As waterways and their environs undergo the process of being restored and deemed valuable in the eyes of a variety of stakeholders, the multitude of their “values” has become apparent as residents and other interested parties seek to define, solidify, and justify their connections and right to these natural resources. How do we utilize them? What roles can the natural world play in our lives? This issue explores education along waterways. Education can be defined as “the process of giving or receiving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” It can also be defined as “an enlightening experience”. As communities look to a future in which equitable access to reclaimed natural resources is one of the foundational pieces to healthy, sustainable communities what kind of educational experience is owed the people living along our urban waterways? Do either of the above definitions suit the task before us or is it a combination of the two?
The contributors of this issue present a variety of models for how our natural resources can be used as an integral part of the transmission of skills and values needed to ensure informed civic engagement in the variety of issues facing communities as they work to create a sense of belonging to and equal access to their natural world. UW Newsletter 9
Joy McLean Bosfield (1924-1991) was a singer, musical director, actress, and musical instructor who performed throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East from the 1940s to the 1980s. Her papers in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, documents Ms. McLean Bosfield’s professional career through photographs, correspondence, programs, and scrapbooks.
Joy was born on January 27, 1924 to John and Florence Mearimore. Her mother, an immigrant from Demerara, Guiana (now part of Guyana), married McLean’s father, a prominent New York businessman, in March of 1923 in New Jersey. Joy lived in Paramus, New Jersey until 1940, when she graduated from Ridgewood High School. During that same year Bosfield was accepted to the prestigious Hunter College, in New York.
On February 26, 1945, McLean Bosfield performed her first recital at St. Martin’s Little Theatre. Three years later in 1948, McLean married Charles McLean, who was originally from British Guyana, and the couple moved to England. She began performing in Europe in the early 1950s, singing soprano leads for productions for the BBC, British churches, and English musical plays. While in London, an American production of Porgy and Bess used her talents during their international tours as a rehearsal accompanist, vocal role coach, and assistant to the musical director.
After returning to the United States in the mid-1950s, Bosfield continue her career as a concert artist. In 1963 she moved to Washington, DC, where she became musical director of John Wesley AME Zion Church. She also worked for the Frederick Wilkerson Studio of Voice as a vocal coach, and managed the studio after the death of Wilkerson until the 1980s.
Retiring and moving to Chapala, Mexico in 1985, Bosfield participated in community theater productions and other community functions there, until her death on April 4, 1999.
Do you want to learn more about Joy McLean Bosfield’s long and distinguished career? You can by helping transcribe her two fragile scrapbooks in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
The Anacostia Community Museum seeks to be a gathering place for important conversations pertaining to urban communities. We devise our public programming and community forums with this goal in mind. This Sunday, September 18, we were pleased to present the work of two local photographers, Becky Harlan and Gabriela Bulisova, both members of the 501C3 non-profit, Women Photojournalists of Washington. Harlan and Bulisova have both been working for many years on the projects they presented.
Harlan’s project “D.C.’s Anacostia River” looks at the history of the Anacostia, from fertile native American fishing ground, to its status as a polluted river, the river keepers who take it upon themselves to maintain a better tributary, and the communities that have formed around the river. Below is a frame taken from her project, more work can be seen on her website here:
Gabriela Bulisova’s work Inside Outside and Convictions examines the lives of returning citizens, the formerly incarcerated, and the families left behind. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, the United States has the largest percentage of incarcerated people in its population in the world. Bulisova spent time getting to know returning citizen groups and the families of the incarcerated, making still photographs and short movies to record their experiences. She shared with us several short films which are accessible below and by going to Bulisova’s website here.
The discussion following the presentations was informed by the presence of several of the returning citizens with whom Bulisova has worked on her projects. They spoke to the administrative limbo many incarcerated DC citizens find themselves in because they are beholden to the laws of the federal system, even as in many states, sentences for many crimes, especially non-violent ones are being commuted or cut short. Because DC is not a state, prisoners find themselves trapped in a federal purgatory where they are literally stateless citizens.
The opportunity to hear an artist discuss her work will always further your understanding of the project. We are pleased at the Anacostia Community Museum to bring these conversations to you and hope you will join us in adding your voice to our community.
Today [June 26, 2016] marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere and the world.”
– Juan Carlos Varela, President of Panama
In this age of increased border policing and nationalism, nothing reminds us of global connectedness like oceans. Also, I will take all opportunities to write about Panama.
Author disclaimer: I love Panama! My father is from there. My family lives there. I did my dissertation fieldwork there. The Smithsonian has a Tropical Research Institute there (STRI). It is constantly among the happiest countries in the world and frankly, it is beautiful!
The defining thing [about Panamanian identity] I would say is the Panama Canal … what else … that is all … we can’t even go any further!” – DC resident from Panama
In August 1914, the Panama Canal opened, revolutionizing global sea traffic. The Canal created a “path between the seas,” joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Ships no longer had to travel all the way around South America. They could now pass through the 50 mile long Canal. Ships traveling the canal connect 160 countries and reach about 1,700 ports worldwide. To date, more than one million ships have passed through the Canal.
The politics and culture of the Panama Canal is a central element — literally and figuratively — of Panama’s national identity and on December 31, 1999 the U.S., who operated the Canal since 1914, turned over full control of the Panama Canal to Panama.
The last time I visited Panama was a research trip 2014 with ACM photographer Susana Raab to document the 100th anniversary of the Canal. During that trip, we visited the Canal expansion project on the Atlantic coast
We also took a partial transit through the Panama Canal. It is a marvel to watch ships being raised and lowered to pass through the locks system of the Canal.
On June 26, 2016 , over a hundred years after the Panama Canal opened, the new locks at the Panama Canal were inaugurated. We are now living in a Post-Panamax or NeoPanamax maritime era! The expansion brought two new sets of locks, Cocolí on the Pacific coast near Panama City and Agua Clara on the Atlantic coast at Colon.
The size of the original canal made it difficult for high-volume Asian shipments to get to the East Coast of the U.S. Post-Panamax ships can reach 1,200 feet long — more than three football fields — and are up to 160 feet wide. The expansion doubles the Canal’s capacity.
So while this feat is certainly worth celebrating, it has global ramification and human costs especially in the U.S.. Canal expansion has meant that ports like Savannah, New York, New Jersey, and Houston among others have invested billions in order to accommodate the larger ships that will pass through the new Canal. Larger ships mean updating ports, and consequently increased road traffic, as more trucks will be needed to transport the increased number of goods. In December of 2014, the Melissa Harris Perry Show discussed some of the environmental concerns of Canal Expansion in New Jersey.
In the coming month, years, and centuries we will all be witness to the Panama Canal’s continued influence on global trade for the U.S. and the world.
The last stop on our Gulf Coast tour was the historic town of Bayou La Batre, made famous by the movie Forrest Gump. Here local activist and former 3rd generation shrimper Paul Nelson leads efforts to improve services for the town which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina when the highest storm surge ever recorded in the area (16 ft), and then again by the BP oil spill, 5 years later.
Mr. Nelson had a prosperous oyster business back in 2005, and a processing plant, the foundation of which is pictured below. No stranger to rebuilding a business, Mr. Nelson restarted his fishing business as a younger man after another disaster, but says of this time, “I am too old to begin again.” Now, the foundation of his oyster processing plant is a home to an RV and trailer, which provide permanent housing for Mr. Nelson’s relatives, 10 years after Katrina first made shore.
We stopped at the local cemetery, where Mr. Nelson’s own stepson is buried. He died at the age of 28 of an unknown health issue. Mr. Nelson has been active in advocating for the disbursement of Katrina/BP funds to help with the health issues he reports all around the Bayou La Batre – Coden communities. He has written passionately on behalf of his family and neighbors, detailing the continuing travails in the community. In a December 2010 letter submitted to ehumanrights.org, he writes:
Coden has never seen so many people pass away in such a short time. My neighbor Delaphine Barber, age 75 lost her home and died from a heart attack about a year after Katrina. Other neighbors who died, trying to survive in the [formaldehyde emitting] FEMA campers, and hoping to see their homes rebuilt were: Sally Dismukes, age 72, died of a heart attack; Tommy Barbour age 56, died of lung cancer; Michael Goleman, age 36 father of two teenage daughters, suicide; Shirley Clark, age 65, complications from a staph infection; Randy Hall, age 45, lung cancer; Nancy Maples, age 57. Most have spouses or children who are still hoping to see their family homes rebuilt. My mother Hilda Nelson died after living in a FEMA camper over a year and hoping for assistance to rebuild the family that never came…
Mr. Nelson locates many of the community’s health problems to after an oil dispersant was sprayed over the Gulf Coast shores in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The dispersant was meant to put the oil on top of the water at the bottom of the ocean.
Today Mr. Nelson continues to advocate on behalf of his beloved Bayou La Batre. The first day we went to see him Mr. Nelson never showed up. He was in the hospital dealing with complications from diabetes and blood clots. Despite his illness, Mr. Nelson insisted we come back the next day, finishing the tour in his modest pre-fabricated home, where Urban Waterways researcher interviewed him for several hours.
All the interviews and audio we collected our available by making an appointment with the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. We encourage you to visit our archives and use our research for your own studies.
Unaware I was at the time, but in making our research trip to Africatown, we were following in the footsteps of acclaimed writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston who visited in 1928 in order to interview the last remaining formerly enslaved man in America, Africatown resident Cudjoe Lewis. Originally born in what is now Benin, Cudjoe Lewis was born Oluale Kossola and captured in his early twenties to be part of the cargo of the Clothilde, the last ship to transport captured Africans to the United States.
You can read more about the lives of the passengers of the Clothilde in the book by author Sylviane Anna Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama. Today, the descendants of Africatowns original settlers are some of the few African Americans who can trace their lineage back to Africa.
Urban Waterways researcher Katrina Lashley and I met with Joe Womack, a local activist in the Africatown community at the old Mobile County Training School, the local high school, where the Africatown historical collection is housed in a cinderblock building used for events called, “The Den.” There the community works to preserve their history and maintain their community, while protecting it from ongoing environmental concerns.
The various displays preserving Africatown’s history, lineage, an individuals are testament to the pride this community takes in sharing their heritage, and the tenuousness with which they have been supported in their efforts to preserve this historical village.
After we interviewed and recorded several residents stories, including Mary Louise Moorer, pictured above, Mr. Womack gave us a tour of the greater Africatown environs. The first stop was the large community garden that Africatown residents use for sustenance.
Nearly every waterway appeared to be flanked by industry: Scott Paper, tank farms, Plank Marketing’s storage tanks holding environmental waste imported from Canada line the shores of the Mobile River near Magazine Point, a part of Africatown. These original tracts of Africatown have been cut off from each other by development, as in the case of the neighborhood of Lewis Quarters. And Africatown is not alone. Uniting with environmental and social justice activists along the coast, Africatown is sharing stories through outlets like Bridge the Gulf, and building awareness for their precarious existence not far from the shores of the Mobile River.
The entrance of Lewis Quarters, built by the descendants of Cudjoe Lewis, is cut off from the rest of Africatown by a meat packing plant and lumber mill, which cause environmental degradation to the immediate environs.
This is just a brief overview of the historic community of Africatown, Alabama, a Gulf Coast community struggling to preserve itself while facing the challenges of industry, development, politics and resources.
Africatown, Alabama was the location of our penultimate stop along the Gulf Coast for this segment of the Urban Waterways Research Project . Africatown, which is also known as AfricaTown USA or Plateau, is located just 3 miles north of downtown Mobile. The origin story of Africatown is inexorably tied to the story of slavery in the U.S. The slave trade had been outlawed in the US in 1808. Just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, a group of wealthy southern landowners wagered a bet that they could defy federal law and import a boat of slaves undetected into the US. Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, financed the last known ship of enslaved Africans, the Clothilde, to Alabama after betting an alleged $100,000 that he would do so undetected.
Meaher lost his bet, but avoided conviction, likely because of the start of the Civil War. The majority of the slaves stayed in the area, first as slaves owned by investors in Meaher’s folly, and later as a free people following the outcome of the Civil War.
They settled on Meaher’s land, designing a community very much like that of their West African homeland, retaining their language, traditions and culture well into the 21st century.
Today, the city of Mobile has built up around Africatown. Access to the Mobile River, including the site where the Clothilde’s passengers first disembarked – a site of historical significance known as Magazine Point, is populated by a tank farm which holds tar oil sands imported from Canada.
According to local activist, Joe Womack, this site is slated to be expanded, and is just one of many afflictions to this area. He reported in the community website, Bridge the Gulf:
Another tragedy occurred when the Africatown Guardians were convinced to let the Alabama Highway Department rebuild The Cochrane Bridge after it had been damaged during a hurricane. Before then the Africatown residents had always resisted efforts to rebuild the bridge. The Highway Department told Africatown they would change the name of the Cochrane Bridge to The Africatown Cochrane Bridge and the residents fell for it.
Today that bridge that used to be about one quarter mile long is now about 2 miles in length and half of Magazine Point had to be destroyed or moved to accommodate this new bridge. That area was next declared a flood zone and now to get a permit to repair older homes, residents must first raise their house to a certain level and most residents can’t afford to do that. Consequently, houses are not being repaired. Miraculously, residents manage to maintain their homes as best they can.
Tragically, during the 1990’s an asphalt company decided to relocate from West Mobile to Magazine Point almost in the middle of the night and without going through all the proper channels. After local resident complained and the newspaper did a story on it, the owner’s comments were,”I didn’t think I needed any permits to relocate in this area”. The business was allowed to continue construction after paying only a small fine and is still polluting the area today.”
Ironically, Magazine Point is also the final resting place of this last shipment of slaves because Africatown’s Cemetery is located in Magazine Point. Their graves face eastward, towards their African homeland.
In my travels throughout the country, I am sometimes dismayed by the disregard given to the decaying reminders of a shameful shared history. I encourage all communities to re-examine their history, and pay homage by preserving the memory and the object that defines our historically significant moments. As George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The community of Africatown represents the resilience and community organizing spirit of a people brought to America against their will, and who survived, adapted, and perhaps thrived, not because of but in spite of (to paraphrase William Faulkner).
This is part one of our Africatown sojourn. To be continued . . . .
A third stop on our tour of the Mississippi/Alabama coast was the small town of Moss Point, Mississippi. A small community with a population less than 20,000 people, Moss Point was hit by the strong eastern side of Hurricane Katrina, when it passed 30 miles east of central New Orleans. Much of Moss Point was flooded or destroyed in one day, by the strong hurricane-force winds which lasted several hours and a storm surge exceeding 20 feet in some areas. You can see some of the devastation at Moss Point in the wake of the hurricane here.
We were coming to tour the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, a part of the National Audubon Society: a non-profit organization focused on promoting conservation and education about birds and wildlife and the habitats that support them. Perched on the watershed of the Pascagoula River, one of the last, large, free-flowing river systems in the contiguous United States, a state of the art green building houses the center. This place is a birder’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds enjoying the ecosystem there.
Mark LaSalle is the Director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Mark is responsible for coordinating the continued development of the Center and expanding Audubon’s educational and citizen science programs in south Mississippi. Mark is a wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.
Mark’s passion for his work is palpable as he shows us around the Center and the many sustainable environmental practices they have implemented. He also saved an original 1930’s boy scout cottage on the center’s site which is used for small group meetings. He was instrumental in helping the community leaders of Turkey Creek protect that body of water from further development.
Together, Audubon and community leaders in Gulfport, Mississippi are protecting Turkey Creek‘s rich cultural and natural history. When LaSalle became director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, 30 miles from Turkey Creek, he brought with him a commitment to the community’s plight. With local activist Derrick Evans, Mark began small with simple events like Creek Sweep focused on getting people into the “creek” to remove decades of debris.
Promotion of the Great Backyard Bird Count and a one-day Biological Inventory of the creek helped to highlight just how special the area was as a refuge for common birds and wildlife and as an important stopover for migrating birds in spring and fall. The value of the site for birds led Audubon and the Mississippi Coast Audubon Society to recognize Turkey Creek as a site on the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail.
“The Turkey Creek community has long recognized Audubon’s role in helping it raise attention about the value of our natural areas for birds and people and for being the first group of naturalists to do so. Being identified on Audubon’s Coastal Birding Trail by Judy Toups, Don McKee and Mark LaSalle, provided a pivotal boost to our credibility and confidence as a place that is important beyond our immediate borders.”– Derrick Evans
Many other organizations have joined forces with the Turkey Creek Community Initiative , established by Derrick in 2003 with a mission “to conserve, restore and utilize the unique cultural, historical and environmental resources of the Turkey Creek community and watershed for education and other socially beneficial purposes.”
I left inspired by the good work that Mark LaSalle and his staff do at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, Mississippi: from preservation to education, advocacy and coalition building, the center is doing good work to preserve the environmental resources for future generations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Urban Waterways researcher Katrina Lashley and I continued our gulf coast exploration with local activist, Mickey Sou, of Asian Americans for Change, an advocacy group that was founded in the vacuum created by Hurricane Katrina, where communities found they needed to organize to facilitate more engagement with officials in the chaos of the post-storm recovery. Mickey Sou was born in Montana, the child of Vietnamese immigrants. He was one month old when his parents relocated to Biloxi.
Many Vietnamese emigrated to the gulf coast following the end of the Vietnam war. Biloxi has a strong Vietnamese community comprised of many of these first and second wave immigrants and their families, who established strong ties in the shrimping community.
The warm waters of the gulf coast provided a good living for fishermen dredging the waters for oysters and shrimp. Hurricane Katrina was devastating, but many were able to go back to making their living after the storm clean-up. The BP oil spill, five years later in 2005 severely compromised the environment and eliminated this livelihood for many. A website, BridgeTheGulfProject.org, gathers the stories of many Gulf Coast residents and depicts the plight of Vietnamese fishermen four years after BP in the entry here.
The gulf coast today is still in recovery from natural and man-made disasters. We hope that you will follow along as we continue to process and go deeper into our research and share with you in their own words, the experiences of these gulf coast residents and their communities.