It is the kind of exhibit where you bend down over glass cases to study handwritten scrawls on old documents, the kind of modest, one-room exhibit that you think you'll tire of after about ten minutes. But then the poignancy of what's being told about in those scrawls hits you. The feelings stay with you long after you've left.
The show, at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum until March 3, offers a rare insight into the early days of Washington, D.C. — as it looked and felt before the Civil War, long before the time it would be called the "capital of the free world" (not to mention the "hive of bureaucrats"). The power of the show is in the stories about regular people — unremarked and unremembered.
From the records of the Washington Female Orphan Asylum, dated 1827: "Finding myself unabel to raise & educate my daughter Mary Ann I resign her intirely to the Managers of the Asylum untill she is 10 years of age." Signed, Elizabeth Baker.
Entitled "Southern City, National Ambition: the Growth of Early Washington, D.C. 1800 - 1860," the exhibit is cosponsored by the Octagon Museum (Octagon House, located two blocks west of the White House, was one of the city's first mansions), where a similar display on Washington's early days will also run through March 3.
The collections are amazing. At Anacostia there is a city directory of washerwomen, 102 of them, nearly all "col'd." There is a slave hire agreement from 1845, paying $75 for the hire of one Charles King for a year, "to be returned at Christmas next, well clothed with the customary clothes and furnished with a hat and blanket."
A photomural shows Pennsylvania Avenue in 1857, a wide, muddy field leading up to the partly built Capitol. Cowrie shells and beads, lovingly displayed, are all that remain of six female slaves who worked for the Tayloe family at Octagon House. There are purchase deeds and freedom certificates (which by law had to be carried at all times when in the South), a picture of a slave pen on G Street between Fourth and Sixth streets, a laconic note that slaves composed 20 percent of the city's population in 1800, 5 percent by 1850.
And on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, in the section of the exhibit titled "Power and Privilege," you see a humorous sketch of a party at Tudor Place in Georgetown in 1840, when it was the home of Mrs. Peters. A descendant of Martha Washington's, she was a society leader in her day. Other pictures show great houses owned by prominent white citizens.
But the emphasis of this show is on Washington's black community and its stories. An 1820 painting shows old Yarrow Mamout, a slave turned out by his master because he was too old. He lived on, beyond 100, working day wages and weaving baskets at night.
Stories: in 1810 Alethia Tanner purchased her freedom for $1,400 with extra money she made selling vegetables at Washington markets. Twenty-two years later, she manumitted her nephew, John Cook. He later established the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, one of the first churches in Washington for African-Americans, and became its founding pastor. There is a photograph of him here, a sturdy man with determined eyes.
In 1835 Cook fled the city after the Snow Riot, when whites attacked the store of merchant Beverly Snow for badmouthing them. Returning the next year, Cook opened a school for black youths, and five years later he built his church. He died in 1856 at age 66. The stated purpose of this exhibit is to document "how in the shadow of the monumental public buildings that dominated its landscape, an urban community slowly took shape in the decades before the Civil War."