Around the Mall & Beyond

Since its founding in 1967, the Anacostia Museum has grown from “storefront” concept to “neighborhood museum” to world renown

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."

Certainly no example of such community growth could be more perfect than the Anacostia Museum itself, a bootstrap operation that has made museum critic Kenneth Hudson's list of the world's most influential museums ("museums which have broken ground in such an original or striking way that other museums have felt disposed or compelled to follow their example"), a list that has omitted the Louvre, the Getty and the National Gallery.

"We're about identity and community, about what makes living in Washington good," says Anacostia director Steven Newsome. "The current show focuses not only on the infrastructures such as the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal that made Washington an urban center, but on the people who built it."

Incidentally, slavery was abolished in Washington, with compensation to slaveholders, in 1862. By this time, the city markets were mostly run by free blacks, and in 1863 one of them, Columbus Scriber, opened a flour and feed store at 119 E Street Southwest.

"Actually, this is the second exhibit we've done on early Washington," says Newsome, who succeeded the founding director, John Kinard, in 1991. "Three years ago we did 'To Achieve These Rights,' depicting the self-determination of African-Americans in Washington from 1791 to 1992. We don't consider these exhibits so much black history as urban history in which black Americans are at the center."

The Anacostia Museum is located across the Anacostia River four miles from the National Mall. It is seen by relatively few tourists, and that's unfortunate, given its long history of fascinating exhibitions, such as "The Harlem Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties"; "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740 - 1877"; and "The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619 - 1930."

The museum got its start in 1967 when then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley took note of the fact that a large segment of Washington's population rarely if ever visited the imposing buildings on the Mall. He got the idea for a sort of storefront museum, a drop-in place without the fluted columns and grand staircases, an approachable place with hands-on exhibits. So he set the wheels turning.

What his people came up with was not a storefront but the old Carver Theater in the Southeast part of Washington, a former dance hall, skating rink and church with 5,000 square feet of space.

From day one, local citizens took a vital interest. A city-sponsored group called Teen Trailblazers worked alongside Smithsonian staff, and when the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (as it was initially called) opened on September 15, 1967, with bands, speakers, cookies, punch and thousands of visitors, Ripley commented, "I suspect that museums will never be quite the same again."

Some saw a slight problem with the opening exhibit, which featured a full-scale mock-up of a Mercury space capsule, skeletons, a see-yourself TV setup, a small zoo and a reproduction of a country store. James Mayo, special assistant to director Kinard, observed that the museum "had absolutely nothing that came close to African-American history and culture," subject matter that was perhaps not quite the same as what Smithsonian curators in those days "thought about and what they dreamed about. They dreamed about spaceships and airplanes and trains and whistles — and whatever."

This situation was rectified without delay under the firm hand of John Kinard, great-grandson of a slave, whose credentials included the State Department, the United States Information Agency, Operation Crossroads Africa and pioneering work for the Southeast Neighborhood Development Program.

In his Office of Economic Opportunity days Kinard worked with youth organizations — such as Rebels With a Cause, the Band of Angels, the Neighborhood Youth Corps — and it was young people whom he enlisted to make the Anacostia Museum a source of urban vitality.

Kinard worked for hiring equity, for the training of minorities, for more- inclusive exhibits. To him, the "community" included the Nation of Islam, anti-methadone organizations, a group called the Inner Voices of Lorton Reformatory, bands and dance groups needing rehearsal space. Until the late '70s, there was even a parrot named George, who talked so much he had to be put in the restroom during meetings.

I don't remember George from my visits in those days, but I do remember going through an exhibit some years ago with Zora Martin-Felton, whom Kinard had hired at the outset to run the education program and who was by then assistant director and Kinard's good right arm. The show was a tribute to black women, and it was presented with such flair and imagination that it didn't need the gimmicks so often relied upon by wealthier museums.

Felton retired a year ago, but she made her mark. "African-American influences permeate every aspect of American life," she wrote in a coauthored 1993 tribute to Kinard. "The clothing we wear, the songs we sing, the dances we dance, the music we compose, the food we eat, the technology we use, the way we speak, the manner in which we style our hair, the high-five handshake, even the intense American love affair with a suntanned skin — all these attest to a deeply ingrained and powerful presence among us."

Over the years the museum expanded. The original building had many problems, and the area became drug-infested, so in 1985 the museum moved a mile up the hill to a site known as Fort Place.

Somewhere along the line the word "Neighborhood" was dropped from the name, for the museum's scope now reached far beyond the limits of Anacostia. For one thing, Kinard's own considerable travels in Africa resulted in lectures, lunchbox forums and special exhibits on international topics.

Of course, the dropping of the word had nothing to do with the museum's popularity. Attendance is well above 100,000 a year, including several school groups each weekday.

As Kinard, who died in 1989, once said, "This museum, if it is to survive, must [enmesh] itself more in this community in the future than it has in the past. . . . We cannot present a full diet of history and leave undone research on the urban problems that plague our community. . . . This museum, unlike any other museum anywhere on Earth, cannot be a place where we just show beautiful things and say pretty words about our history. It must be an advocate for a better way of life for the young and older people alike."

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.