Category Archives: Collections

On being Black in the U.S.: Community Stories from the ACM Archives

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A Washington, D.C. police officer and members of the Latino community in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.,  Black Mosaic Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution 

In 1991 Washington, D.C. experienced its own civil unrest – the Mt. Pleasant riots.  In the wake of those riots, the Anacostia Community Museum, at that time the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum,  was undertaking a research project about Black Immigrants in the DC metro area.   The exhibition that came from that researchBlack Mosaic: community, race, and ethnicity among Black immigrants in Washington, D. C.  opened at the Museum in August of 1994.

One of the largest treasures of the Black Mosaic collection is the trove of oral histories, collected by community members. The range of stories talks about perception of the U.S. before coming, arrival to the U.S., arrival to Washington, D.C, building community, barriers to community acceptance, struggle, triumph, pain and joy.

During the research phase, the DC metro area was still very much healing from racial tensions, from distrust between the community and the police.  The oral histories reference this tense time in D.C. history, but also offer reflections of community members on the issues of race, Americanness, Blackness, community and identity.

In light of recent national events, I share these three small oral history excerpts from the Black Mosaic archives for your reflection and comment.

 I remember when Mr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I basically lost almost all of my black friends—they suddenly decided that I was the enemy because I had white skin. I felt terrible about that, especially being a member of another minority group [Latino] that was always discriminated against. However, I understand that people are embittered by their experiences.

I remember being in the playground of St. Joseph Catholic School and a child came up to me and said, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ I never forgot that because for a long time I couldn’t understand why it was she felt sorry for me. And then I recognized that it was because of the fact that I was black and it really hit me. I gained an understanding of what that means, in the context of this country, that I just never had, even though I was very well aware in the Dominican Republic and In St. Thomas that I was black … I was never made to feel when I was growing up in the Dominican Republic that I was less than a human being because of my color.

To be true to yourself means you have to follow your pain. And so that when you come on pain, you have to re-explore it and get to root of where that pain is coming from. And so that it meant for me following my pain, or society pains around my blackness, because there IS pain around being black! Here! And I followed that pain, in other words, I kept dealing and dealing with that. And there is pain about being Latina, and there is certainly pain about being a woman! And so I followed that pain and that has made it possible for me to be true to myself. I’m not going to be anything than what I am. I am going to enrich what I am! I’m going to enhance what I am! But I’m never going to be anything but a woman, I’m never going to be anything but black, and I am Latina. And so being true to that identity, and going through the process that it takes to polish that identity, is the greatest thing that I’ve learned.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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.

Thelma Dale Perkins: A Life of Civic Engagement

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Undated portrait of Thelma Dale Perkins. Dale/Patterson Family papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Dianne Dale.

Thelma Dale Perkins was born on October 23, 1915 in her family’s home on Sumner Rd SE in Hillsdale, Washington, DC.  Her parents, John H. Dale, Jr. and Lucille Patterson Dale, belonged to families who settled in the Nation’s Capital during the Reconstruction era and produced several prominent achievers.  Her maternal uncle Frederick Douglass Patterson was the third president of Tuskegee Institution and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

Growing up in a family that emphasized “civic pride and service to others” probably contributed to Thelma’s desire to work hard and uphold the family tradition of civic service.  Thelma’s parents’ prized education and stressed the importance of their children furthering their studies. The youngest of four childhen, Thelma attended Birney Elementary School and the locally renowned Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, America’s first public school for African Americans. In 1932, she entered Howard University to study teaching and social work.

It was during her college years that Thelma’s involvement in volunteer and civic organizations began.  She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Liberal Club, which “advocated for the integration of African Americans” into the greater society.    Thelma joined the Southern Negro Youth Congress and, as a member of the American Youth Congress, she attended informal “chats” at the White House sponsored by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to discuss issues facing youth of the day.

After graduating in 1936, she worked for distinguished Howard University sociologist Dr. E. Franklin Frasier on a National Youth Administration Fellowship and for the Federal Government. As Mrs. Perkins later recalled, “I resigned from the government rather than sign a loyalty oath and accepted the job of National Secretary of the National Negro Congress in New York City.”

Thelma made lasting friendships in her career, among them Paul and Eslanda Robeson. She was managing editor for Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper and involved in the campaign to get his passport restored during the McCarthy years. To celebrate, Mrs. Robeson’s appearance before the McCarthy’s Committee she invited Eslanda to her parents’ home in Hillsdale.  She states in Paul Robeson:  The Great Forerunner, “That afternoon, Essie [Eslanda] relaxed and enjoyed the visit with my parents and their neighbors as though she had known them all her life.”

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Thelma Dale Perkins speaking at an unidentified event. Dale/Patterson Family papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Dianne Dale.

In 1957, she married Lawrence Rickman Perkins Jr., a Lincoln University graduate and adopted two babies, Lawrence Dale Perkins and Patrice Dale Perkins.  Later in her career, Mrs. Perkins won several awards for her dedication and contributions to local organizations in New York.   As a manager of community relations for CIBA-GEIGY Corporation she initiated and developed the nationally recognized “Exceptional Black Scientist” series. “It was a great joy as it allowed me the opportunity to interact with young people and stimulate them to consider careers in science,” she later recalled.

Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Perkins moved to Chapel Hill, NC and continued her family tradition of civic involvement. On September 29, 2014 she passed away peacefully.

A small collection on her materials can be found in the Dale/Patterson Family papers in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, donated by her niece Dianne Dale.

Note: There are several far southeast Washington, DC neighborhoods (including Hillsdale, for example) which are often colloquially considered as part of the larger and older Anacostia neighborhood.

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.

Continue reading From the Collection: James Wells prints