Streetcars in D.C. again

streetcar In the late 1800s it had long been an acute source of humiliation for Washington D.C.’s African Americans, that all Blacks, including women, children and the elderly, were routinely prohibited from riding in the city’s streetcars, and were forced to stand on the exterior platforms in the rear of the car or up front “with the horses.” No exception was made for inclement weather either, as Major Alexander Augusta, the head of Freedmens Hospital, discovered to his dismay.
During and immediately after the Civil War, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Augusta, Senator Charles Sumner, and others challenged the segregated streetcar system in the District. . In her Book of Life editor Francis Titus recounts several physical confrontations:
. . .[Sojourner], having occasion to ride [upon the city streetcars], signaled the car, but neither conductor nor driver noticed her. Soon another followed, and she raised her hand again, but they also turned away. She then gave three tremendous yelps, ‘I want to ride! I want to ride!! I WANT TO RIDE!!! Consternation seized the passing crowd–people, carriages, go-carts of every description stood still. The car was effectually blocked up, and before it could move on, Sojourner had jumped aboard. Then there arose a great shout from the crowd, ‘Ha! ha! ha!! She has beaten him,’ &c. The angry conductor told her to go forward where the horses were, or he would put her out. Quietly seating herself, she informed him that she was a passenger. ‘Go forward where the horses are, or I will throw you out,” said he in a menacing voice. She told him that she was neither a Marylander nor a Virginian to fear his threats; but was from the Empire State of New York, and knew the laws as well as he did . . . .

Black Washingtonians waged a long battle to defeat this form of racial discrimination. Sumner was able to pass legistation or insert language prohibiting racial segregation on streetcars in the charters of streetcar companies several times between 1863 and 1865, but many street car companies and operators ignored the prohibition.

By the late 1860s, the new residents of Barry Farms in far southeast Washington, D.C., were organizing boycotts:
“Many of the settlers walked to work as far as Georgetown and back daily. There were horse drawn cars down Penn Ave, but the determined settlers saved that fare through indignation at the segregation practiced. Persons of color, although charged the same fare as were the whites, were only entitled to a seat on top of these cars, exposed to the rain, snow and winter blizzard. They lugged their groceries and other purchases for miles. . .” [p.7-8., Hillsdale Civic Association meeting, 1920-21, ACM Archives]

Photograph courtesy of Historical Society of Wasington, D.C.

The Adam Francis Plummer Diary

After Adam Francis Plummer (1819-1905), an African American man enslaved on George Calvert’s Riversdale plantation, secretly learned to read, he began to keep a diary. He started writing the diary in 1841, the year that he married Emily Saunders, who was enslaved on a neighboring plantation in Maryland. Plummer maintained the diary until his death in 1905. The Plummer diary includes birthdates of babies born on and around the area of the Riversdale plantation, letters, receipts for purchase of land and tools, and inventory lists of household furnishings and provisions. It also has poignant stories of the sale and separation of family members and of the long struggle to reunite the family after the end of the Civil War. After Plummer’s death, his daughter Nellie Arnold Plummer began making entries in the diary. Nellie added additional information to some of her father’s entries and updated family events noted in the diary.
Nellie Arnold Plummer was born in slavery in 1860. In 1927 she wrote Out of the Depths, or The Triumph of the Cross, which documents the history of the Plummer family. This fascinating book has been digitized and is available on the Digital Public Library website.
In the following excerpt, Nellie describes how Adam Francis learned to read:
“As is well known, it was against the law for anyone to teach a slave to read and write. There was a colored preacher known as John Bowser, who in some way unknown to me, had learned to read and write. He taught Adam. So, instead of spending his time among idle gossipers, or with those who drank, Adam taught himself all he possibly could. This he kept up until the end. His rainy days were spent in mending chairs, etc., or in doing other lesser jobs. But for his improving that ONE opportunity, to learn how to read and write, we would know very little of our family history, not even the births and deaths.”
The Plummer Diary will be on exhibit at the Anacostia Community Museum from Monday, Feb 23, 2015 to Sunday, December 27, 2015.

BK IAMART Adams –In Process

One of BK's sculptures at the Katzen Art Center

One of BK’s sculptures at the Katzen Art Center

Have you checked out BK Adams’ latest exhibition, Mynd Alive? It is at American University’s Katzen Art Center. It will be on view until August 17, 2014;
weekly hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:00-4:00. He is one of the true originals.

Leslie Payne: Old Airplane Builder. Homemade.

Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop

Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop

Leslie Payne's motto

Leslie Payne’s motto

Airplane after recovery

Airplane after recovery

Air Tower

Air Tower

Airplane before recovery

Airplane before recovery

Leslie Payne and one of his airplanes

Leslie Payne and one of his airplanes

 

One of my favorite artists in the ACM collection is Leslie J. Payne. Born in 1907 in rural Northumberland County, Virginia, Payne was a fisherman and a crabber. Payne only received a fourth grade education, and remained impoverished for all of his life. He had few opportunities for travel, to satisfy his curiosity about the world, to put his enormous creative energies to work, or to indulge his larger than life personality. But in 1918, he attended an air show when he was only eleven years old that was to change his life. As a direct result of that event, Payne began a lifelong obsession with airplanes and airfields.

In the 1940s Payne began to construct airplanes, most of them relatively small in scale. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Payne began to construct what he called imitation planes. These were large scale planes, constructed so that Payne and a passenger could sit in the cabin and enjoy the view. On Sunday afternoons, Payne would invite selected young ladies to join him on flights in his planes and they would put-put around the surrounding fields. The young women wore their good Sunday clothes—one recalled wearing white gloves and pearls—and Payne wore a flight suit, aviator cap, and goggles, and outfitted each passenger with helmet and goggles . He maintained a travel log book in which the young women kept notes on each flight’s imaginary itinerary, and also had his passengers take Polaroid photos. On those occasions, for those few hours, Leslie Payne became a pilot, with all the powerful and romantic notions that that suggested in the 1960s. On the back of his flight suit was emblazoned a huge emblem that revealed his self-made identity: Old Airplane Builder. Homemade.

Using metal, canvas, automobile parts, kitchen tools, and other materials that he scrounged, he built imitation planes and then transformed his small farm into an airfield, complete with AIR TOWER, machine shop, and runways. He had no truck, or transportation for the larger pieces of scrap metal, so he carried the stuff back to his farm.

After Leslie Payne retired to a nursing home in the late 1970s, and after his death in 1980, his airfield was abandoned. The planes, tower, and machine shop remained as you see them here until 1987, when Jonathan Green, then director of the California Museum of Photography traveled to Lillian, Virginia, and with the permission of the family, brought back a plane, the air tower, and some of the machine shop. Green’s team spent years restoring the artifacts. In 1994, Green assisted the Anacostia Museum in acquiring the collection, and it remains an important part of the museum’s holdings today.

Let me end with Leslie Payne’s motto that was burned over the doorway of his machine shop: Safety first, Tak No Chance!

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