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Conserving The Ephemeral

This summer we have a wonderful opportunity to work with our colleagues at the Smithsonian Latino Center to undertake a rare and important project, the conservation of a raft used by Cuban balseros in the 1990s – balsero is a term given to thousands of individuals who left Cuba aboard homemade vessels called balsas (rafts).
The raft, constructed of Styrofoam, wood, textiles, and other found materials, measures 78 ½” in length and 34 ¾” in width. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) rescued two men from this raft 35 miles southeast of Miami in July 1992. Humberto Sanchez, a member of Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), acquired the raft from USCG and donated it to the Museum in 1996. For a number of years, the raft has been stored undisturbed inside of a custom-built crate.

Raft before conservation. Object no. 1996.0008.0001. Photograph by Grant Czubinski, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

This spring, we opened the crate to assess the condition of the raft. Given its provenance, construction, and age, signs of use were readily visible on its top and sides. The wooden dowels used to anchor the support rails to the raft’s body were both broken, had shifted over time, and deformed the foam around them. The foam support structure for one of the rails had collapsed and caused a foam fragment to detach from the body. We also found that the textile wrapped around the body had torn and separated from the body in several places.

Before undertaking conservation work, we took stock of the raft’s significance. We knew that its use, history, and symbolism were of paramount importance. The Museum’s intent was not to restore, but rather to stabilize the raft and preserve the human story of its use by two men who fled Cuba during the summer of 1992.

Raft following conservation. Photograph by Steven Pickman.

To stabilize the raft, we chose to repair the dowels supporting the wooden rails and to fill in the foam around them. We also reattached a foam fragment and filled in gaps to avoid further breakage and to better support the railing.  We reattached the textile wrapped around the raft’s body in areas where it risked tearing from the foam and becoming completely detached. These repairs restored the raft to a state where it was stable and solid, but still looks well used.

During the project, we lifted the raft onto two sawhorses to observe its bottom. We discovered wooden planks that are connected to the railings at the top. Evidently, the foam is built onto a makeshift wooden structure that holds everything together, top to bottom, while the textile holds things together around the sides.

Conservator Steven Pickman shows Anacostia Community Museum Collections Manager Miriam Doutriaux areas of interest in the conservation of a raft hand-built by Cubans. Photo by Susana Raab/Anacostia Community Museum/Smithsonian Institution

Following conservation, we built a new storage platform that supports specific areas of the bottom of the raft, to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the newly discovered wooden planks. It will remain stored on the platform until it goes on display.

Now that the conservation is complete, we are moving forward with our next exciting project: 3D scanning and digitization. Stay tuned for future posts, as we work with our Smithsonian colleagues to document it further in the coming weeks!

Elizabeth Chase: Barry Farm/Hillsdale Self-Made Suffragette

Amanda Hergenrather is a writing major at Eastern Mennonite University interning at the Anacostia Community Museum, helping with research for the forthcoming book History of Place: Barry Farm/Hillsdale, a Postbellum African American Community in Washington, DC 1867-1970. Here Amanda tells the story of Elizabeth Chase one of the first settlers in the newly created African American community.

Elizabeth Chase was already free before the Civil War. Later she became an entrepreneur by trade and a suffragette by conviction. Born in the early 1840s, Elizabeth Chase likely led a life of privilege compared to many African American women in her day. Elizabeth’s mother, Caroline Chase, lived in Ward 2 where she and Elizabeth worked as washerwomen. Elizabeth’s two brothers were laborers. It was this work that likely contributed to her ability to purchase land and lumber for the house she would soon construct, east of the Anacostia River, in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. She bought a plot of land in the late 1860s, and by 1871 her newly built home stood on the corner of Elvans and Stanton Roads. Not only did Chase live alone in the home she was able to personally finance, she pursued self-employment all through her life in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. By 1874, she was running a restaurant in Uniontown, until she began a catering business based out of her home in 1884.
To run her businesses, Chase would have had to be proficient in reading, writing, and arithmetic; skills few other African American women could boast at the time. Elizabeth Chase took advantage of the opportunities she had been afforded, but she didn’t stop there. In 1877 Chase joined 33 African American Barry Farm/Hillsdale residents, male and female, including her mother Caroline Chase, in signing a petition penned by Frederick Douglass Jr. in favor of women’s suffrage. Rather than being content with her own good fortune, Chase recognized the need to give all women the autonomy to live their lives as they saw fit; autonomy that could one day be attained through gaining the right to vote. In signing the petition, Elizabeth and Caroline Chase left a mark in history. Even though the right to vote wouldn’t be afforded to American women for nearly half a century, the Chase women helped lay the groundwork that would be instrumental in attaining that right.
We honor the memory of Elizabeth Chase, an entrepreneur, homeowner, and independent suffragette, a most extraordinary and inspirational African American woman of the 19th century.

Elizabeth Chase and her mother Caroline signed this petition to Congress requesting the right to vote for women. Frederick Douglass Jr. and his wife were the first signers.

A Picture of Resolve: Frances Eliza Hall’s Dedication to Her Students in A Newly Established Community East of the Anacostia River

Amanda Hergenrather is a writing major at Eastern Mennonite University interning at the Anacostia Community Museum, helping with research for the forthcoming book: History of Place: Barry Farm/Hillsdale, a Postbellum African American Community in Washington DC, 1867 – 1970. Here Amanda tells the story of the first years of Miss Frances Eliza Hall, a white, missionary teacher in the newly created African American community.

Most of what we know about Frances Eliza Hall as a teacher comes from the monthly reports she kept during her time at Mt. Zion School, where she came to teach midway through her life. Here, Hall began working as a teacher miles away from the comforts of her childhood home in Auburn, NY. Hall, at not quite 40, came to the District an unmarried white women with plans to spend the remainder of her adult life teaching and living in a recently established settlement for newly freed people in Washington, DC. Miss Hall began teaching at the Mt. Zion School in 1867. Her classes started small, and often students were absent, but Hall was positive about the abilities displayed in her students. As time went on, her class sizes grew, no doubt in response to her warm and encouraging teaching style. Hall was fairly radical for a woman of her time. Even if Hall’s church was supportive of her teaching aspirations, as an unmarried, middle-aged woman moving into a community of mostly former slaves, Hall must have had a fair deal of explaining to do to all her friends and family in Auburn, NY. Many must have worried about her safety, but Hall was determined to do what she knew to be right, regardless of the taboo it may have presented to her community. In her time at Mt. Zion School, Frances Hall faced hardships that would have dissuaded less resolved school teachers. Hall was tenacious in her determination to provide an education for the African American children of the Barry Farm/Hillsdale community east of the Anacostia River. She reported that between April and June of 1868, the total amount of students in the first class she taught had increased from 30 to 53, with most students attending regularly. Hall’s hand written reports on her classes each month show her dedication to her students. Though Hall’s June report was positive, and she left for the summer with every intention of returning, come October the Freedman’s Relief Association, which paid Hall’s salary, withdrew its funding, allowing only Hall’s colleague to return to Mt. Zion that year. Thankfully, Hall’s time away from the school was brief, as the Freedman’s Relief Association was persuaded to provide a $20 monthly salary, half what she had been making previously. Hall accepted her old position at half pay, and double the students. During her absence, many students had been sent away “for want of room,” and upon her return the classroom was overflowing once again, with a total of 66 students. It was a trying school year for Hall and her students. In 1869, an outbreak of measles came to the Barry Farm community. In Hall’s monthly report for February, she attributed the “low average attendance compared with enrollment,” to illness among students, which left some out of classes for nearly the entire month. Hall noted that for three days, she herself was too ill to teach. In the next month’s report, Hall notes that a greater part of the month was lost due to her own illness. In June, after returning to health and continuing the semester’s lessons, Hall noted the increase in student attendance, and that the school was filled to repletion, and could scarcely hope to house more students the following year. After her experiences in Mt. Zion School, Hall went to teach at Hillsdale School the second school built at Barry Farm/Hillsdale. One of her students was Georgiana Rose Simpson who would become the second African American woman to obtain a PhD. Hall stayed living in the community after retiring from teaching and nearly until the end of her life. In 1909 she sold her house and moved back to Auburn, NY. She was 82 years old, and would live another 10 years with her brother and his wife. This Women’s History Month we remember Frances Eliza Hall who used her position of privilege as an educated woman with no marital ties to move into a community that some may have considered dangerous, but that she viewed with hope. Frances Eliza Hall left her mark on the lives of the numerous African American children she taught during her time in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. Dedicated and tenacious, she refused to abandon her vocation until she felt her work was done.

The Hills of Anacostia Are Alive…with the Sound of Music

The February birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln inspired the timing of Black History Month. Anacostia Community Museum Collections Researcher Jennifer Sieck goes beyond the birthdays and behind the scenes in the archives:

Abolitionist, activist, ambassador, author . . . All describe Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895), but did you know he was a musician, too? In the photograph below, Douglass’s violin rests beside him as he works at his desk in Anacostia, a neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C.

Douglass in his library
Frederick Douglass in his library at Cedar Hill, 1411 W Street, SE, Washington, DC. Circa 1893. Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

In his three autobiographies, Douglass recalls listening to “tones loud, long, and deep” sung by African Americans with whom he was enslaved.[1] The songs “breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.”[2] He credits these songs with his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.”[3] Biographer James M. Gregory recounts that “while [Douglass was] an exile in Scotland . . . in a despondent mood he saw a violin . . . at a store door, and . . . bought it. He then went home, shut himself up, [and] played for three days until he was in tune himself and again went out into the world—a cheerful man.”[4]

NMAAHC-A2010_26_29_8_1_002
Joseph Douglass with violin, and Frederick Douglass in Boston, MA, May 10, 1894. Photo by Denis Bourdon. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Dr. Charlene Hodges Byrd A2010_26_29_8_1_002

Douglass shared his love of music with his family, especially grandson Joseph, who became a concert violinist. Born in Anacostia in 1869, Joseph Douglass studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and often performed before and after his grandfather’s lectures. They posed for this photo, for example, in Boston, Massachusetts, where Frederick Douglass spoke and Joseph Douglass played at the People’s Church (Methodist Episcopal) on May 10, 1894.[5] It was among the last photographs for which Frederick Douglass sat; he died on February 20, 1895.

Joseph Douglass
Joseph Douglass. Evans-Tibbs Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr. ACM-acma_PH2003.7063.174

Joseph Douglass considered himself a musical ambassador. He toured abroad and in the United States, “particularly throughout the South and in Southern colleges” to reach African American audiences.[6] The renowned Howard University educator also directed community music schools, which provided music education and social services to immigrant families in New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively.

Joseph Douglass lived with his family in the U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C., a neighborhood also called the “Black Broadway” for its thriving arts scene. It was home, for instance, to composer Duke Ellington and opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti (Lillian Evans). The Anacostia Community Museum’s portrait of Joseph Douglass is part of the Evans-Tibbs Collection, named for Lillian Evans and her husband, Roy Tibbs, a music professor at Howard University. Joseph Douglass contracted pneumonia and died at age 66 in 1935.

Did You Know?

  • Frederick Douglass’s violin is on display at his home, Cedar Hill, a National Park Service site approximately one mile from the Anacostia Community Museum.
  • Frederick Douglass taught his son, Frederick Douglass, Jr., and grandson Joseph Douglass to play violin.
  • At age 22, Joseph Douglass performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in collaboration with artists such as poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
  • On February 14, 1896, Joseph Douglass gave a concert to benefit a “home for friendless girls” at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C.
  • Joseph Douglass was the first violinist to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company (1914) and the first African American violinist to tour internationally.
  • Like his famous grandfather, Joseph Douglass appeared regularly at the White House. He gave concerts for Presidents McKinley, [Theodore] Roosevelt, and Taft.[7]

[1] Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. 1892. Boston: De Wolfe and Fiske Co., p. 14.

[2] Douglass, 14.

[3] Douglass, 14.

[4] Gregory, James M. Frederick Douglass, The Orator. Containing an Account of His Life; His Eminent Public Services; His Brilliant Career as Orator; Selections from His Speeches and Writings. 1893. Springfield, Mass.: Willey and Co., p. 211.

[5] Stauffer, John, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. 2015. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American. New York: Liveright Publishing Co., p. 61.

[6] “Joseph Douglass, Abolitionist’s Grandson, Dies.” Baltimore Afro-American, December 14, 1935, p. 22.

[7] “Joseph Douglass, Noted Violinist, Dies.” The Washington Post, December 8, 1935, p. 17.

Processing the Fractious Family Papers

The Anacostia Community Museum offers unpaid internships year-round to students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs who wish to learn and gain professional experience in various fields including archival science. Here, our 2017 summer intern, Shannon Wagner shares her experience processing the Fractious Family papers.

Fractious Family Papers, Blanche Queen Fractious

Fractious Family Papers, Robert Fractious

I spent my internship processing  a collection of papers that document the lives and achievements of several generals of the Fractious family of Washington, DC.

The collection was minimally processed using some suggested guidelines in the archival science article “More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner (2004). The authors suggest a processing strategy that takes less time while focusing on the most important parts of the collection to reduce backlogs and provide faster access to archival collections. Using the museum’s processing guidelines and in accordance with Frederic Millers’ processing suggestions, I removed “metal fasters such as rusting staples. . .” and other harmful elements to the collection. Photocopies and folded papers were flattened, certificates were placed in protective mylar sleeves to prevent tearing or bending, and photographs were separated from papers.

Processing this collection was a great way to enhance my understanding of preserving archival materials and the technical side of archival work, while also learning about  life in the the Anacostia neighborhood in the 1940s and beyond. I found the correspondence in the collection by far the most interesting; it includes over 100 letters written between 1917 and 1948. Most of the letters were written during WWII (1939-1945) between Blanche Queen and her future husband, Robert Fractious.

Fractious Family Papers, bundle of correspondence pre-processing. Photo by  Shannon Wagner.

At the time she wrote the letters, Blanche Queen (Fractious) was approximately 21 years old, and Robert Fractious was serving his third year of duty overseas. The letters reference several pivotal events in the country during the course of WWII. Blanche writes to Robert about the lack of cigarettes in the US in December of 1944, the citizen curfew in March of 1945, and President Roosevelt’s death on April 16, 1945. She states:

“Everybody here is very much broken up about the death of our President. We had Saturday off and I don’t think the US will ever go into complete mourning for any one [sic] else as they did for him. There were no places of amusement open, all the leading chain stores were closed, all the department stores, infact [sic] everything was closed. Sunday was a day of nation wide [sic] memorial services in churches army camps and the radio. All programs of entertainment were completely cut out. The whole thing was indeed the sadest [sic] affair I have ever witnessed. The streets of the White house were so full of people it was almost impossible to pass. Everybody who could went to the processional that took place at 10:00 am on Conn. Ave. That was truly an occasion I have never seen so many people crying in all my life.”

Besides documenting momentous events in her letters, Blance describes daily life and events such as weddings, deaths, church gatherings, and various happenings in the community.

Fractious Family Papers, collection post-processing. Items organized in acid-free folders in archival boxes.  Photo by Shannon Wagner.

The Fractious Family papers offers a wealth of information about the everyday life experiences of Washingtonians during WWII.  The correspondence is fascinating but there are also photographs and other materials in the collection that document family and community life.

I’m happy I had a role in making this collection accessible to the public!

References:

Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner “More Product, Less Process: Revamping TraditionalArchival Processing,” The American Archivist, Vol. 68 (Fall/Winter 2005) : 208–263. http://www.archivists.org/prof-education/pre-readings/IMPLP/AA68.2.MeissnerGreene.pdf

Miller, Fredric. Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990