Monday, May 21, 2012

Zion Baptist Church Oral History Project

Narrators Reveal a Southwest Centered On Neighborhood Churches, Schools, and Businesses

During the 1930s and 40s, despite the fact that Washington, DC's population was well on it's way to reaching 700,000 people, the city's Southwest quadrant retained the appearance and feel of a small town. The narrators of Zion Baptist Church's "Spoken Memories" oral history project recall this slow-paced, civic-minded community from the shadows of the hulking concrete highrises that now line Maryland and Virginia Avenues. 

One interviewee remembered, "I missed the church in Southwest because we had strong family ties. All of us had friends and family members at the different churches. My grandfather and one uncle were members of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. I had cousins who went to Friendship, and friends who attended the Catholic Church, St Vincent De Paul. Southwest was a community because its residents were always together. We all went to Randall Junior High, and we socialized in the neighborhood together. Zion always had church sponsored summer trips to the beach for us. We went to Carr's Beach, Sparrows Beach and a beach in New Jersey. We went on hay rides to the outskirts of Maryland, and we had summer-long Vacation Bible School. Southwest was a meeting place." 

Other narrators also speak of the close link between Southwest's religious community. It was a neighborhood of many churches, and many different religions, but all were bound together through service to their congregants. Long term social bonds, and a general sense of steadiness seem to have contributed to the narrator's memories of Southwest as a tight-knit neighborhood. "I don't see Zion as the family and community church that we had in the past," observed one narrator. "Now, new members join Zion and leave before you can get to know them. In earlier times, Zion had more stability and folks got to know each other. We were a true family and we looked out for one another." 

But old Southwest's character was not to be found solely in it's thriving religious life, but also in the school system and it's ever-observant teachers. One narrator remembered, "Mrs. Peterson was my Principal at Randall Junior High School, so seeing her at church was like seeing her at school. Many of our teachers were also members of Zion. There was Mr. Herbert, who taught at Randall and was a member of Zion. The teachers knew the 153 families of Southwest, so nobody got away with bad behavior. They always made us aware of our conduct." Some years later that same Mrs. Peterson became Assistant Superintendent of the DC Public School system, but her students and neighbors still remembered her fondly for all she had done in Southwest. "She knew the Southwest families," recalled one narrator, "and often assisted them in their struggles."

Schulman's Market at N and Union Streets, SW
Image Courtesy: Library of Congress
Though Southwest is currently experiencing a resurgence in business activity, the urban renewal of the 1950s transformed many of the commercial corridors into residential streets, and many of the storefronts into government office buildings. But in the 1930s and 40s, a thriving small business community contributed to the cohesiveness of the neighborhood. One narrator remembers, "Many members had businesses located in the Southwest. Everything we needed was in our community. We had restaurants, cleaners, barber shops and stores." Another interviewee is more specific; " A lot of our members had businesses on Third Street, F Street, and Fourth Street... ... Someone had a shoe shop. Mr. James Brown had a print shop and used to do all of Zion's bulletins. The Barnes & Matthews Funeral Home was located on Fourth Street. I also remember the drug store, Campbell's Funeral Home, John T. Rhines Funeral Home, Bruce Wahl's Night Club, and a restaurant. Everything we need was within the Southwest community."

Zion Baptist Church's oral history project is valuable to Washington, DC not just because it preserves the history of a venerable religious institution, but because the words of its narrators breathe life into interpretations of archival records. The housing stock, church buildings, storefronts, an d school buildings of neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Shaw serve as visible reminders of what those neighborhoods once were. But in Southwest, where there are only shadows and glimpses of the neighborhood's historical city-scape, we must try to rebuild it in our minds through the memories of those who were there. The next post in this series will examine Zion, and its congregants' transition from Southwest to it's current home on Blagden Avenue, NW.

To view the edited transcript of the Zion Baptist Church "Spoken Memories" Oral History project, visit the Humanities Council's DC Digital Museum

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Remembering the Godfather of Go-Go

Chuck Brown, Champion of the Humanities

Joy Ford Austin and then HCWDC Board Chair, Don
Murray with Chuck Brown in 2009.
In September 2009, Chuck Brown spoke to the graduating class of Soul of the City at the German Historical Institute about his coming of age and his love of music.  I can still see clearly how the audience of young people, their friends and families listened to his every word and clamored up after to take photographs with him. He was genuine and wise speaking about his values without pretension. He had a story to tell of overcoming adversity and he told it well. His wife, Jocelyn Brown, was with him and he talked about his sons with pride and joy, mentioning his son who played football.  He talked about his life in the city, which he loved, and to whom he gave his greatest gift, his musical genius, bestowing on all of us, the wonderful, infectious rhythms of Go-Go, our homegrown, hometown music that we have and will enjoy forever.

That evening, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC was pleased to give him its Champion of the Humanities Award for his tireless efforts to preserve Go-Go recognizing his creativity and his work with young musicians as well as his accessibility to audiences all over the city and the world.  

Chuck Brown, our Champion left us yesterday but as long a there are people who listen to and love great music,  and who will share and build on his tradition, he will be remembered and appreciated. 

- Joy Ford Austin, Executive Director, Humanities Council of Washington, DC

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

DC Murals Project will be Featured as Part of Lumen8Anacostia

One of Many Great Projects Featured in Ward 8 Between April and June

As part of Lumen8Anacostia, American Dreams & Associates, Inc. will present a program showcasing the public art that is transforming Wards 7 and 8. Local artists Rik Freeman, Byron Peck, Cory Stowers, and Roderick Turner will display recent works and discuss the creative process.

This program is part of the continuing project to document the contemporary public murals of Washington, D.C. The current work includes a website developed by American Dreams and Associates, Inc., and City Arts, Inc., with partial funding by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (Website in progress:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Critical Exposure Announces Spring Exhibit

The Show Will Highlight the Work of DC's Student Photographers!

Visit to RSVP for the opening reception with a suggested donation of $35.

Critical Exposure has been nominated for a 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Congratulations to this recent Humanities Council grant recipient!