Wednesday, December 21, 2011

History and Community in LeDroit Park

Can Local History Projects Mend Collective Memory?

It's hard to imagine that densely packed Ward 1, with its rows of federal style townhomes and gleaming new luxury condos, was once the target of developers looking to establish subdivided and suburban-style gated communities, but in 1873, LeDroit Park was conceived as just that. Filmmaker Ronald Smokey Stevens recently completed a documentary as part of the DC Community Heritage Project that surveys the history of the neighborhood from its exclusive beginnings, through its illustrious decades as the locus for black culture in Washington (and perhaps the United States), to its current challenges and successes. The film, Preserving LeDroit Park: an historic DC Community, is available in full as part of the Humanities Council's DC Digital Museum, but it can also be purchased at http://www.preservingledroitpark.com.

Stevens' film exemplifies the value of historic preservation and public history. It not only tells the story of LeDroit Park, but it tells the story of a man who's regular rounds through the neighborhood carried him past the Robert and Mary Church Terrell House, and how these encounters with the past inspired and empowered him to find out more.

Mary Church Terrell, Stevens' tells his viewers, began fighting for Civil Rights using civil disobedience tactics long before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Freedom Riders. In 1950 Terrell and a group of activists sought to test the District of Columbia's anti-segregation laws by entering a de facto white-only restaurant. When they were refused service, they filed a lawsuit which, by 1953, led DC courts to rule segregation in eating places unconstitutional. Though many longtime residents of LeDroit Park and Washington, DC likely know of Terrell and her groundbreaking work, her story may be news to families who have recently made the neighborhood their home. By helping to popularize the story of Terrell as well as those of Anna J. Cooper, Walter E. Washington, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Duke Ellington, and the other notable residents of LeDroit Park, Stevens can help build a sense of community pride and appreciation of a common past.

Photographer David Corry, interviewed for the film, believes that creating this sense of community will be an ongoing challenge for LeDroit Park, but one that can be overcome. The perceived lack of a sense of community caused by gentrification and demographic shifts can be remedied by public history projects like Stevens' film as personal connections to place and time are developed for newcomers, and rebuilt among long-term residents.

The film is produced well, making use of Stevens' oratory skills, authoritative historical research, illustrative photographs, and stock video footage. It is brief, but informative, and well worth the 17 minutes for anyone interested in Washington, DC history.

More information on the notable residents of LeDroit Park can be found in Kim Roberts' online exhibition Wide Enough for Our Ambition.

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