Category Archives: Community History

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Douglass Dwellings: Collection Spotlight

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Tom Thumb wedding at the Frederick Douglass Recreation Center. Frederick Douglass Dwellings Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of members of the Southeast Voices.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives recently acquired two collections donated by Southeast Voices relating to the Frederick Douglass housing projects: Henry Bazemore Collection of Frederick Douglass Dwellings Photographs and the Frederick Douglass Dwellings Collection. The Douglass Dwellings were built in Southeast Washington, D.C., as World War II-era temporary housing for African American workers. Celebrated African American architect Hilyard R. Robinson designed the complex, and renowned photographer Gordon Parks documented the community for the Farm Security Administration.

Both collections contain photographs of social activities in the community sponsored by the local recreation center. Among the charming activities for the children were “Tom Thumb Weddings,” where children played the roles of bride, groom, minister, wedding party, and guest. Other activities documented in the collections are dance recitals, sporting events, hobby shows, and the annual soap box derby. The images challenge perceptions of life in public housing during the 1940s by illustrating the positive aspects of life in the projects.

This entry originally posted on the Smithsonian Collections Blog on Friday, April 23, 2010.

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In 2009 members of Southeast Voices gather at the Anacostia Community Museum to share old pictures including “Tom Thumb Wedding” images, and photos of family and community. They also attend a workshop on the Preservation of Photographs and participate in video interviews. Photograph by Henry Bazemore.

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting Black Mosaic

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Installation shot of Black Mosaic exhibition. The groundbreaking show was organized by the Anacostia Community Museum and held there from August 21, 1994 to August 7, 1995.

For our very first throwback, an installation shot of Black Mosaic: Community, Race, and Ethnicity among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC exhibition.

The exhibition explored the immigration of people of African descent from Central and South America and the Caribbean to the Washignton Metropolitan  area. The show focused on several issues including: Identity; the African Diaspora in the Americas; memories of home; race and color at home; migration/immigration; music;  and community life in Washington.

To view the exhibition and research records from this exhibition contact: ACMarchives@si.edu.

 

 

 

 

Percival Bryan: An Unlikely Autograph Collector

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This image of Bryan was probably taken during Attorney General Cummings golf tournament in 1948.

Percival Bryan was a leading autograph collector from Jamaica who settled in the northeast section of Washington, D.C., east of the Anacostia River.  In 1941 Mr. Bryan became a United States citizen and started his career as a driver.  His interest in collecting autographs began while serving as chauffeur for U. S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings.  F or Bryan, his autograph books provided a record of  the “pulse of the public” and contributed to the nation’s history.

The Percival Bryan collection at the Anacostia Community Museum contains 298 of his autograph books.  Within these books are the signatures of known and unknown individuals, poems, sketches, and a few watercolors.  By the end of his career Bryan was a D.C. cab driver and had collected over 160,000 signatures.  He encouraged everyone from members of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet to participants in the 1963 March on Washington to make their mark in his books.  Bryan even sought the “John Hancock” of everyday passengers in his cab.  You can help us identify the famous and not so famous signatures in Bryan’s collection by transcribing his very first autograph book.  Select the link  below to look inside  and transcribe!

 

 

Urban Change: Panama 4 years later

I am just back from over a week in the beautiful nation of Panama.    It has been four years since I was last there and the changes are astounding (more on that in other posts).

I went with our photographer, Susana Raab, to do photo documentation for the upcoming exhibit Bridging the Americas. The framework for Bridging the Americas is the relationship between the nations of Panama and the United States. The Panama Canal and the former U.S. territory, The Panama Canal Zone, are literally and figuratively at the center of this bond.

One of the spaces I was most excited for Susana to document was the ascent at Cerro Ancon, or Ancon Hill.

Ancon Hill is the highest point in Panama City. It is home to lush vegetation and wildlife, provides spectacular views of Panama City and the Panama Canal, and has historical significance.

When the U.S. controlled the Panama Canal Zone (1903-1979/1999) multiple levels of U.S. authority existed in and around Cerro Ancon – political, medical, and military. The area held the residence of the U.S. Canal Zone Governor, the U.S.  Gorgas Hospital, and also parts of U.S. Southern Command.

On my first journey to the summit in 2010, I was greeted in route by fellow hikers and the reclamation of public space via nationalist art. I loved them! It felt like the perfect visual goodbye gift on the final day of my research year in Panama.

Here are just a few of the many pictures I took on my ascent in 2010.

cerroancon2 in August 2010
painted bench in Cerro Ancon, August 2010
Photo by Ariana A. Curtis
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painted bench in Cerro Ancon, August 2010
Photo by Ariana A. Curtis
the style looks like Rolo de Sedas
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painted cement block in Cerro Ancon, August 2010
Photo by Ariana A. Curtis
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painted bench in Cerro Ancon, August 2010
“Centro del Mundo, Corazon del Universo”
translation: Center of the World, Heart of the Universe
Photo by Ariana A. Curtis

 

Four short/long years later, the hike up Cerro Ancon was much less colorful.  Gone are the benches formerly painted with Panamanian symbols – ladies in polleras, the Bridge of the Americas, the Panamanian skyline, the gold frog. 

Now the benches are a standard dismal gray. There are small remnants of color and nationalist symbols near the top of the hill like this one:

 

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Rana Dorada (Golden Frog)
Cerro Ancon August 2014
Photo by Susana Raab

 

And though gray the benches,  even on a cloud day in Panama City,  the views of the city, the bridges, and the Panama Canal are still spectacular and well worth the hike!

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Panama City, Panama from Cerro Ancon
August 2014
Photo by Susana Raab
Bridge of the Americas from Cerro Ancon August 2014 Photo by Susana Raab
Bridge of the Americas from Cerro Ancon
August 2014
Photo by Susana Raab

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