Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blast from the Past: The Humanities Council's TV Programs

Humanities Profiled, Humanities Salon, and DC Humanities Return on HCTV

Miller Reads from Fathering Words at the Arts Club
of Washington, DC.
Not long ago, the Humanities Council produced several regular television series for the District's public access cable network, DCTV. The footage from those programs is now part of the DC Digital Museum collection and is making a comeback on HCTV, the Humanities Council's Youtube channel. The first of these programs to be uploaded was an episode of Humanities Salon featuring E. Ethelbert Miller at the Arts Club of Washington, DC. The program features Miller reading from his memoir, Fathering Words, and fielding interview questions from his friend and former wife Michelle Greene.

VHS, DVCAM, and SVHS cassettes in the DC Digital
Museum Collection.
The Humanities Council's longest running television program was Humanities Profiled. Guests of that series included notable DC humanities figures, past Humanities Council grantees, and major political decision-makers. HP episodes featuring grantees Nick Hollis and Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, and humanities luminaries Marcus Raskin and Andy Shallal are coming soon to HCTV. Hollis discussed the James Wormley recognition project which sought to recognize an often overlooked DC historic figure, and Lindsay-Johnson answered questions on her then-forthcoming documentary Teenarama.

Many of these old episodes were archived on media that has either, not stood the test of time, or is difficult to digitize. As a result, some of the videos have significant color bleed, blurriness, and other imperfections. The sound, however, is flawless in most, so we will go ahead and post what we have and continue working to recover the footage in its highest quality. Until then, stay tuned to HCTV, and comment on our new-old television shows on the channel, the blog, or both!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Connecting Preservation to Community: Washington, D.C.’s Community Heritage Project

An Article By Bell Clement

Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood  is the sort of neighborhood often overlooked by preservationists and historians.  Tucked into a corner of the city between the Anacostia River and the District’s Maryland border, a far reach from the Capital’s monumental core., it is a quiet, residential community, built up by black, working-class Washingtonians in the early twentieth century.

Yet over the past five years, Deanwood has become a hub of preservation and local history activity.  Residents have published a book of community history, created a neighborhood heritage trail, and assisted in the landmarking of several neighborhood sites, with more projects to come.  How did this happen ?

Members of the Deanwood History Committee (left to right,
Barbara J. Moore, Alverna M. Miller, Deidre R. Gantt [standing],
Elaine King Bowman, and Kia Chatmon)  gather at the First Baptist Church
of Deanwood toreview material for their book, Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood.

“The first time we came together as the Deanwood History Committee was when the Historic Preservation Office asked us to help with a survey of neighborhood architecture,” says Kia Chatmon, a member of the Committee and its current chair.  “We saw pretty quickly that we needed to assemble a neighborhood history, if the architectural survey was to have any context.”

“One thing we’ve learned,” says Patsy Fletcher, Community Outreach Coordinator for D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office, and the staffer who asked Deanwood residents’ help with the survey , “is that there’s no way to interest residents in historic preservation until they‘re engaged with neighborhood history.”  

Washington, D.C.’s effort to nurture that kind of engagement has produced the D.C. Community Heritage Project.  Now entering its sixth year, the CHP is a collaborative of community historians supported by a partnership including the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. (HCWDC), D.C’s. Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Initiated in 2005, the CHP has assisted dozens of community heritage projects across the District’s eight wards. The CHP has supported the work of the Deanwood History Committee, and provided funding for Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood,  brought out Arcadia Publishing in 2008.

The CHP got its start as a response to the real estate frenzy that transformed Washington during the mid-2000’s. New money and new people were flooding old established D.C. neighborhoods.  “People loved that there was new investment in their neighborhood, of course.” says Fletcher, “The concern was, with all these new voices in the mix, a loss of a feeling of ownership on the part of long-term residents.”  The “last straw,” says Fletcher, were the moves to rename old neighborhoods.  In these “re-brandings”, old “Sursam Corda” became “NoMa” (“north of Massachusetts Avenue”).  Old “East of the River” became “River East.” Says Fletcher, “People just couldn’t take it.”

A small group, including Fletcher herself and academic historians involved in D.C. neighborhoods, came together to look for ways to respond.  They envisioned a framework that would support residents in telling their own stories of the communities in which they lived.  

The group sought help from the Humanities Council, which now hosts the Project.  Says HCWDC Executive Director Joy Austin, “The Humanities Council’s mission is to provide the collaborative environment, skills-building, and funding needed to undergird the efforts of people here in the District to tell their stories.  The CHP effort fit right in to that.”  The synergy between the Humanities Council and HPO is an important factor in the Project’s success.  Says Fletcher, “Leadership at HPO saw clearly that to be successful in District neighborhoods, we would need a ‘softer, gentler’ approach to preservation.  Working in tandem with the Humanities Council and its deep community network allowed us to implement that.”

The central challenge facing the Project was to figure out how to generate a community-driven program. As a response to initiatives that seemed to impose community history “from the outside,” how was the CHP to be different ?  “We didn’t want to become the very thing we were criticizing,” says Fletcher “so at the start we asked community activists to tell us what their needs were, and what a heritage project might do to meet them.”

That first CHP convening occurred in June 2005, and “we got an earful,” says Executive Director Austin.  “We learned right away that if you bring community historians from across the city together, you set off a storm of cross-pollenation .  So we do citywide convenings twice a year, to keep practitioners in touch with each other.”  Another result is that as activists learn about projects in other neighborhoods they’d like to start in their own communities, they ask for help building the skills they need .  “So,” says Austin, “we host workshops throughout the year – trainings in newsletter and brochure production, videography, document preservation, and oral history.”

The Project also addresses funding.  Says Austin, “What we see demonstrated through the CHP is that small amounts of funding, if channeled directly to the grassroots, can make a powerful difference.  Lots of worthwhile community projects stall just short of completion for want of a bit of money.”  CHP grants – none more than $2,000 - make it possible for community projects to pay for digital scans of old newspapers, or photographic reproductions or oral history transcriptions.

As with other CHP-supported projects, some of the outcomes of the Deanwood History Committee’s work – its  publications or the recent landmarkings – are easy to identify.  Other effects are more difficult to trace, but equally important.  “We have produced a record of the history of the community here,” says Chatmon.  “Now, when people or businesses come to Deanwood, they know they aren’t dealing with a blank slate, but with a place that has a specific past, a specific heritage.”

A key lesson, underscored through the Project’s first five years, is that  sustaining community leadership in preservation initiatives is hard work.  Says Fletcher, “that ‘softer, gentler’ preservation we practice – it’s tough.  This effort has to be led by the people on the front lines of the projects.  That means constant work at keeping communication open, and  incorporating  new ideas as needs change.  This is not a ‘set it and forget it’ kind of effort.”

Hard work, but worth it.  Continues Fletcher, “As a preservationist, there is nothing like that moment when  somebody from a community history project - a neighborhood resident, not somebody with special preservation training – makes the connection between the neighborhood stories they’re assembling and a particular site: ‘So that’s why this building is here; that’s what it has meant over the years.  This is a treasure, and it’s a part of  this community !’  That’s the moment I love to see.”
- Bell Clement

Bell Clement is a graduate student at George Washington University’s Department of History.  She is a past recipient of Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. grant support in her research on the District’s Fourteenth Street corridor.

The Humanities Council is currently accepting proposals for 2011 DC Community Heritage Project Grants. Applicants are highly encouraged to attend a grants assistance workshop, though it is not required. All proposals are due May 6th by 5pm.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Get Out, and Take a Walk

As the Weather Warms, Remember Our Walking Tours from Past "Big Reads"

Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes regularly collaborated
on projects during their time in Washington, DC until they had
a falling out over rights to a play in 1930.
In 2007, the Humanities Council launched its first Big Read, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. That year, Washington, DC read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel of the late Harlem Renaissance which explored racial and gender issues in the American South. The book, now considered a classic and a must-read for any curriculum in African American literature, was criticized in its time for its use of authentic Afro-Carribbean dialect, openness about the divide between light and dark-skinned blacks, and revelations on the status of black women in the rural South.

As part of the 2007 Big Read program schedule, author Kim Roberts produced a walking-tour linking Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance with sites around Howard University, U Street, Le Droit Park, and Shaw. The tour includes background on Hurston's life, and the friendships she made with other African American luminaries during and after her years at Howard. The idea for a walking-tour was such a hit, that it became a regular Big Read staple. Roberts produced subsequent walking tours on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Last year, for Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying, Roberts developed an online exhibit about Washington, DC's historic segregated school system.

The tours are all illustrated with maps, and photos, and are the perfect way to connect with Washington's neighborhoods through classic works of literature. Try to do all three tours and check out the online exhibit before the commencement of Live to Read, the Humanities Council's new city-wide read, this year featuring Lynn Nottage's Ruined as the selected work of literature.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Black History Month Feature: Harold Greene Documentary

Civil-Rights in the Courthouse

Harold Greene
Harold H. Greene (born Heinz GrĂ¼nhaus) was a federal judge for the United States District Court in the District of Columbia. From that post in 1982, Greene ruled on the anti-trust case that resulted in the break-up of AT&T, the nation's largest corporation at that time. But, according to a documentary on his life, funded by a Humanities Council grant in 2007, Greene never considered this ground-breaking decision his greatest achievement; he was most proud of the cases he argued throughout his early career, working to uphold civil-rights legislation and end segregation throughout the south.

Greene and his family left Germany in the 1940s to escape the Nazi government. He had seen oppression and the creation of a second class citizenry and was appalled to see that such things were so entrenched in United States. From 1957 to 1965 Greene served as Chief of Appeals Research at the United States Department of Justice Civil-Rights Division where he was instrumental in forming the legal basis for the Civil-Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The film notes that Judge Harold Greene is often give less recognition for these achievements than some of his contemporaries who worked in the field – on the “front-lines” of the Civil-Rights movement. Does Greene deserve as much recognition as the participants at the Greensboro Sit-Ins, the Freedom Riders, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is the legal manifestation of demonstrations, rallies, protest as important as those events themselves. Watch the film and read more about the legislation and cases on which Greene labored and let us know what you think.