A Dream Come True

African-American History Permeates District

Posted October 12, 2011 at 5:06pm

On the August day that the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened to the public, the line stretched down Independence Avenue Southwest.

And on that bright and sunny day, Wade Johnson sat in the shade of the memorial’s trees next to the Tidal Basin.

The native Washingtonian came of age during the civil rights movement. He remembers the riots that tore D.C. apart after King was assassinated in 1968.

“When you know the history of this city, you know that this is a dream come true,” the 61-year-old said. “I didn’t believe it would happen. But it did.”

The memorial, which will be dedicated during a Sunday ceremony in West Potomac Park, is several years in the making. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 to establish a King memorial in Washington. It would take another decade of legislation, designs and fundraising before ground was broken on the project on Nov. 13, 2006.

“I imagine us walking down to this Tidal Basin, between one memorial dedicated to the man who helped give birth to a nation and another dedicated to the man who preserved it,” then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said at the groundbreaking, referring to himself and his daughters. “I picture us walking beneath the shadows cast by the ‘mountain of despair’ and gazing up at the ‘stone of hope’ and reading the quotes on the wall together as the water falls like rain.”

Now president five years later, Obama will speak of the memorial again at Sunday’s dedication ceremony. The event was originally scheduled for the end of August on the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but Hurricane Irene forced planners to reschedule.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, members of the King family and civil rights leaders are also scheduled to speak.

Since its unveiling, the memorial has been criticized for its design and its paraphrasing of King’s quotes.

Still, the memorial is the first monument on the National Mall to represent an African-American and a non-president. And the area will continue to grow with the groundbreaking of the National Museum of African American History and Culture scheduled for next year.

But tucked around the District are other sites dedicated to African-American history. From the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, which depicts President Abraham Lincoln with a freed slave, to a bust of abolitionist Sojourner Truth in the Capitol Visitor Center, many sites pay tribute to the past with their depictions and preservations. Here are a few sites off the Mall where one can dig into some history.

Frederick Douglass
National Historic Site

A grand old house sits atop Cedar Hill across the Anacostia River; it’s in this building that abolitionist Frederick Douglass spent the last 18 years of his life. 

Douglass moved into the house at 1411 W St. SE in 1878 after a seven-year stint of living on Capitol Hill (passers-by can see his old residence at 316 A St. NE) and just after Reconstruction had ended.

When Douglass died in 1895, despite his contributions to the United States and because much of the country was in the height of passing Jim Crow laws, it was unlikely that anyone would create a memorial for him, National Park Service Ranger Braden Paynter said.

Douglass’ wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, got Congress to create the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association at the beginning of the 20th century. After her death in 1903, the association received the property, which was maintained by the group and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs for the next six decades.

In 1962, the house became a part of the NPS and was thus called the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. It went through a major restoration from 2004 to 2007.

The site, which holds several of Douglass’ possessions, serves as a physical landmark of American history from the Civil War in the 1860s to the beginning of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s.

“To explain the world that Dr. King is facing, you have to take note of Frederick Douglass,” Paynter said. “He’s born into and then confronts the world of slavery. He then has this great hope of Reconstruction. The [Klu Klux] Klan is created in his lifetime. In terms of continuity, that ends up being the segregated world King struggles with.”

The site is open daily. Its winter hours, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., start this weekend.

Anacostia Community Museum

Also across the river is one of the Smithsonian’s less-frequented museums, the Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE). 

The museum first opened as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967 to reach out to people in the Anacostia community who weren’t visiting the museums on the Mall, Museum Director Camille Giraud Akeju said.

“They didn’t see themselves reflected in the museum,” Akeju said. “There was a sense of isolation.”

Led by founder John Kinard, the museum aimed to be relevant to the African-American experience by representing the neighborhood’s culture through various exhibits, programs and lectures. The museum succeeded in its mission, even after Kinard’s death in 1989.

But when the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, the question arose: Is there a need for two museums with the same philosophy and vision?

That’s when the Anacostia museum shifted its focus to community issues rather than African-American issues. Its name officially became the Anacostia Community Museum in 2006.

But that doesn’t mean the museum is no longer connected to its roots.

“This community has a rich culture, and what we are trying to show is that what happens here is not unique,” Akeju said. “Issues of poverty, unemployment, isolation … they don’t have a color line. You find this throughout the world.”

This sort of mission reflects what King believed in, Akeju said.

“His was not only an American phenomenon,” she said. “His appeal was universal because he spoke of universal problems.”

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

“U Street-African American Civil War Memorial-Cardoza,” the Metro train operator rattles on. When people hop off at this stop on the green and yellow lines, it’s often to visit any number of bars and restaurants along the U Street corridor.

But nestled next to the escalator on the 10th and U streets Northwest exit is the second part of this Metro stop’s name.

Frank Smith was first inspired by the story of African-American soldiers in the Civil War while he was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the 1960s. He learned that more than 200,000 black soldiers died fighting for the Union and, in his view, for the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

As a D.C. councilmember decades later, Smith spearheaded the project for a memorial dedicated to these soldiers in an attempt to revitalize the U Street area, which he represented.

With the unveiling of the statue “The Spirit of Freedom” in 1998 and the opening of the museum in 1999, the site soon became a “living memorial,” Smith said.  Descendants of the soldiers whose names are listed on the statue now come to the museum to provide it with more artifacts and documents for its collection.

The memorial became a part of the NPS in 2004. This past summer, the museum relocated to a building directly across from the statue, receiving a 5,000-square-foot expansion.

For Smith, the memorial and museum represent the beginning of the civil rights movement in which he took part. “If they hadn’t fought, there’s no telling what would have happened,” he said. “There would have been no foundation for the civil rights movement a hundred years later.”

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.