In the Washington metropolitan area, we are blessed with many streams and rivers. Two prominent rivers surround and define Washington, DC, the nation’s capital: the Potomac on the west side of the city, well-known, highly regarded, often mentioned in tourist descriptions of Washington; and, on the east side of the city, the Anacostia (also known historically as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac), but for political and historical reasons, little-known, hardly mentioned as a city amenity, and often regarded as the city’s backdoor and sewer conduit. The Anacostia is also a key part of the city’s social and racial ecology.
In many ways the Anacostia River has been the poster child for urban waterways and their associated populations that have been neglected, forgotten, and environmentally mistreated. But now we are taking charge and taking better care of the Anacostia. The Washington metropolitan area encompasses nearly 5.6 million residents with more than 600,000 persons in the District of Columbia alone. We are becoming more and more aware of how important a healthy Anacostia River is to the well-being of this region.
Our cities and towns are situated along rivers and streams. Often these waterways mark the geographic boundaries and set the physical identity for the places where we live and work. We expect our rivers to be streams of fresh, flowing water. We look for natural beauty along the riversides, with birds wheeling overhead, fish swimming and jumping in the waters, and lovely flowers and trees along the riverbanks. We think our urban waterways will provide peace and solitude in the midst of our hectic daily lives in the already big—and in the still developing—cities that we call “home.”
It’s Our River.
We fish for perch and catfish and sometimes eat the fish, but most of the time we throw them back. We boat and paddle, in yachts, canoes, and kayaks, and we race in dragon boats and racing sculls. We go bird watching, and we seek out special flowers and orchids along the shore. We bike and hike and sit and meditate along the banks this river. The river calls us, and, guided by the river’s spirit, we commune with nature in the midst of urban hustle and bustle.
Festivals are wonderful ways to bring people together in celebration and recreation. While great strides had been made in cleaning up the Potomac River, then-Mayor Marion Barry saw the Anacostia River as the great social divide in Washington. In 1984 he inaugurated an annual river festival to get people from all walks of life to come down to the water and see the potential of the Washington riverfronts along the Potomac and the Anacostia.
Since that time, the river fest idea has evolved into the development of a park-like venue near the baseball stadium, “The Yards Park,” and a schedule that includes river clean-up celebrations, the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival, and the Anacostia River Jazz Festival sponsored by the National Park Service. During the course of the year the Anacostia waterfront at the “Yards” plays host to numerous ethnic festivals such as the Global Nepal Fest and art shows and contests along the riverfront. All of these activities help the District celebrate in many ways the revitalization of the Anacostia River.
Boating on the river has become increasingly popular. This recreational use provides a marvelous opportunity to learn respect for nature and the river and to value the river as a celebrated place. On the Anacostia, the Seafarers Yacht Club and the Capital Rowing Club have been instrumental in helping to develop public awareness of the Anacostia River as a place for kayaking, rowing, and pleasure-boating.
On summer evenings the Anacostia Community Boathouse is awash with dozens of groups of rowers, young and old, who come to test their mettle on the river. Local interest in canoeing on the Anacostia River brings people out in the late spring and summer to the Anacostia Watershed Society’s “Paddle Nights.” As anyone who has ventured forth on the river in a canoe will tell you, the Anacostia is a waterway of exceptional beauty teaming with birdlife and other animals.
The canoe has been a major medium of transport and commerce throughout human history. In North America native peoples, then European explorers, settlers, fur traders, and missionaries, used the canoe to carry goods and people far and wide in all kinds of weather and conditions.
Kayaking is a popular recreational exercise and sport. Participants paddle in closed deck boats as they sit forward and move the boat with a paddle that has a blade on each end.
Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling (OARS)
Robert “Coach” Day began the Organization for Anacostia Rowing and Sculling (OARS) in 1988 to bring crew (rowing as a sport and recreation) to underserved teens from local high schools and at-risk youth along the Anacostia River. On the original site of OARS, ten (10) member rowing clubs and four (4) high school crews now call the Anacostia Community Boathouse home base.
Anacostia Invitational Regatta
In May 1992 OARS initiated the Anacostia Invitational Regatta; community activist Carl Cole made the banner and named the first single rowing scull donated to OARS. The scull is the Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson, Sr., named for a former Anacostia resident, who was the third president of Tuskegee Institute (now University) and the uncle of local historian Dianne Dale.
Seafarers Yacht Club
Since 1945 the Seafarers Yacht Club has been an African American presence on the river. In addition to encouraging boating on the Anacostia, the club, considered the oldest black yacht club on the East Coast (if not in America), has been a pioneer in cleaning up 150 tons of debris along the river’s shore line. Seafarers also participate in community projects like financial aid to distressed flood victims and baskets of food for the poor at Christmas time.
Dragon Boat Paddle
DC Dragons, the adult dragon boat team of the National Capital Area Women’s Paddling Association, practices out of the Anacostia Community Boathouse on the Anacostia River. Dragon boat racing is an increasingly popular international sport, with 20 paddlers in 10 rows facing front, a drummer to set the pace, and a steersperson to navigate.
Gabe Horchler, a law librarian at the Library of Congress, regularly commutes to work via the river: “Why not commute by boat, I thought . . . in less than one hour in my rowing shell? . . . March through November, my routine has been to bicycle from our home in Cheverly [Maryland] to the Bladensburg waterfront, row my boat to the Anacostia Community Boathouse adjacent to the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge, and then ride my second bike the 1.5 miles to the Library of Congress.”
Jon boat (or johnboat)
A jon boat is a small, flat-bottomed boat with square ends, made of aluminum or wood and suitable for use on calm bodies of water, especially on urban waterways. Jon boats are favored by fishermen and hunters.
We are becoming more aware of how important a healthy Anacostia River is to the well-being of this region are taking charge and taking better care of the Anacostia. Locally, in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, ordinary residents—along with more than 50 advocacy groups, governmental agencies, and other stakeholders—are reaching out to neighborhoods and organizing to clean up urban rivers and streams. These communities strive to achieve the goals of swimmable, fishable, and sustainable waterways for their cities and citizens—goals common to urban situations everywhere. To achieve a cleaner and more useful river we have to expect that District and Maryland governments will enact new laws to address stormwater pollution from private properties currently under real estate development.
Restoration efforts on the Anacostia River have been piecemeal so far without a coordinating authority with resources and legal strength to prioritize actions across political boundaries. Many of the river’s toxics (chemicals, poisons, and other pollutants) are “fixed” in the streambed of the Anacostia River as part of the river soil and cannot be easily removed from the river and its waters. The Environmental Protection Agency alone cannot compel cities and companies to clean up “legacy toxics.” Successful cleanup of legacy toxics will require broad-based community efforts and continuing scientific research.
Our exhibition, Reclaiming the Edge- Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement, dealt with issues affecting waterways throughout the world, as well as in our own backyard. The primary themes covered in the exhibition were as follows:\
Issues of densely populated watersheds: The Anacostia River is one of the most densely populated watersheds in the country with major problems arising from upriver communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. The exhibition addressed issues and impacts that have turned rivers from pristine waterways of fresh water into rank sewers creating challenges for public health.
Urban waterways and diverse populations: In our research, we found, rivers often become belts or barriers of racial and ethnic segregation. Pollution and industrial development of riverfronts has historically had a disproportionate negative impact on poor and ethnically diverse populations. The exhibition explored the impacts urban wastershed neglect has had on minority and low income populations.
National rivers and urban development: The exhibition showcased new experiences in city planning and building, specifically in waterfront development along rivers in Pittsburg, Louisville, Los Angeles, London and Shanghai. These cities have all worked to restore their waterfronts as places of congregation and recreation. By using these waterfronts as models, the vision of a rehabilitated Anacostia River then can become a reality.
Development and river ecology: This theme explored human attempts to tame or engineer urban rivers through the mechanisms of state power and planning, risk assessment, and zoning. It also assessed the role the river plays in wildness and an environmental “place” within the urban experience.
Water plays an integral role in our spiritual lives. It serves as a purifier to prepare the worshipper and sacred space for communion with a higher power. It anoints the believer as he prepares for his final journey. For some, water serves as a manifestation of the divine worthy of reverence itself. Despite the varied ways in which we incorporate water into our beliefs and expressions of faith, the common trait shared by various faiths is an instinctual understanding of the sanctity of water and other aspects of the natural world.
As communities face the issues in the growing debates and battles over the definitions and practices of environmentalism, the responsibilities and rights of residents, and the practicalities of creating healthy, sustainable neighborhoods, towns, and cities, the role of faith communities has come into focus.
What is our obligation to the natural word? Do we have dominion, or are we meant to be stewards? How can faith communities who have had a role as the leading moral forces in our communities make their environmental messages blend seamlessly into their moral teachings? Are faith communities an under-tapped source of authority in the efforts to “green” our communities?
The contributors to this issue have taken the teachings of their faiths and used them as a source of authority to participate in the movement for healthier communities, economic and social justice, and the reclamation of a natural world in which residents can find
a source of renewal and pride. For some it requires reigniting a lost reverence for the natural world that has been lost, while others find themselves awakening the members of their faith communities to their roles as caretakers. Regardless of the ways in which faith communities help to lead the fight for environmental protection and change, the possible futures remain the same: global communities in which residents are leading healthy lives.
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.
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!
[The following essay served as the basis and notes for a talk I gave at a session of the 2012 meeting of the Textile Society of America held at the Anacostia Community Museum. Along with conservator Newbold Richardson I discussed this quilt from the museum’s collection from a somewhat longer, material-focused perspective.]
Today I’m going to be talking about the quilt you see here to my right/left. Made of handkerchiefs printed with nursery rhymes, this quilt is a nice narrative piece in our small quilt and textile collection. Of note in the quilt is the inclusion among the familiar mother goose rhymes is a full color, full representation of the rhyme, “the ten little niggers.” As an aside, I’m not really comfortable repeating this over the course of the paper, so at the risk of using a euphemism to conceal this vile little poem, I’m going to occasionally refer to it as the nursery rhyme throughout this paper.
This quilt was donated to us in 2002 by Jo Anne and Dr. Barrett Burka. This one has the handy application of a signature, we know that it was a Christmas gift in 1878 to a young man named Howard from his Auntie. The handkerchief literature tells us that these hankies were frequently gifts for children as rewards for having behaved well-Howard must have been the best kid in the family.
A note on the back of the deed of gift generated in 2002 gives a thin provenance for the item. This quilt was, apparently, owned by a famous white author, a lady from McClean, Virginia and was purchased by the Burkas at an estate sale in the early 1990s for a not-insignificant amount of money. Of British origin, the quilt was donated to the collection because of it’s notably blythe use of racist imagery. It was donated shortly after the Anacostia Museum’s grand reopening in this building after it had served on the mall for several years as the Smithsonian’s center for African American History and Culture. The quilt was in pretty rough shape when we received it and it underwent conservation treatment later that year.
With this paper I will not be discussing the materiality of the quilt – something surely to be examined and interesting, but not my focus – so much as an unpacking of the situation of this item in a global world. The nursery rhyme “the ten little niggers,” offers us a jarring entry into the intermingled creation and application of race and racism in the Atlantic world in the 19th century. In this item we see the confluence of the emergence of Victorian racism with the florescence of children’s literature.
This quilt, using American racist discourse – soon to be adapted to the British control in India – probably using American or Egyptian cotton, sits in a space in which the invented fixities of race were being provisionally applied to global empires.
In this paper I will examine the history of race and racism between the US and Britain and its coincidence with colonial economies. I’ll then turn to the nursery rhyme and its fluid and ambiguous relationships to American and English racism and popular culture.