Friday, February 18, 2011

Black History Month Feature: Jacob Lawrence and the Migration Series

Southern African Americans' Trek From Rural South to Urban North Documented on Canvas

Artist Jacob Lawrence painted the
"Migration of the Negro" series
from 1940-1941
During World War I, many African Americans took up arms to defend their home country despite the fact that their equal participation in its government was severely crippled by southern Jim Crow legislation and Ku Klux Klan led terrorism. When they returned home after the armistice, they justifiably expected that their sacrifices would be rewarded with increased rights and equality. 14.4% of African Americans who served during the war lost their lives, but the bloodshed did not end when the survivors returned home. In 1919, of the 70 African Americans who were lynched, 10 were veterans who had fought to preserve the freedoms of their murderers.1 

These injustices were just one factor sparking the first Great Migration of African American families from their long-time homes in the southern United States to the urban industrial centers of the north. Seeking relief from social and economic repression these migrants sought factory jobs in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, DC. This movement was not undertaken without a great deal of courage and pain. Most black families were leaving the only homes they had ever known for unfamiliar urban spaces. Hopes of greater social equality were soon mitigated by restrictive real estate covenants and hastily replicated Jim Crow-type restrictions, and tensions mounted with recent immigrant populations with whom they for jobs and housing. 

Amidst all of this turmoil, a flourishing of the African American arts scene was in full swing in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. A young artist black artist named Jacob Lawrence had a front-row seat to the Great Migration and its effects. He painted series of panels illustrating the era, including the hardships of sharecropping labor in the south and the violence of race riots in the urban north. The panels, and the captions composed by Lawrence for a studio showing of his work represent a vivid crystallization of memory. Though they are indeed the visions of one individual, they capture the spirit of many, perhaps even better than a photograph.

Lawrence's panels were purchased by the the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. In 1995, the Phillips created an education series based on the panels with a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. The resulting documentary film includes interviews with Jacob Lawrence, and a unique analysis of his striking visual representation of history.

1. Digital History, The Great Migration, University of Houston: 2006,; accessed: 2/17/2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Black History Month Feature: What's In a Name? Profiles of the Trailblazers

Publication Documents the History of DC's Public and Public Charter School Names

The Women of the Dove Foundation has received several grants from the Humanities Council over the last few years to produce a remarkable history of the District's Public and Public Charter School names. Washington, DC has had a substantial African American population since it was founded, and it was one of the first cities to feature publicly funded schools for black students. Because of this unique history, Whats In a Name: Profiles of the Trailblazers, reveals a strikingly deep, multi-layered story.

There are schools all around the country bearing the names of figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Benjamin Franklin, and their DC counterparts are all featured in Women of the Dove's survey, but Washington's schools have also carried the monikers of Benjamin Banneker, Francis Lewis Cardozo, and Alexander Crummell. Women of the Dove has rightly observed the necessity of preserving not only the name, but the person whose words and deeds earned them that memorial.

Most Washingtonians know that Banneker surveyed the original boundary lines of the Capital City, but Banneker was also an inventor, mathematician, astronomer, and is recognized in What's In a Name? as “one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science.” Cardozo was the first African American to hold statewide office when he became the Secretary of State for South Carolina during the Reconstruction era. He later became principal of Washington, DC's Colored Preparatory High school, where he introduced curricula that would transform the school into one of the best for African Americans in the country. Crummell was the son of a slave father and a freeborn mother, who became an eminent educator and clergyman. A professor at Howard University, he founded the American Negro Academy, an organization that encouraged African American scholars and writers to publish and disseminate their works.

Alexander Crummell School in Ivy City, Washington, DC
Recovering the human story behind building names is only one layer of the historical narrative explored by Women of the Dove. Using the names as entre, their publication examines the nuances of Washington's segregated school system, and explores the changes it experienced after the 1954 Bolling v. Sharpe Supreme Court decision that held segregation to be unconstitutional in the federally controlled District of Columbia (Brown v. Board of Education was decided on the the same day). What's in a Name provides a brief history of each school, often characterized by its status as a formerly all-black or all-white, and what happened to it after integration.

The entire publication is available online through the DC Digital Museum. Look up your school, you parents' school, your kids' school; you may be surprised at where the name above the door actually comes from. Read the histories of all the schools to begin to piece together the history of Washington, DC's storied public school system. Let us know what you think. Leave a comment about the publication or about your own experience in DC Public Schools past or present.

For more information on the history of segregated schools in Washington, DC, check out Wide Enough for Our Ambitions, an online exhibit curated by Kim Roberts for last year's Washington, DC Big Read.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Black History Month Feature: The Emergence and Legacy of African American Basketball National Conference (Program Brochure)

Black Basketball Has Strong Roots in the District

Image Source: Tinner Hill Heritage
Dr. Edwin Bancroft Henderson, a native Washingtonian, graduated from Harvard University's School of Physical Training in 1904. Upon his return to the Capital, he became the athletic director for the city's segregated African American school system for which he founded the first school athletic league. Henderson's players met at the 12th Street YMCA founded by Anthony Bowen. Henderson believed that basketball would help African American youth gain a measure of equality by building character and providing a path to higher education. In 1910, Henderson encouraged Howard University to accept his 12th Street YMCA squad as their first varsity basketball team. By the 1940s, largely due to Henderson's extremely competitive and popular athletic league, Washington, DC was widely recognized as the birthplace and hub of black basketball

Henderson's contribution to civil rights was not limited to the basketball court, The Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Henderson's descendants in Farifax, Virginia. The organization's primary mission is to recognize Henderson and Joseph Tinner's fight to deter segregated housing in Fairfax County, and their founding of the precursor organization to the first rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons.

Last year, Tinner Hill applied for a DC Community Heritage Project grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC to help fund a conference on the history of black basketball in the District. The event was held on November 12th , 2010 and featured such notable basketball figures as Earl Lloyd and Dave Bing. The Humanities Council funded the accompanying publication that surveyed the history of E.B. Henderson and his “12th Streeters.” The brochure is part of the DC Digital Museum, and can be viewed here (click on the links in the description).

Check out the informative publication to learn more about Dr. Henderson and black basketball in Washington, DC and let us know your thoughts by commenting on this post.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Can the Humanities Elevate Political Discourse?

The Illinois Humanities Council Debuts Its (Un)Common Good Program Series

The Humanities Council of Washington, DC often uses its programs and grants to provoke meaningful civil discourse between people with opposing viewpoints. During an argument, it is often easy to forget that the opposing party has a unique perspective constructed by their conceptions of history, ethics, philosophy, religious views, and other factors that are informed by the humanities. A discussion that takes such a reality into consideration is likely to meet with more success than one in which opposing sides are blind to perspectives other than their own. This concept is being explored in-depth by our colleagues at the Illinois Humanities Council, the Maryland Humanities Council, and Humanities Washington.

During their (Un)Common Good program series, the IHC will examine the tenor of civil discussion throughout history. They will question whether it is possible for opposing sides to argue without defamatory or violent rhetoric. The project illustrates an important way the humanities can be used to talk about issues at the forefront of public consciousness. 

“We're presenting The (Un)Common Good series because we believe there is an urgent need to re-imagine new ways to discuss issues across ideologies, to model civil debate and dialogue between people who come down on different sides of an issue, and to share information that strives to be unbiased, fact-based, and even-handed. We think that engagement with the humanities is a vehicle through which we can talk, listen and disagree. The humanities can bring fresh and unique perspectives to the complex and controversial issues. Both ethics and literature, for example, can help us understand why choices about health care reform are so difficult to make. For centuries, philosophers and writers have grappled with ideas about freedom and its limits that can help us understand why we disagree on some civil liberties issues. With their focus on reflection, meaning, and perspective the humanities might help us get to the root of our disagreements.” 

- The Illinois Humanities Council

To kick off the project, IHC created the video above, available on their Youtube channel. 
Does the video realistically portray the current state of American political discourse? Is it possible to disagree with passion, but without anger? What are the benefits of civility if it does not improve the chance of agreement? Let us know what you think about this project and this video by leaving a comment.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Black History Month Feature: Under the Radar - The New School of Afro American Thought

Documentary Film Examines a Prominent DC Afro-Centric Educational Institution

Since its founding, Black History Month has been about education. Its founder Carter G. Woodson wanted to improve the overall quality of history education in America by focusing on important narratives that had largely been overlooked due to racial discrimination. One of the projects from last year's DC Community Heritage Project grant cycle was a documentary film, called Under the Radar: the New School of Afro American Thought, on an often overlooked Washington, DC institution. The school was founded in 1966 by Don Freeman and poet Gaston Neal. From its original location at 2208 14th Street, NW (boarded building in above image), the New School offered black people of all ages and socioeconomic conditions the opportunity to learn about their own African heritage and culture. 

The documentary brings together some of the individuals that helped make the New School a successful and important institution in Washington, DC. The interviews with former students express the impact that exposure to African culture had on their adult lives. Don Freeman, the surviving founder, talks about the impact the school had on the community, and its influence on similar institutions across the country.

Black separatism and Afro-centric education are still contentious issues. Are they appropriate reactions to centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and Euro-centric education? Is it possible to reconcile mainstream ideas about our shared past with those presented at the New School? Were the goals of the New School similar to those of Woodson's Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month); that a dedicated study of African origins gradually contribute to the accepted narrative? Leave a comment, and let us know what you think about the New School and its contribution to education in Washington, DC.

This highlight from the DC Digital Museum collection is part of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC's Black History Month series. Subscribe to the blog to get all the lastest updates!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Black History Month Reveals the Gaps in the Historical Narrative

Is History More Complete Since the Days of Dr. Carter G. Woodson?

Carter G. Woodson
February is Black History Month, and the history of its observance is central to Washington, DC with its tradition of African-American scholars and scholarship. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History). Woodson lived and worked in the District, and had incorporated the ASNLH there 11 years earlier. He believed that mainstream education functioned as propaganda lifting the history and culture of Europeans over that of others. In a letter to Thomas A. Barnes justifying the ASNLH creation of a home study department, Woodson wrote:

“The fact is that the so-called history teaching in our schools and colleges is downright propaganda, an effort to praise one race and to decry the other to justify social repression and exploitation. The world is still in darkness as to the actual progress of mankind. Each corner of the universe has tended to concern itself merely with the exploits of its own particular heroes. Students and teachers of our time, therefore, are the victims of this selfish propaganda.”

Carter G. Woodson House, Washington, DC
Courtesy: Historical Society of Washington, DC
Woodson was the first child of enslaved parents to receive a PhD. from Harvard University, but was barred from teaching at his alma mater because of his race. He spent his post graduate years teaching in public schools before joining the faculty at Howard University. He was familiar with the U.S. education system at all levels when he created Negro History Week, and was determined to return blacks to the American historical narrative. In 1972 the name and scope of the celebration was changed to Black History Month.

During the past two or three decades, many scholars, educators, and journalists have challenged the relevance and validity of the observance, charging it with tokenism, exploitation, and intellectual segregation. The most common critique is that by relegating African-American history to a single month, it gives us license to ignore it for the other eleven. Some have written that Black History Month is used as a mere marketing tool; businesses put out banners, display photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., and expect that their contributions will be rewarded with improved public sentiment. This collective empathy is central to the final criticism – that Black History Month is an empty obligation that makes us feel good and assuages guilt, but lacks any substance (largely attributable to the effects of commercialization). 

These arguments are likely all valid in some capacity, but their authors' desire to spot broad social trends often renders the actual accomplishments of Black History Month invisible. Negative reviews of Woodson's creation regularly overlook his original intentions, fail to evaluate whether those intentions are actually being achieved, and almost never suggest alternatives. 

Black History Month does not encourage the inclusion of an alternate historical narrative. By setting some time apart each year to study that separate narrative exclusively, it shows us that the accepted version of American history is quite incomplete without it. Highlighting black history for a set period emphasizes its absence elsewhere, but Black History Month does not cause this absence, it cries out for a remedy. 

Since its founding, but especially since the beginning of its nation-wide observation, Black History Month has gradually begun to fill the gaping holes in American history observed by Woodson in the 1920s. Recently, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC has featured some of its materials related explicitly to African-American history on HCTV and the DC Digital Museum catalog, but they are just two or three out of hundreds that could have qualified. Thanks to Washingtonian, Carter G. Woodson, and his insistence that we pay special attention to Black History for a dedicated period out of each year, few HCWDC grantees have been able to produce projects that exclude it; we simply cannot tell a story without including revelations gained from Black History Months past. Granted, DC has a unique history; for many years it has had a majority black population, and was home to free blacks before the Civil War. The fact remains, however, that Woodson and the ASNLH saw the need for improved black history education based primarily on their observations in the nation's capital. 

In 2011, the HCWDC (and likely many other cultural institutions around the country) would be hard-pressed to relegate emphasis of African-American history to a single month, but in the interest of advancing Woodson's cause and contributing to a still woefully incomplete mainstream narrative of American history, beginning tomorrow, we will highlight select items from the DC Digital Museum. Don't be surprised though, if the series outgrows February!