Tag Archives: Black Mosaic

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.


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

Curator’s Choice: Photos that make you feel

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
― Ansel Adams

A woman in a pollera and tembleques at a Latin American Festival in Washington, D.C. Anacostia Community Museum Black Mosaic archives. Photographer: Harold Dorwin
A woman in a pollera and tembleques at a Latin American Festival in Washington, D.C. Black Mosaic Collection, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Photographer: Harold Dorwin

This woman de la tercera edad, as we would say in Spanish, is a quiet representation of pride.  In her pollera, the national costume of Panama, with her gold hair pieces and tembleques, the white hair ornaments, she is intently working on another hair adornment, seemingly unperturbed by the men around her in t-shirts. She isn’t in Panama. She is in Washington, D.C.

The first time I saw this picture in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, I felt.

As the opening quotation alludes, every viewer brings something unique to the photographs they view. Viewing pictures is not passive; it is an active interpretation. Sometimes we can articulate why we like an image or why we do not. But other times, images just touch you.  They simply make you feel.

This picture touched me for various personal reasons, related to the quotation by Ansel Adams.  Of the thousands of pictures in the Black Mosaic archives, this image would of course catch my attention.

I look at this, as you do, through multiple lenses. For example:  as a woman, the daughter of a Panamanian father, someone that was very close to my grandmothers, someone who works directly in visual representation, as an anthropologist concerned with the politics of the quotidian, as a scholar that studies international representation in U.S. spaces, as someone that loves polleras… the reasons I am drawn to this image are countless.

Often times, nation and pride are visually represented by flags and/or children.  This picture has neither. And yet, to me, perhaps because of what I’ve seen, read, the music I’ve heard and the people I’ve loved, this is a strong and sweet representation of love, nation, and pride.

*This image will be included in the upcoming exhibition: Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama < — > Washington, D.C. , opening at the Anacostia Community Museum in April 2015.

On being Black in the U.S.: Community Stories from the ACM Archives

A Washington, D.C. police officer and members of the Latino community in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.,  Black Mosaic Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution 

In 1991 Washington, D.C. experienced its own civil unrest – the Mt. Pleasant riots.  In the wake of those riots, the Anacostia Community Museum, at that time the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum,  was undertaking a research project about Black Immigrants in the DC metro area.   The exhibition that came from that researchBlack Mosaic: community, race, and ethnicity among Black immigrants in Washington, D. C.  opened at the Museum in August of 1994.

One of the largest treasures of the Black Mosaic collection is the trove of oral histories, collected by community members. The range of stories talks about perception of the U.S. before coming, arrival to the U.S., arrival to Washington, D.C, building community, barriers to community acceptance, struggle, triumph, pain and joy.

During the research phase, the DC metro area was still very much healing from racial tensions, from distrust between the community and the police.  The oral histories reference this tense time in D.C. history, but also offer reflections of community members on the issues of race, Americanness, Blackness, community and identity.

In light of recent national events, I share these three small oral history excerpts from the Black Mosaic archives for your reflection and comment.

 I remember when Mr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I basically lost almost all of my black friends—they suddenly decided that I was the enemy because I had white skin. I felt terrible about that, especially being a member of another minority group [Latino] that was always discriminated against. However, I understand that people are embittered by their experiences.

I remember being in the playground of St. Joseph Catholic School and a child came up to me and said, ‘I feel sorry for you.’ I never forgot that because for a long time I couldn’t understand why it was she felt sorry for me. And then I recognized that it was because of the fact that I was black and it really hit me. I gained an understanding of what that means, in the context of this country, that I just never had, even though I was very well aware in the Dominican Republic and In St. Thomas that I was black … I was never made to feel when I was growing up in the Dominican Republic that I was less than a human being because of my color.

To be true to yourself means you have to follow your pain. And so that when you come on pain, you have to re-explore it and get to root of where that pain is coming from. And so that it meant for me following my pain, or society pains around my blackness, because there IS pain around being black! Here! And I followed that pain, in other words, I kept dealing and dealing with that. And there is pain about being Latina, and there is certainly pain about being a woman! And so I followed that pain and that has made it possible for me to be true to myself. I’m not going to be anything than what I am. I am going to enrich what I am! I’m going to enhance what I am! But I’m never going to be anything but a woman, I’m never going to be anything but black, and I am Latina. And so being true to that identity, and going through the process that it takes to polish that identity, is the greatest thing that I’ve learned.