Brown vs. Board of Education & its Latino connections

On this date in history 62 years ago today, the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS made school segregation unconstitutional.  This case transformed the lives not only of African-Americans, but was preceded and followed by justice for Black and Brown U.S. citizens around the world.  

Highlighting these connections takes nothing away from Black struggles for Civil Rights in the United States. On the contrary, the intent is to demonstrate that past, present, and future struggles for Civil Rights have never been for or by one group alone.

 

Mexican Segregation: Méndez et al vs. Westminster School District of Orange County California (1947)


Discrimination and segregation in the United States have never been strictly Black-White experiences. The discrimination against Mexican-Americans, especially on the west coast of the U.S. was rampant.

Image from WikiMedia Commons. Credit on website: National Civil Rights Museum Downtown Memphis, TN

Image from WikiMedia Commons. Credit on website: National Civil Rights Museum Downtown Memphis, TN

A case in California eight years before Brown set a necessary precedent for Brown vs the Board of Education: Méndez vs. Westminster .

In short, although no law legally segregated Mexican and Mexican American children (de jure), they were in fact segregated (de facto). In 1944, The Orange County school district told Gonzalo Méndez that his three children had to attend the “Mexican” school despite the fact that their lighter skinned cousins attended the white school.  Mendez and four other Mexican families took four Los Angeles-area school districts to court and won a class action lawsuit at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system. (Click HERE to listen to Sylvia Méndez recall her experience as a child attending a Mexican School)

Understanding that legal decisions and civil rights transcend state, racial, and ethnic lines, Mendez’s counsel and support included: League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Jewish Congress, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Japanese American Citizens League.

When Thurgood Marshall represented Linda Brown in Brown vs. the Board of Education, he used  arguments from the Méndez case. The relevance — segregation based on color and origin — was clear.

That we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.” – Sylvia Mendez, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

On September 14, 2007, in Santa Ana, California, issued 41-cent Mendez v. West­minster commemorative stamp designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland

On September 14, 2007, in Santa Ana, California, issued 41-cent Mendez v. West­minster commemorative stamp designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, Maryland

 

Brown vs the Board of Education reaches the Panama Canal Zone


We often think of U.S. law within the physical confines of the United States. But what about U.S. territories? Such was the case of the Panama Canal Zone.

The Panama Canal Zone was a U.S. territory from its creation in 1903 until the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977 mandated the Zone’s dissolution in 1979.  The United States was a racially segregated society. U.S. society at the time included the U.S. Panama Canal Zone, as the Zone was governed completely by U.S. laws. Segregation existed in the U.S. Panama Canal Zone.

Manuel Sandoval, DC resident, recalled the separated spaces existed along both race (“Black” and “white”) as well as citizenship (“Panamanian” and “American”) in Panama during his interview.

I never experienced discrimination; however, in the Canal Zone there was clear discrimination — Panamanian Blacks went to one place, Black Americans went to another, and White Americans had their own thing. – Manuel Sandoval

Black Mosaic Exhibition Records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

After the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of education, citizenship, not race, became the primary source of inequity in the U.S. Panama Canal Zone. Black and white U.S. citizens integrated. This law only applied to U.S. citizens.  Zonians (the term for people living in the Canal Zone) of Panamanian or West Indian citizenship remained segregated from U.S. citizens in school and housing, with some exceptions, such as the Canal Zone College. Latin American schools and thus Spanish language instruction replaced U.S. based school with English language instruction for non-U.S. citizens. This language change was especially problematic for West Indian children from English speaking islands, as many did not speak Spanish at home.  Between 1960 and 1970, Panama had the largest number and percentage of Central American immigrants to the U.S.   The change in language of educational instruction in Canal Zone schools was certainly a factor.

 

Brown vs. Board of Education, Panama, and the Doll Tests


Although raised in New York, Dr. Kenneth Bancroft Clark was born in the Panama Canal Zone. Dr. Clark was the first Black Ph.D. recipient from Columbia University, the first Black president of the American Psychological Association and the first tenured Black professor at the City University of New York.

Kenneth Bancroft Clark by Burton Phillip Silverman. Charcoal on paper (1982) Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Burton Silverman

Kenneth Bancroft Clark by Burton Phillip Silverman. Charcoal on paper (1982)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Burton Silverman

Dr. Clark is best known for his psychology experiments colloquially known as “doll tests.” He and his wife, Dr. Mamie Clark used four dolls, identical except for their color, to test kids’ racial perceptions. Children ages 3-7 were asked to identify the dolls and express preference. The majority of the children preferred the white doll, assigning positive characteristics to it and negative characteristics to the darker doll, deemed undesirable.

These tests were prominently cited in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas as evidence of the psychological effects of racial segregation on Black children’s self-esteem. It was one of the first times social science research was used in legal proceedings (Méndez vs. Westminster also drew on social science research). Less cited conclusions from the Drs. Clark’s “doll tests” included that racism is an inherently American institution and that school segregation also hindered the development of white children. Given the news that U.S. schools are re-segregating, these lessons are more important than ever.

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More about the Washington D.C.’s connection to Panama, the Panama Canal Zone, and this story of Kenneth Bancroft Clark can be seen in the exhibition Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama to Washington DC in the Anacostia Community Museum Program Room. It is up indefinitely.

Latino-centered struggles for Civil Rights and Social Justice will be part of the upcoming exhibition Gateways. Opening December 2016,  Gateways explores the triumphs and struggles of Latino migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC

The Queen City: Poetry, Patriots, & Family Separation

Charlotte, North Carolina. The Queen City.

A major emerging immigrant center. One of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. A minority majority city. A city with a rapidly growing Latino community. It is one of the cities that will be highlighted in an upcoming exhibition, Gateways.

North Carolina led the nation in Latino population growth in the 1990s with a nearly 400% increase in its Latino population. Initial Latino immigrants and migrants were largely working class but those numbers have since shifted to include more professionals as the population of Latinos continues to grow.

A Family enjoying the annual Hola Charlotte Festival in uptown Charlotte, NC Photo by Susana Raab Anacostia Community Museum Smithsonian Institution

A Family enjoying the annual Hola Charlotte Festival in uptown Charlotte, NC
Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

To help the city deal with rapidly shifting demographics, the city of Charlotte created an Immigrant Integration Task Force in 2013. This group, appointed by the city, explores ways to make Charlotte more immigrant friendly and integrative. Though the task force and national news reports focus on the entrepreneurial integration of immigrants and economic impact, Gateways will begin conversations of community integration at more basic levels.

Housing. Education. Safety. Family.

Family units have been separated by policies such as Secure Streets and Secure Communities that provide overlapping authority between local law enforcement and federal immigration agencies. Between 2009 and 2016 more than 2.5 million people were deported. Earlier in 2016, raids by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) focused on Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

What does this look like? What does this mean? How do we stop seeing policy and instead focus on people?

Words are powerful emotive tools.
In celebration of April as National Poetry Month, I share this work by Gateways collaborator Herrison Chicas, a UNC graduate who spoke at TedX Charlotte in 2014

 

Gateways, opening in December 2016, explores the triumphs and struggles of Latino migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC.

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

 

48th Celebrating Family Community Festival at the Anacostia Community Museum

Rain did not stop over 600 people from attending the Anacostia Community Museum’s Fall Family Day on September 12, 2015.  This year’s theme was Celebrating Cultural Diversity. To that end, we found stilt-walkers, Irish dancers, steel drum players, African story tellers and Panamanian folk dancers mingling, dancing, performing, and playing together as you can see below.

 

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Polleras were swinging in the Anacostia Community Museum program room where a traditional Panamanian Dance group, Danzas y Ritmos captivated the audience.

Chef Joel was on hand from Martha's Table to show how to prepare delicious affordable food.

Chef Joel was on hand from Martha’s Table to show how to prepare delicious affordable food.

Nathan Gillmeister enjoyed the attentions of an older woman, Irish step dancer, Audrey Liberta.

Nathan Gillmeister enjoyed the attentions of an older woman, Irish step dancer, Audrey Liberta.

 

A young pirate steals the show.

A young pirate steals the show.

An African storyteller draws on the crowd to act out her tales.

An African storyteller draws on the crowd to act out her tales.

Pan Lara steel drummers livened up the program midday.

Pan Lara steel drummers livened up the program midday.

Plenty of arts and crafts kept the kids occupied.

Plenty of arts and crafts kept the kids occupied.

 

Irish dancing.

Irish dancing.

A henna artist drew on participants.

A henna artist drew on participants.

Members of the Massachusetts 54th Voluntary Infantry Regiment B were on hand to provide some context to the exhibit Washington during the Civil War.

Members of the Massachusetts 54th Voluntary Infantry Regiment B were on hand to provide some context to the exhibit Washington during the Civil War.

A rousing final from the Broeslin School of Irish Dance

A rousing final from the Broeslin School of Irish Dance

The crowd enjoyed the diverse entertainment.

The crowd enjoyed the diverse entertainment.

The polleras, the colorful dresses worn by Panamanian dancers brightened up a rainy day.

The polleras, the colorful dresses worn by Panamanian dancers brightened up a rainy day.

My Smithsonian Experience by Lucy Platten

 

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Lucy Platten assisting with the arrangement of photographs from the Dale/Patterson Family collection.

 

My Smithsonian experience has been unbelievable; I have gained skills I thought I would never know, met people who have changed the way I see things and had the most remarkable time becoming more and more independent. I feel that this experience has been life altering to me, as of 2 years ago I would have never have had the courage to fly to America and volunteer at the Smithsonian, and now that I’ve done it, I can’t see myself working anywhere else.

In my week of volunteering at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, I assisted Jennifer Morris, the museum’s archivist.  She introduced me to several aspects of the archival profession. I helped with the arrangement and description of the Dale/Patterson Family collection which documents the lives of  two families who settled in the Hillsdale, Anacostia area of Washington, DC in 1892.  Ms. Morris also trained me on Archivists’ Toolkit an archival data management system.  I  attended meetings and received a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archive Center at the National Museum of American Indian.   Jennifer was hard-working and kind-hearted and I enjoyed so much helping her, she aided me to learn as much as my 16 year old brain could hold.

At the museum I finally met the lady who answered my very first email offering me a placement at the Anacostia, Shelia Parker. It was wonderful to finally put a face to the name and she turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. All the people at the museum welcomed me with open arms and wide smiles, I never at any point felt unwelcome or un-wanted; I even had an ongoing comical conversation with one of the guards about my stupid need to get a cab everywhere, when he insists to use Uber.

In the museum, I saw two enormously interesting exhibits first, How the Civil War Changed Washington for which I now know about Washington’s tragic Arsenal event of 1864, where 29 women were working when a colossal fire broke out killing 3 instantly and leaving 18 to die from vicious burns. Second, I learned about Panamanian immigration to Washington, DC from the Bridging the Americas exhibition.

In England I will be starting college this September, studying History Early Modern, English Literature, Psychology and Archeology. I hope that after college, when I turn 18, I can obtain an internship at the Smithsonian giving me the opportunity to be able to come back to DC and gain even more skills and meet even more generous and wholehearted people. There are a lot of people I need to thank, such as, Shelia Parker for answering an annoying English girl’s email, Jennifer Morris who taught me so much and created the best experience I could ever imagine and my family who’s financial and loving support got me to Washington, DC to make memories and start the journey to my, hopeful, aspiring future.

All that I can do now is to work hard and never lose sight of my dream to return to Washington, DC and work at a Smithsonian Museum!

Lucy Platten

Volunteer, summer 2015

The Art of Words by Sergio Gonzalez 2015 Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow

This summer I was honored to host Sergio as my summer fellow. He was exceptionally organized, curious, and thoughtful. I am excited to witness his future accomplishments. Below is a small sample of what he worked on and worked through during his weeks as a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow at the Anacostia Community Museum. – Ariana Curtis, curator

By Sergio M. González/ Summer 2015

This summer, my charge as a fellow with the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies Program (LMSP) has been to assist in increasing the representation, documentation, and research of Latino art, culture, and history throughout the museum’s many units. My field placement at the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) has offered me the opportunity to work in a museum in the process of redefining its own mission, as it expands its purview to include the representation of Latino communities. Working with Ariana Curtis, ACM’s first curator of Latino Studies, I’ve spent most of my practicum experience surveying the museum’s permanent collections in search of ties to Latin America and Latino communities specifically, but immigration more broadly.

Through my survey of the ACM’s collections, I came across a Cuban refugee boat, an artifact whose publicly accessible provenance is unclear.

Cuban refugee boat as displayed in the exhibition Black Mosaic: Race, Color and Ethnicity Among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC.  Smithsonian Institution, Anacostia Community Museum Collections

Cuban refugee boat as displayed in the exhibition Black Mosaic: Race, Color and Ethnicity Among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC

I decided to commit some of my practicum experience to researching the object and rewriting the description, as it seemed to meet the criteria of being “current, compelling, and connected,” three C’s that help guide ACM’s mission.

I began researching and writing a new description to accompany the image of the boat on the Smithsonian’s website. I asked myself how, as a historian, I might convey the significance of this object and place it within a broader historical context. How, as a storyteller, might I engage my audience with vivid descriptions of the hazards that Cuban migrants confront on their ninety-mile voyage between Cuban and Floridian shores? My initial instincts for writing the description relied upon the writing of museum educator Larry Borowsky, who asks curators to pose three questions as they craft a narrative arc in their writing for museumgoers:

  • Does it create an air of suspense and/or tension?
  • Does it trace a journey through time and/or distance?
  • Does it encourage the reader to suspend disbelief?

In my first attempts to write what I considered to be an “effective” description, I hewed closely to my disciplinary training as a historian, and soon found myself writing more of a narrative than a collections description. My first draft of the collection description read more like an exhibition label than an object description that might accompany the boat in a collections search. The need for brevity within a collection description was a new concept for me – my dissertation-writing style would need to be scaled back. I wanted to include multiple political perspectives since this object interacts with contemporary political events. However, that muddied the delivery of pertinent historical facts that would place the boat in research context.

After meeting with Ariana and discussing the differences between a collections description and a museum tag, I decided to split the labor in half. First, I rewrote the description, focusing on conveying a clearer curatorial voice and sticking closer to the most important facts:

Some Cuban emigrants construct vessels like the one seen here from miscellaneous materials including discarded wood, sets of tires, and even converted taxis and trucks to travel the 90 miles from Cuba to the U.S. Known as balseros, rafters, or boatpeople, the largest single group of 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel to the U.S. in 1980. Between 1959 (Cuban Revolution) and the Mariel boatlift of 1980, 500,000 Cuban immigrants entered the United States.

Cubans have unique immigration laws, including the Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act granted permanent resident status to any Cuban that had immigrated to the U.S. after January 1, 1959 and had lived in the U.S. for at least two years (reduced to one year in 1976). The 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, popularly known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, allows Cuban migrants that reach U.S. land to stay, whereas those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba.

According to their public website, the Miami-based non-profit organization Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), founded in 1991, has rescued more than 4,200 Cuban refugees attempting to enter U.S.

Next, I turned to writing a museum tag under one hundred words that might accompany the Cuban refugee boat in an exhibit. I’ve imagined the boat as a part of a larger exhibit detailing Cuban immigration experiences to the United States in the twentieth century. As part of a full exhibit, much of the corroborating information not necessarily tied to this specific boat in the collections description above will be include in museum tags that would accompany other artifacts or images.

Between 1959 and 1994, more than 70,000 Cuban citizens fled their country for the United States in balsas (rafts) like the one seen here. Facing the 90 miles of treacherous water that separate Cuba and the Florida coast, balseros (rafters) constructed makeshift boats and homemade rafts out a number of materials, including scrap pieces of wood, discarded tires, and even converted taxis.

Sergio M. González is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2015 Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow.

 

Sergio Gonzalez poses at the Anacostia Community Museum at the completion of his fellowship

Sergio Gonzalez poses at the Anacostia Community Museum at the completion of his fellowship

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.

June is Caribbean-American Heritage Month!

 

Caribbean Americans, like all immigrant groups, have made profound contributions to the U.S. The diversity of Caribbean people is seen through language, religion, race, and traditions. The Anacostia Community Museum collection includes works done in and about the Caribbean as well as work from and about notable Caribbean Americans.

It is this same diversity that has drawn many artists and scholars from the U.S. To the Caribbean. Our collection includes prints from my fellow Duke alum, U.S. born  Titus Brooks Heagins, who documented people of color throughout the world including the Carolinas, Belize, and with extensive work in the Caribbean nations of Cuba and Haiti.

This drawing, “Untitled,” is from famous Harlem Renaissance artist Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005).

Untitled by Ernest Crichlow charcoal, cardboard

Untitled by Ernest Crichlow
drawing: charcoal, cardboard , Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Collection

 

Although often referred to as an African-American artist, Crichlow is a Brooklyn born child of Bajan immigrants. That is not to say ‘African-American’ is an inaccurate identifier for him or his work; it is simply incomplete.

A strength of the Anacostia Community Museum’s collection is making international and national connections to everyday life in the D.C. area community. A perhaps lesser known but no less remarkable person in the ACM collection is Jamaican born Percival Bryant.

Bryant left Jamaica at the age of 18. He went first to New York, then, after 5 years, moved to Washington, D.C. where he settled east of the River in NE DC. He lived in DC until his death on January 27, 1996, just two days after his 90th birthday. Finding Aid for Pervical Bryant Collection

Percival Bryant poses with golf clubs in 1948. Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Percival Bryant poses with golf clubs in 1948. Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Percival Bryant holding a baby, circa 1951. Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Percival Bryant holding a baby, circa 1951. Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

 

One of his first jobs in D.C. was as a driver for Attorney General Homer Cummings. Of the many jewels in this collection, his autograph book from his time as a taxi-cab driver holds over 160,000 signatures from his passengers!

Percival Bryan Autograph Albums, 1941 - 1993, Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Percival Bryant Autograph Albums, 1941 – 1993, Percival Bryant Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives

 

Happy Caribbean-American Heritage Month from the Anacostia Community Museum!

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About Caribbean-American Heritage Month from: http://www.caribbeanamericanmonth.org

In June 2005, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted H. Con. Res. 71, sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, recognizing the significance of Caribbean people and their descendants in the history and culture of the United States. On February 14, 2006, the resolution similarly passed the Senate, culminating a two-year, bipartisan and bicameral effort.

Since the declaration, the White House has issued an annual proclamation recognizing June as Caribbean-American Heritage Month…

The social construction of race, the “street” level reality of race

Dr. Nancy López, Co-founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice, housed in the RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, traveled to D.C. as a guest speaker for the Smithsonian.

Dr. Nancy Lopez speaking at the Smithsonian on February 19, 2015

Dr. Nancy Lopez speaking at the Smithsonian on February 19, 2015

 

Her talk, “What’s your “Street Race-Gender”? draws attention to the ways in which we can self-identify on forms versus how we are treated on the street based on how we look/how others see us and ties the racial and ethnic data compiled from the census data to its uses in Civil Rights legislation.

Dr. López proposes the concept of  “street race-gender” , meaning your race or gender as viewed on the street, as a practical and innovative use-inspired measure that can be used to monitor and enforce Civil Rights legislation and advance equity-based policy research and practice that has to potential to capture the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of urban communities in the U.S. and beyond.

I invite all that are thinking about interpretations of race, ethnicity, racial performance, self-representation, identity, and group identification to watch her powerful presentation below.

 

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