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.

Wee Wee: Our Neighborhood Santa!

It’s Holiday season, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate it here at the Anacostia Community Museum than remembering our very own Santa – Wee Wee (Milton Jones) from the 1970s and 80s.  Back in the “old days of the 1970s,” we had our own Santa Claus in the neighborhood of Anacostia.  Santa came to see the children and bring them toys and goodies by way of parade car, in the jitney bus, walking, and even by helicopter.


Wee Wee (Santa) arrives in helicopter, circa 1971. Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photo taken by Zora Martin Felton.

Wee Wee was the Santa Claus for the museum for over ten years. He was a member of the Smithsonian Anacostia Neighborhood Museum’s Exhibition Department, and also ran the gift shop at the museum.  The neighborhood had a Christmas parade, featuring our neighborhood Santa.  The streets were lined with people all the way down Martin Luther King Jr., Ave. (then Nichols Avenue) and children and parents were lined up at the Anacostia Museum door to go talk to Santa about their Christmas wishes and receive a toy.


Here comes Santa in the Parade, December 1971. Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photo taken by Zora Martin Felton.

Anacostia's Own Santa, circa 1970, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photo taken by Zora Martin Felton.

Our Santa had helpers too!  YAC (Youth Advisory Committee) members would assist Santa with the toy giveaways and goodies.  As a member of YAC in the later years, I was not present during our Santa years, but I vividly remember working with Wee Wee in  our gift shop. Wee Wee (Milton Jones) was a real pillar in our community and museum.



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.



ACM Collections Presentation at Southwest Neighborhood Assembly


At Arena Stage Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, 7-9 pm
The Anacostia Smithsonian Museum is asking for help to prepare a 2016 exhibit covering DC during the Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon Years (1962-1975)
During those years DID YOU march for civil rights or against the Vietnam War?
During those 12 years did you support Black power, women’s equality, pay equity, tenant’s rights, gay rights, fair housing, religious freedom, veteran benefits or any other cause to make society a better place?
Do you have stories to tell or pictures or memorabilia from that time?
Meet Dr. Josh Gorman from the Anacostia Smithsonian Community Museum who will discuss what makes objects historically valuable from a museum’s perspective, especially a community museum..
Discover the historical value of your memorabilia – from political buttons to signs, circulars, banners, handbills, or hats, tee shirts, knick-knacks, pictures or anything else that has been on the wall in the attic or at back of the closet for the past decades.
Become a part of the “Twelve Year Project” between the SW Neighborhood Assembly and the Anacostia Smithsonian Community Museum, at
Arena Stage Monday evening, November 24 at 7 pm.

Benson Runs for Govenor


Benson Dubois Campaign Trunk, 1980s.

Benson Dubois Campaign Trunk, 1980s.


With Election Day results fresh in everyone’s mind, I am reminded of one particular, though entirely fictional, campaign:  Benson Dubois’s campaign for governor in the series Benson.  The television series, which ran from 1979 to 1986, ended with a cliffhanger as Benson and Governor Gatling  wait on bated breath for the election to be called.  The series was cancelled after it’s seventh season, leaving viewers to wonder who might have been the next resident of the governor’s mansion.

It would have been fitting for Robert Guillaume’s title character to become the Governor, as the series started with him as butler to that very same house.  The Soap spin-off began with the premise of Guillaume’s Benson being hired as the head of household affairs at the governor’s mansion, occupied by struggling widower Eugene Gatling and his daughter Katie.  Though the series started with Benson managing household squabbles, his integrity and competence soon proved him capable of much more.  Throughout the series, Benson showed tremendous growth as he won titles of state budget director and eventually Lieutenant Governor.


While Benson was not the first African American character in television to show success, Robert Guillaume’s portrayal as the wise, honest, and dry-humored Benson remains one of the most enduring and engaging series heroes in television history.  As Guillaume explains, “I sought consciously to avoid the stereotypical sociological traps… I always wanted kids of any background to understand the characters I’ve portrayed were real, that the solutions they found were true and possible.  It has always been important to me to stress that there was no diminution of power or universality just because my characters were African- Americans.”  Guillaume won two Emmy Awards for the role, Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (Soap, 1979), and Best Actor (Benson, 1985)

Here at the Anacostia Community Museum, we have a great collection donated by the acclaimed actor and performer, Robert Guillaume.  The collection includes objects, awards, and memorabilia from his film and stage career.  See more of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum collection, gift of Robert Guillaume, here.

Memories with Zora

While working on the 50th Anniversary Project of Smithsonian Anacostia Museum with Zora Martin Felton, former Education Director, many memories arose.  Ms. Martin Felton was director of Education for the museum for 30 years and took many photos of the numerous programs and exhibition openings.  During the early 1970s i was a member of Ms. Martin Felton’s YAC (Youth Advisory Council) and a neighborhood resident.  Looking through the slides that Ms. Martin Felton and other staff took brought back many wonderful memories of my youthful days at the museum.

Anacostia Neighborhood Museum - "Special Program' with Zora Martin Felton, Director of Education, 1967

Anacostia Neighborhood Museum – “Special Program’ with Zora Martin Felton, Director of Education, 1967


Inside the artist’s studio: Leslie Payne

Leslie Payne never called himself an artist. Nor did he call his airplanes, whirligigs, or ships works of art. Today however, his artwork, what he called “imitations,” stand as an important part of the museum’s collection, his machine shop akin to a studio where he once created his artwork.


Leslie Payne's "Airplane Machine Shop Company."

Leslie Payne’s “Airplane Machine Shop Company.”

In 1918 Leslie Payne, then a small boy, attended an airshow in Northumberland County, Virginia that would serve as inspiration for rest of his life.  The World War I biplanes were so captivating to him that in the 1960s, he began making replicas or “imitations” of the planes on his farm.  By the 1970s, Leslie Payne had turned his yard into a makeshift airstrip, with several aircrafts, whirligigs, instrument towers, and the airplane machine shop seen above. He constructed each plane carefully, using plans and patterns for the struts and wings of each fifteen foot aircraft.  The planes were made of found objects, like sheet metal, spare canvas, and remnants of old house appliances.  One plane even had an engine which allowed Leslie Payne, dressed in his aviation suite and goggles, to drive women on fantasy flights around the farm and up the nearby roads.  He would even document the trips in his homemade flight log.

Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop

Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop

Leslie Payne was not a traditional artist.  You will not find brushes and stacks of stretched canvas in his Airplane Machine Shop, no easel or palette knife.  You will find paint in greased cans, coils of wire, wheels, chains, and hammers amidst screws and bolts, stacks of rusted metal on a work table and floor.  In the 1970s, you could find Leslie Payne in his studio, not wearing a smock but an aviation suit and goggles, tool belt hung around his waist. Though now the machine shop is rust-covered, it remains a testament to the artist’s working method.  His motto, “Safety First: Tak no chances” is outlined on a piece of scrap sheet metal at the front.   Propellers and whirligigs mark his unending interest in aviation, the major inspiration in his body of work.  There are divider note cards and rubber stampers illustrating his meticulous record-keeping; for each faux-flight Payne would ask the girl to type a flight plan on an index card, to be time and date-stamped and filed. The flag represents the patriotic theme carried through all of his pieces, which were decorated in stars and stripes.  In this way, the airplane machine shop is his studio, and it’s preservation in the collection allows us a glimpse into his world, the world of the Airplane Payne.

Ebola: Charles Smith and Social Activism

The Folk Art collections of the Anacostia Community Museum frequently relate to personal responses to global events. One can read awareness and activism in the museum’s collections made by artists such as Leslie Payne, Dereck Wilson and Mr. Imagination. Charles Smith, however, possibly rises above in his intimate portrayal of fellow activists and his figural representation of social and community afflictions around the world.

Charles Smith, Ebola, 2001. Kohler Foundation Collection, Anacostia Community Museum. 2004.0011.0011

Smith’s 2001 sculpture, Ebolacaptures his concern about the disease and its effects on his (and our) contemporaries in West Africa. Dr. Charles Smith (Doctor of Life) believes in the Sankofa proverb, “you can’t go forward until you look back.” Thus, many of his sculptures are janus-faced and can address the future and the past at once. This cement figure is painted brown on the front face, red on the raised lettering spelling “EBOLA” cascading down the front of the figure, and white on the remaining body areas.

This work sought to bring awareness to this deadly disease, long before this current, closely (and loudly) watched outbreak. Smith’s use of found materials and public presentation makes the works and the addressed concerns and themes accessible to the community he hoped to inspire.


See more of the Kohler Foundation Collection of the sculptures of Charles Smith at the SI Collections Search Center.



From the Collection: James Wells prints

As the curatorial team turns towards identifying collections for the upcoming 12 Years that Changed Washington exhibition, we’ve been looking more closely at the art and artists held by the ACM to show how changes in art and culture coincided with radical social change in DC. Looking beyond formal visual arts, we are also looking for the many posters, prints and informal art that blossomed during this time–and in so doing stumbled upon one of the masters in our collection, James Wells.

James Wells, “Girls Profile,” Anacostia Community Museum, 2014.0018.0002.

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Finding Embedded Meaning: Expressions of Race, Class and History in Quilts

Burka Quilt: ACM 2002.0004.0001[The following essay served as the basis and notes for a talk I gave at a session of the 2012 meeting of the Textile Society of America held at the Anacostia Community Museum. Along with conservator Newbold Richardson I discussed this quilt from the museum’s collection from a somewhat longer, material-focused perspective.]


1. Introduction

Today I’m going to be talking about the quilt you see here to my right/left. Made of handkerchiefs printed with nursery rhymes, this quilt is a nice narrative piece in our small quilt and textile collection. Of note in the quilt is the inclusion among the familiar mother goose rhymes is a full color, full representation of the rhyme, “the ten little niggers.” As an aside, I’m not really comfortable repeating this over the course of the paper, so at the risk of using a euphemism to conceal this vile little poem, I’m going to occasionally refer to it as the nursery rhyme throughout this paper.

This quilt was donated to us in 2002 by Jo Anne and Dr. Barrett Burka. This one has the handy application of a signature, we know that it was a Christmas gift in 1878 to a young man named Howard from his Auntie. The handkerchief literature tells us that these hankies were frequently gifts for children as rewards for having behaved well-Howard must have been the best kid in the family.

A note on the back of the deed of gift generated in 2002 gives a thin provenance for the item. This quilt was, apparently, owned by a famous white author, a lady from McClean, Virginia and was purchased by the Burkas at an estate sale in the early 1990s for a not-insignificant amount of money. Of British origin, the quilt was donated to the collection because of it’s notably blythe use of racist imagery. It was donated shortly after the Anacostia Museum’s grand reopening in this building after it had served on the mall for several years as the Smithsonian’s center for African American History and Culture. The quilt was in pretty rough shape when we received it and it underwent conservation treatment later that year.

With this paper I will not be discussing the materiality of the quilt – something surely to be examined and interesting, but not my focus – so much as an unpacking of the situation of this item in a global world. The nursery rhyme “the ten little niggers,” offers us a jarring entry into the intermingled creation and application of race and racism in the Atlantic world in the 19th century. In this item we see the confluence of the emergence of Victorian racism with the florescence of children’s literature.

This quilt, using American racist discourse – soon to be adapted to the British control in India – probably using American or Egyptian cotton, sits in a space in which the invented fixities of race were being provisionally applied to global empires.

In this paper I will examine the history of race and racism between the US and Britain and its coincidence with colonial economies. I’ll then turn to the nursery rhyme and its fluid and ambiguous relationships to American and English racism and popular culture.

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