Thursday, January 12, 2012

The How and Why of Community History in Shaw

Footage in DC Digital Museum Archive Shows a Community Determined to Preserve its Heritage and Culture

The collection of the DC Digital Museum is diverse because it essentially reflects the Humanities Council's grantmaking activities since the organization was founded in 1980. Combing through the archive, has been a great way to get to know the city on a very human level. 

Sometimes researching and archiving a raw collection can be challenging and surprising at the same time. Earlier this week, we unearthed a couple of VHS cassettes labeled "Shaw Neighborhood History: The Whitelaw Hotel." A search in the old database brought up a record for these tapes that indicated they were copies of a documentary film on the Whitelaw and its relatively recent preservation as an apartment building. It seemed like a great topic for a documentary, and we were eager to digitize it, determine its creators and provenance, and make it available through the DC Digital Museum. 

We were disappointed at first to see that the tapes contained no such documentary. The footage was shot at the then newly renovated Whitelaw, but it was of a planning meeting, led by historians Kathy Smith and Marya McQuirter, involving residents and former residents of Shaw and the greater U Street Neighborhood. The audience had been brought together to discuss a planned history exhibit at what was to become the Thurgood Marshall Center for Heritage and Service; they were discussing how to best represent their memories as a historical narrative .

The footage is not just a record of the collective memories of Shaw community members, it is a fascinating text that shows how people seek to use the histories, preserved through memory, architecture, tradition, and human relationships, to actively pursue social improvement in the places that mean the most to them. 

The clip below represents only about one fifth of the conversation that occurred that evening April 10, 1996 at the Whitelaw. Please leave a comment if you or anyone you know participated in the planning meeting. What role does history have in Washington, DC's neighborhoods today? Is it different than it was 15 years ago?

The museum exhibit based, in part, on this community conversation is housed in the Thurgood Marshall Center for Heritage and Service at 1816 12th St, NW and is open to visitors during the day. Call (202) 462-8314 for exact hours.

The conversation also provided Smith and McQuirter valuable information as they compiled a guide to Shaw's Historical Resources, available in the DC Public Library's Washingtoniana Division.

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