Monday, April 30, 2012

In DC, Church History is Neighborhood History

Zion Baptist Church Oral History Offers Unique Perspective on Urban Renewal

Southwest Washington may be one of the most enigmatic neighborhoods in the district. During the 1950s, homes and businesses that had stood in the area for decades were razed as part of the Federal Government's plan to revitalize the neighborhood, and provide office space for government agencies. The story has been written time and again by Washington historians, and a documentary film was produced that emphasized the human cost of the wholesale relocate, raze, rebuild, and return process that left out that final step for many families. A 2009 DC Community Heritage Project examined that disruptive and traumatic experience through an entirely new lens - that of the Zion Baptist Church Congregation. 

The oral history project, led by church historian Sarah J. Davidson, captured the stories of 46 longtime congregation members and former pastors. A group of professional and volunteer oral historians asked the narrators a set list of questions, that generally focused on church life and community. The oldest person interviewed was born in 1916 and had become a church member in 1928, but most of the interviewees were old enough to remember when Zion moved from Southwest to a temporary home in the YWCA on Rhode Island Avenue, NW.  One narrator recalls, "We moved from Southwest because the city took over that community to rebuild. The address of the old Zion was 337 F Street, SW. It was in the middle of the block. The freeway is there now, behind the Market Inn Restaurant." 

Some of the interviewees could trace the history of the church back even further because their families had been members in the 19th century. Zion's archives reveal ties to a group of Freedmen who were brought to Southwest Washington with the Union Army during the Civil War, and who constructed the first church in 1867. One of the narrators, recalling family traditions handed down through generations, said "my ancestors were members of Zion Baptist Church. .. They remodeled the feed store, when the church was located there." In 1870, that remodeled feed store was replaced by a new building on the same site at 337 F Street, SW where it became a major focal point in the lives of many Southwest DC residents. 

We will continue to examine this remarkable oral history project for what its narrators can tell us about life in Southwest before the 1950s, and the traumatic experience of the Federal Government's early experiment in urban renewal there. The next post will focus on the interviewees memories of Southwest as a village within the city, including relationships with neighbors, business-lined streetscapes, and, of course, the centrality of church life.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Author Reading at The Arts Club of Washington

Don't Miss This Enlightening Grantee Event


Date & Time:  
Wednesday, May 9th at 7:00pm

The Arts Club of Washington / 2017 I Street, NW / Washington, DC / 20006

Yaël Tamar Lewin, winner of the Sixth Annual Marfield Prize National Award for Arts Writing, will present a free public reading from her prize winning biography, Night's Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins (Wesleyan University Press: 2011) . Night's Dancer chronicles the career of Janet Collins (1917-2003), a classical and modern dancer who in 1951 became the first African-American prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She also worked with influential Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham; taught at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet; and appeared in films and on Broadway for Agnes de Mille and Hanya Holm.

Beginning with Collins’ unfinished memoir detailing her early life, Lewin continues the fascinating portrait of the pioneering dancer, drawing on her own extensive research and interviews with Collins and her family, friends, and colleagues. Lewin is a dance historian, writer, and dancer living in New York. This program was funded in part by a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC. Book signing and reception to follow. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Today in the Humanities... A History Resource for Students, Cambodian Archaeology, and Pulitzer History

Humanities Stories from Around the Globe to Pique Interest and Spark Conversation!

Patrick Awuah makes the case that a liberal arts education is critical to forming true leaders.

A major stop for runaway Southern slaves, Washington, DC, attracted large numbers of blacks after the Civil War. By 1960 the city had a majority black population. The presence of black political organizations and the large marches in the 1960s made Washington a major center of the civil rights movement. Today it is one of the largest and most prominent black-dominated communities in the United States.

Count Basie and Bob Crosby
at the Howard Theatre,
Gottlieb Collection, Library
of Congress
George Clinton surveyed the crowd Tuesday night and let out a soulful sigh: “Boy, do I have memories in this joint!” The legendary purveyor of funk, looking notably tidier sans his equally legendary Technicolor dreadlocks, took the Howard Theatre stage at the historic venue’s VIP grand opening concert and celebration following a $29 million renovation.

A team of young archaeologists from the Faculty of Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts and from the Royal Academy of Cambodia initiated a yearlong project that combined: excavation, cultural resource management and the construction of a museum in order to preserve, document and disseminate information about the rich cultural heritage of the Sre Ampil site.

The Humanities Council [of North Carolina] has been revisiting the notion of The American Dream. During this process we decided to take the conversation outside (literally) and engage folks in conversation around this broad but universally relevant topic. 

“Pulitzer history, of sorts, was made this year when the Pulitzer Board announced that no prize for fiction would be awarded this year,” says Corrigan, who has been published in the New York Times, written a book and writes a mystery book column for the Washington Post.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Don't Let the History of Your Neighborhood be Lost

Apply for a DC Community Heritage Project Grant

For the past five years, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC (HCWDC) has made over 80 grants to citizens and organizations interested in preserving the heritage of the city’s unique neighborhoods, landmarks, and culture through the DC Community Heritage Project (DCCHP). The DCCHP is a collaborative effort of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the DC Historic Preservation Office, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. This year, HCWDC will maintain its commitment to preserving local history and culture, by investing in neighborhoods that have not yet had their stories told.

In recent years, D.C. has become a renaissance city, through an influx of buildings, monuments, and newly minted Washingtonians. With all this change, struggles in reconciling the old with the new are inevitable. As such, we are encouraging residents, long-time or newly-arrived, to preserve the histories they have come to appreciate.

Communities can have a powerful connection to the local school house, or the neighborhood church because of the powerful memories associated with these structures. A particularly cruel teacher or benevolent pastor are experiences shared by a group of people and talked about for years, that can eventually be raised to the level of local legend. When those memories are tied to a historic structure, the very character and culture of a neighborhood can seem to hinge on that building’s preservation. In 2009, Deanwood Heights Mainstreets produced their first walking tour of Deanwood's churches entitled “Faith and Foundation.” The group has received subsequent grants to document more houses of worship, and has added other historic Deanwood landmarks to the tour.

In 2010, Historic Mt. Pleasant Inc. combed the local archives to produce a survey of their neighborhood's historic storefronts from 1901-1938. The database they compiled includes ownership transfers, businesses operated, and architectural changes. The data reveals a past Mt. Pleasant dizzy with change and population growth, but it is open for interpretation, and available in full on Historic Mt. Pleasant's website.

But it is not just in the bricks and mortar of the cityscape that collective memory resides. In fact, the most powerful, yet ephemeral local histories reside in the minds of those who have lived them. These are the types of histories best preserved through oral history interviews. In 2007, Empower DC organized an oral history project that captured the memories of long time residents of Ivy City. The tapes revealed strong remembrances of the historic Crummell Elementary School, an endangered historic landmark and the focal point of the community. Empower DC has since expanded the oral history project and has produced a draft documentary film.

In 2009, Tendani Mpulubusi and Helping Inner City Kids Succeed produced an extraordinary documentary film on Barry Farm that explored the community's history and examined its present-day challenges. Barry Farm: Past and Present used interviews with scholars, community historians, students, and community leaders to tell a thoughtful and textured story about one of Ward 8's most historic neighborhoods.

The DCCHP seeks to preserve both the physical and the intellectual heritage of Washington’s neighborhoods. Last year, students and educators from John Eaton Elementary School used a grant from the DC Community Heritage Project to fund a study of the school's past. Students used architectural clues, oral history interviews, and archival research to piece together the history of Eaton Elementary and the surrounding portions of the Cleveland Park neighborhood. The project coordinators used the experience to create a lesson plan that they hope will be replicated by other schools in the District and across the country! The student history detectives were invited to present their findings at last year's 38th Annual DC Historical Studies Conference.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide the skills and financial means for every neighborhood in Washington, DC to make its history known. We welcome new concepts from neighborhoods already reached by the DCCHP, but we need proposals from communities such as Trinidad, Lamond-Riggs, Lincoln Heights, Brightwood, and others that have not received a grant. Any DC resident with a story to tell about their community is encouraged to apply.

We strongly encourage first time applicants to attend one of our grant workshops. To register for a DCCHP Grant Workshop, please visit