Recording History

Project Collects Oral Accounts of Capitol Hill’s Past

Posted January 28, 2004 at 2:11pm

For years, James Finley ran a boxing gym above his Capitol Hill auto repair shop on 10th Street Northeast. It was mostly a neighborhood hangout — a place for local kids and stressed-out law students to blow off a little steam. But every now and then, icons like Sugar Ray Leonard and Miles Davis would drop by for some exercise. Eventually, Hollywood came a-calling, and the boxing club served as a backdrop for a couple of Paramount films.

But by August 2001, faced with skyrocketing rents, Finley was forced to close the storied gym after more than four decades in business.

Thanks to an effort to collect and transcribe the oral histories of current and former Capitol Hill residents, the unassuming building’s tale will not be forgotten, however.

In just more than two years since its launch, the all-volunteer Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, an initiative of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, has amassed dozens of residents’ stories, including Finley’s, with the aim of ensuring that the voices of Capitol Hill’s past are preserved for posterity.

“This is about the neighborhood of Capitol Hill,” says veteran Hillite Jim McMahon, who manages the project with his wife, Bernadette, from their two-story Victorian row house on Seventh Street Northeast. “This is not about Congressmen or Senators, but real people.”

Hill Historian

The idea for the project grew out of a desire to honor the late historian and longtime Capitol Hill resident Ruth Ann Overbeck, who died in the spring of 2000 from pancreatic cancer.

“She had been gathering materials, maps and notes and documents and house histories and photos on the history of this neighborhood for about 30 years with the intention of writing the definitive history of Capitol Hill as a neighborhood where people live and work,” says John Franzén, chairman of the group’s steering committee.

After it became clear Overbeck would not live to complete the book, she gave a series of interviews to Franzén from her hospital bed detailing the area’s history “all the way back to the Native Americans that were here along the banks of the Anacostia.”

“I literally did the last interview with her two days before she died,” he says.

When the completed transcription was delivered to the foundation at the end of the year, Franzén says it “created quite a stir” among members looking for a way to commemorate Overbeck.

“We were eager to keep Ruth Ann Overbeck’s memory alive in the community by pursuing something that she always felt was important,” says Capitol Hill Community Foundation President Nicky Cymrot. “Had she lived on she would have been thrilled to have been [its] initiator.”

An initial grant of about $15,000 from the foundation went to purchase equipment, such as Marantz tape recorders and transcription machines.

Interest in the project spread after the Voice of the Hill published the Overbeck transcripts in monthly installments, Franzén says. And the project has also benefited from the expertise of writers, journalists and other professionals living on the Hill who have offered assistance, such as Peter Bartis of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project — a national initiative to preserve the oral histories of American service personnel — who initially helped train volunteers and organizers on the methodology of conducting oral histories.

Amassing a Legacy

Since officially beginning the project in 2001, Bernadette McMahon, a retired Food and Drug Administration chemist who confesses to a childhood dislike for history lessons, has seen much of her second-floor home office taken over by the oral histories.

As the project’s self-described “traffic director,” she keeps tabs on every stage of the process, from name collection to transcription finalization to overseeing a stable of about 85 volunteers. An entire closet in her office is stacked with manila envelopes of transcripts, plastic bins of cassettes and photographs of some of the more than six dozen individuals who have already been interviewed for the project.

McMahon, who says her aim is “to collect information and archive it for the use of future historians,” points to a recent request by a doctoral student at Brandeis University to use the transcriptions as part of a Capitol Hill history dissertation as an ideal use for the oral histories.

Along these lines, the project, which last year was honored with a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, operates an aptly named Web site — www.Capitol — which allows individuals to search any of the 25 transcriptions currently posted on the site (about 50 additional interviews are awaiting finalization). The site also offers information about the project’s Kiplinger Foundation-funded lecture series, which has brought historical authorities to Pennsylvania Avenue’s Naval Lodge Hall to discuss everything from freemasonry to Theodore Roosevelt’s Washington.

In an effort to ensure the long-term integrity of the oral histories, an agreement was reached late last year with the City Museum, under which all original materials will be permanently transferred to the museum in the coming months for use in its neighborhood history displays or other educational efforts.

Race Against Time

In many ways, organizers say, their push to collect residents’ histories is in a race against time.

“One of the challenges [is] to line up people and to get them recorded before they die,” says Franzén. “We are playing the actuarial odds here, trying to get the oldest people first.”

“I’ve been telling 70-year-olds on the list that they are maybe too young,” adds McMahon, who said most interviewees to date were in their 80s.

Still, the group eventually hopes to begin organizing the interviews by subject matter and reach out to younger residents, possibly finding a place for even lowly Hill interns in its pantheon of contributors.

“As we get farther and farther along, I can conceive of a time when we get beyond older people and actually start talking to young people,” says Franzén. “What Congressional interns do on their off hours may not seem like something of importance now, but it will be very interesting 100 years from now.”

And Cymrot says the foundation would also like to see the material published in book form, possibly as “a series of monographs,” highlighting topics such as the history of Eastern Market or the Hill’s corner stores.

“We do have several authors or historians who we know would be interested in doing something if we got a program started,” she says, before quickly adding, “It’s only in our dreaming phase right now.”