr. Turner had used for his research and then donated to Northwestern University where it had stayed until it reached my hands. What are the chances of this happening, I thought, this is amazing!
But then it got even better. As I looked through the pages, there was Turner’s familiar handwriting using the International Phonetic Alphabet ( IPA, an alphabetic system of phonetic notation devised by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized representation of the sounds of oral language) to write words and their meaning. But what is this? A Portuguese translation of a word here and of a sentence there? And then it dawned on me. Dr. Turner had used this dictionary as his research tool when he was in Bahia in 1940 and 1941 researching at the Candomblé houses of worship. At that time, many people of African descent in Bahia still spoke the African languages of their ancestors.
From the notations on the pages of the dictionary it seems that Dr. Turner took it with him and might have pronounced the words and their meaning to his informants. He most likely had an interpreter with him. One must remember that he was using a Fon/French. So I think what happened was this: Dr. Turner, who knew French, would pronounce the words in Fon, translate their meaning as stated in the dictionary into English for the interpreter who would then translate them into Portuguese. His informants, if they recognized the words, would speak them back establishing their pronunciation and usage in Brazil. Turner would then record then in the IPA on the pages of the dictionary for future reference. What a painstaking way to do research, but very much like Dr. Turner, I must say.

Where was this research done? It was possible that it was at the Terreiro do Bogum (Bogum Temple) located in the Engenho Velho, Federação, in Salvador, Bahia. The Terreiro do Bogum is a Candomblé place of worship which follows the tradition of the Voduns of Dahomey (today Benin) and uses the Fon language, (or Jeje language as it is called in Brazil) for its rituals. Dr. Turner did research there.
So, this is my latest immersion in the world of Dr. Turner’s research. As unexpected as it was, it was also exciting and increased my already high admiration for Dr. Turner skills and research methods.

Dr. Turner noted in Portuguese the meaning of a word in the Fon language

Dr. Turner noted in Portuguese the meaning of a word in the Fon language

Signature of Dr. Turner and book plate acknowledging the donation of the dictionary to Northwestern University

Signature of Dr. Turner and book plate acknowledging the donation of the dictionary to Northwestern University

 

When History Comes Alive!

Three Generations of Tobias Henson Descendants

Janice Moore with her daughter and grandchildren, descendants of Tobias Henson

 

As the curator for “How the Civil War Changed Washington” I told the histories of places and stories of people that were changed or that changed Washington before, during, and right after the Civil War. One of these fascinating stories was that of Tobias Henson. Henson was an African-American held in slavery by the Evans family of Maryland in an area which eventually would become part of Washington after the creation of the nation’s capital.
He was born around 1767. The first time Henson appeared in the official record was in an 1817 slave list in the estate appraisal of his owner, Philip Evans. Even then he was listed only as “Toby about 50 years of age” and given the value of $350. Also among the estate slaves were 22-year-old Matilda and 12-year-old Mary Ann, daughters of Tobias and his wife, Bessie Barton. Bessie, according to the family lore, was a red-headed Irish woman. But Tobias was only chattel, “an item of tangible movable or immovable property.”

After the death of his owner, Henson became the property of Philip Evans Jr. On Christmas Eve, 1818 Henson paid the inflated price of $400 for his freedom. He was deemed “able to work and gain a sufficient livelihood.” Tobias Henson was now known by his complete name and not by the nickname “Toby.”

In 1820, Henson married his second wife, Betsy Evans, another free African American. Between 1826 and 1833 Tobias Henson bought land and the freedom of his daughters and grandchildren. Ironically the 26 acres of land he bought, which became known as “The Ridge,” bordered the land that belonged to Mary Evans, the widow of his former owner. Master and former slave were now neighbors.

Besides being a hard worker, Henson was also very shrewd. He did not free his children immediately. By owning them, he could protect them from the hardships imposed on freed African-Americans. It also gave him some economic leverage. In 1832, he bought the freedom of Matilda and her child Mary Jane from Henry Evans, the younger son of Philip Evans. One year later, he bought the freedom of his other daughter Mary Ann from James Middleton for $300. Evidently short of cash at the time of the transaction, Tobias Henson obtained a loan from Henry Evans. He signed a promissory note for $150 in which he promised the services of Mary Ann to Evans for four days a week. Very soon he repaid the loan, freeing his daughter from the obligation. Now his family was completely free and able to progress, and so they did.

On Tuesday, October 25, 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, several of Tobias Henson’s descendants went to downtown Washington to get copies of their free papers. They might have donned their best clothes, piled into a cart or ridden smart-looking horses to go downtown. Registering at the U.S. District Court, they declared that they had been born free because decades earlier Tobias Henson had achieved his goal of obtaining freedom for himself and his family.

Tobias Henson’s descendants lived at “The Ridge” for several generations and formed a vibrant community. The last house to belong to a Henson descendant on “The Ridge,” always mentioned as the “home place,” was located at 1501 Alabama Avenue SE. It was sold in the early 1980s to the District of Columbia and razed in the early 2000s.

Henson’s memory did not fade completely from the oral history of the family. Although the surname Henson disappeared because Tobias fathered only girls, generations of Addisons, Douglasses, Smiths, and other families heard about their ancestor, Tobias Henson. “The Ridge” remained a distinct parcel of land on the maps of SE Washington, D.C. located off Hamilton Road later named Alabama Avenue well into the 20th century.

Then Janice Moore, a fourth-generation descendant of Tobias Henson, took up the research of his history and the history of the family. It was to her that I went in 2012 when I started researching Henson’s history for the Civil War exhibit.

I wanted to make a stark contrast in my exhibit between the free African-American community at “The Ridge” and the Giesborough Plantation, which belonged to George Washington Young. The plantation, which was the largest within the boundaries of the nation’s capital, and “The Ridge” were located a little over a mile away from each other.

Janice was wonderful. She provided me with all the information she had. She came to Washington, D.C. at her expense for a videotaped interview. She reviewed my work to make sure that I was telling the history of her family right.

On July 1, 2015, Janice came to see the exhibit with three generations of her family, they represented the 4th, 5th and 6th generations of descendants of Tobias Henson from “The Ridge.” It was with great pleasure that I guided them through a tour of the exhibit telling them how proud I was that they were bringing history alive with their presence.

When I started working on the script for this exhibit, I said to my bosses: “I don’t want to talk about Lincoln, the generals, battles and so on. I want to talk about people.” Tobias Henson and his descendants were part of this history that I have very proudly portrayed, and it was an honor to receive the visit of his descendants.

Historic Barry Farm: A Place of Pride and Achievement

“We decided to expand the research in order to … change the image of crime and destruction, at present, to one of pride and achievement [in the past]” Ella B. Pearis, 1974.

When Mrs. Pearis made this statement, more than a hundred years after the creation of Historic Barry Farm, she was talking from experience. Her family, the Howards, had been early settlers on a stretch of Elvans Avenue (later Elvans Road) which had been home to a long list of luminaries. Her grandfather Mr. James Thomas Howard had been a minister in Macedonia Baptist Church, the first Baptist Church in Barry Farm. A close neighbor on Elvans Avenue, Solomon G. Brown, had been the first African-American employee of the Smithsonian Institution. Another resident Miss Francis Hall, a white teacher who had come from New York to teach newly freed African-Americans in Barry Farm and had stayed for life, was just a few houses away.

Mrs. Pearis had heard the stories of these and other residents of Barry Farm as she grew up. These early settlers had bet on a new experiment, a “new town” created by the Freedmen’s Bureau on rural land just across the Eastern Branch (the name used for the Anacostia Rover in the 19th century), and had built their houses with their own hands and in the process created a stable and nurturing community.

Mrs. Pearis had also seen the slow disintegration of the dream, and thus her desire to “… change the image of crime and destruction” that was prevalent when she diligently worked with the Anacostia Museum to record the history of Historic Barry Farm.

Historic Barry Farm had been created by the Freedmen’s Bureau as a remedy for the appalling housing conditions in which many immigrant African-Americans lived in Washington at the end of the Civil War. The new endeavor had provided financing for the acquisition of one acre lots and the opportunity to buy materials for the construction of a modest 14ft x 24ft two room house. These houses would be later described by government officials in the 20th century as “cheap little houses.” Yet, they were mostly built by the owners themselves and had become the place of residence for generations of some of the original families.

One resident of Barry Farm, Rev. Millard F. Newman stated very eloquently in 1944 that although his residential area was easily described as “blighted” by the government officials, what was being ignored was “this more profound and deeper thing of people who owned a home they had built.”

Perhaps that is the key to the early success of Barry Farm, the fact that the houses, which then turned into homes, were built by their owners.  Those long stretches of one acre lots cultivated by the hands of the owners to provide sustenance to the family and as a source of income by the sale of the surplus, and which could also be comfortably subdivided to make room for family members to build their homes, were sources  of economic stability.

Perhaps the pride of ownership was the source of the community providing “education and support for the children’s spiritual growth and physical well-being” as stated by James G. Banks who had been born and raised in Barry Farm, in 2004.

By 1968, one hundred years after the auspicious creation of such a community, “the area which had been sparsely populated was suddenly becoming a high density urban area…” with haphazard and uncontrolled growth. The decline would be swift and sad.

It is utopic to think that there were no problems in Barry Farm or that this large expanse of land, which had retained its rural flavor, would remain untouched in the 20th century. But perhaps the story would have been different if the African American owners who had “struggled through the years to maintain a healthy, wholesome social attitude…” had been given the support to repair and improve their homes instead of having them replaced by multi-family unit buildings.

Today the name Barry Farm lives in the development built in 1943 as housing for African-Americans working for the war effort. Ironically we might pinpoint the beginning of the community’s decay on the building of this housing development and the opening of the Suitland Parkway, also in 1943, to connect Bolling Air Force Base to Camp Springs (today Andrews Air Force Base.)

In 2015 Historic Barry Farm has receded from the memory of local residents. Nevertheless, it remains an example of a successful African-American community, created right after the Civil War, by sheer force of the individual effort of its early settlers.

 

 

 

 

“Contrabands” African American Refugees in Washington During the Civil War

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 enslaved African Americans fled from Virginia and Maryland to Washington during the Civil War. They were originally called “contrabands.” This was a term coined by the press after General Major General Benjamin Butler’s decision in 1861 to not return three fugitive slaves who had come to Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads in Virginia. Rather than sending them back to their owner—where they had been building a Confederate artillery position—Butler opted to hold them as contraband war loot. Ironically, this legal loophole allowed Union soldiers an opportunity to grant escaped slaves a type of freedom by continuing to treat them as property.

In Washington, these new arrivals were first thrown into jail by the city’s authorities and later taken under the care of the military and interned in a sequence of camps. Subjected to crowding and unsanitary conditions they were decimated by contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and cholera. Infants died due to fevers, diarrhea, and convulsions.

Children often were separated from their families. Some of them were taken in by the military and served as servants for the officers. Others were sent to the Orphan Home located in Georgetown where conditions were as bad as they had been in the camps. Still others were hired out to people who promised to provide education, health care, housing and clothing in exchange for their service, but who, in some instances, mistreated them badly.

Out of these desperate circumstances emerged after the Civil War a population, often identified as “Freedmen,” who made their home in Washington determined to live a new life as free people. In 1860, the African American population of Washington was 14,316, by 1870 the number had raised to 35, 455, an increase of over 200%. These newcomers were the first wave that would make of Washington a majority African American city in mid-20th century.

Today, 150 years after the Civil War, Washington is changing again. Fast-paced gentrification, which has brought into the city a number of young, affluent residents of many ethnicities, has reversed the trend and Washington is no longer a majority African-American city.

 

 

 

 

African American refugees at Camp Brightwood

African American refugees at Camp Brightwood

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