Eye-opening artifacts of black history photo
(Greensboro Lunch Counter photo by James M. Thresher/For The Post )

Eye-opening artifacts of black history

Lavanya Ramanathan  |  Updated 01/26/2012

As a capital city, the area has long attracted prominent African Americans, including civic leaders and artists. Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed before the Emancipation Proclamation, African American men had voting rights before those elsewhere, and institutions such as Howard University have been a draw as well. But the vestiges of this history won't always be found in statues or memorials. Here are some eye-opening objects that have their own stories to tell.

 

Lincoln Memorial

Washington, DC

The "I have a dream" etching

It's startlingly easy to overlook the five short lines of text carved into the granite on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Every day, feet tromp across those words: "I HAVE A DREAM," they begin.

The stern figure rising out of rock on the edge of the Tidal Basin wasn't the first tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall. The elegantly etched words at the Lincoln Memorial came before, marking the spot where King rallied an estimated 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.

It wasn't until 2003, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the march, that local stone carver Andy Del Gallo was enlisted (after a law was passed by Congress allowing the addition) to etch the words that stretch no more than two feet wide. Yet they're transportive: To plant your feet on the spot is to imagine yourself there in 1963, looking out as King might have, to the people gathered as far away as the Washington Monument -- and seeing all the promise.

 

Smithsonian American Art Museum - Smithsonian Institution

Washington, DC

"The Death of Cleopatra"

In a sculpture-filled hall of the American Art Museum, there's a work on the second floor that tour guides like to stop and point to: Cleopatra.

Carved from marble, she's limp in her throne, her neck thrown back, her face frozen in unmistakable calm. Set off from the rest of the wing and displayed in its own nook with dusky purple walls, "The Death of Cleopatra" was the work of a young sculptor named Edmonia Lewis. African American and Native American, Lewis was considered to be the first professional black sculptor in U.S. history; she showed so much promise that a sponsor sent her to Rome to pursue her art, and newspapers noted her work widely. Her "Cleopatra," weighing nearly two tons, may have been her most notable piece, causing a stir when it was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

But the sculpture didn't arrive at the American Art Museum in style. Shortly after its early exhibitions, it turned up at a Chicago-area racetrack, where it was a grave marker for a horse and remained for nearly a century. Until, that is, it was moved unceremoniously to a salvage yard in the 1970s. When it finally arrived in the hands of American Art, it was in shambles, requiring reconstruction of the queen's nose, hands and breast, while the asp in her hand (which Cleopatra famously used to commit suicide) had to be replaced before it was unveiled by the museum in 1996. But move in close and you can still see the statue's strange journey in the worn, pocked stone.

 

The Carousel on the National Mall

Washington, DC

Children regularly scramble onto the carousel on the Mall for a three-minute thrill, one which the rapidly whirling merry-go-round with the faded paint and kitschy ponies never fails to deliver.

The Smithsonian carousel was built in the 1940s by the Allan Herschell Co., but its history is far richer than the families who frequent it might suspect.

Before the carousel arrived on the Mall, it was a popular attraction at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn, Md., one of the region's most booming parks. Gwynn Oak was, as many amusement parks were at the time, whites-only.

But in September 1955, as a wave of integration efforts was beginning to effect change in schools, restaurants and public services, a group of 40 protesters from a group known as the Congress of Racial Equality arrived at Gwynn Oak to ask why black people weren't allowed in the park, author Amy Nathan writes in her new book, "Round & Round Together." The book chronicles the carousel's place in the local civil rights movement and the broader effort to integrate amusement parks.

Protesters had begun to target the parks in part because, Nathan says, turning away children had a particular sting -- it was an injustice that clergy and political leaders couldn't ignore, and many joined the picket line.

It took years of tenacious protests, till Aug. 28, 1963, before Gwynn Oak opened its gates to all visitors. (By contrast, Glen Echo's desegregation protests began in 1960 and were successful by 1961.) The first African American family to enter the park that day were the Langleys; the ride that they chose for their wide-eyed toddler, Sharon, was the carousel.

Now, there are no signs noting that history, but "riding the merry-go-round today can give you a link to that era," Nathan says. "They got nowhere, for years, but they kept persisting and changing their strategies till it paid off."

 

African American Civil War Museum

Washington, DC

The African American Civil Museum is dedicated to telling the story of black people in the Civil War, but the first display at the newly expanded museum starts much earlier, with the arrival of enslaved men and women on these shores. There, on a wall, you'll find the shackles.

Not more than a foot long, the small restraints -- "ship shackles," as they are known, because they were used on men and women in the belly of slave ships sailing from Africa to the West -- came to the museum from an anonymous donor who had gotten them in Ghana. They date back to the 18th or 19th century, but little else of their provenance is known.

Though the most famous slave shackles surfaced from the sunken slave ship the Henrietta Marie (the artifacts of the 1700 shipwreck became part of a popular traveling exhibit), there's something particularly haunting about the ones in the Vermont Avenue museum: You can put your hands on them, feel the cool iron, imagine how cruel it might have been to wear them or to have placed them on another human.

That, says Hari Jones, curator of the museum, is what the museum is after. "We want people to be able to touch the history. It's a connection. You can't touch the person, but you can touch the object."

Jones likes to pull an old musket from the museum's collection -- a piece that he says represents how African Americans served in the Union Army and fought for their own emancipation -- and show it to young people who come through, as a sort of addendum. "One of the things I often do with the shackles is I say, 'You can touch them, but you can't leave the museum til you appreciate how those shackles were gotten rid of.'?"

 

National Museum of American History - Smithsonian Institution

Washington, DC

Greensboro Lunch Counter

The slab of a counter prominently displayed on the second floor of the American History Museum is eight feet long and unassuming, with just four art-deco stools -- two covered in mint-green vinyl, two in salmon-pink. It was in those seats, at that counter in an F.W. Woolworth store, that four Greensboro, N.C., college freshmen planted themselves on Feb. 1, 1960, and ordered. When employees refused to serve the young African American students, the men refused to leave. For nearly six months they continued their sit-in; they were joined by other students and supporters who eventually would occupy nearly all of the other stools at the counter, draining the restaurant of its revenue. The Greensboro sit-in was one of the watershed moments of the civil rights movement, inspiring dozens of similar sit-ins across the country. On July 25, the retailer relented, and four African Americans became the first to break bread at the newly integrated restaurant. But they weren't the Greensboro Four. They were four Woolworth employees.

The best time to see the counter (located on the second floor in the east wing) is Fridays and Sundays, when 20-minute programs with protest songs and discussions throughout the day highlight the history of the sit-in and allow guests to experience it for themselves.

 

Richard Hunt Sculptures

Washington, DC

In a public square next to the Cosi on 11th and G streets NW, the handful of towering bronze sculptures might go unnoticed by harried shoppers and lunchtime crowds. But the sculpture garden, a commission by African American artist Richard Hunt, one of the most prolific public sculptors in the United States, is among Washington's artistic treasures.

"I've been following his work 20 years, as a book collector," says the historian McQuirter, who chanced upon an exhibit of Hunt's work in Washington decades ago and was instantly struck by it. "I've always been attracted to abstract art, but what's interesting is that usually the artists you hear the most about are ones who deliberately depict African Americans in some way."

Not so with Hunt, who rose to wide fame in the 1970s and '80s with steel abstractions that are full of feeling, if not message. Hunt, who is based in Chicago, has a deep relationship with Washington: An exhibit organized by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on the White House grounds included a work by Hunt, and a bronze piece, "A Bridge Across and Beyond," is installed at Howard University. And Hunt also was a member of the highly exclusive jury that selected Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The objects at Metro Center, installed in 1992, are some of the most accessible markers of his legacy. "It's huge, gorgeous and lyrical," McQuirter says of his work. "It's like wings -- it's hopeful."

 

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Washington, DC

"Storming Fort Wagner"

Inside Cedar Hill, the astonishing Anacostia mansion that belonged to abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass late in his life, there are dozens of items -- books, portraits of high-profile Americans, even a set of dumbbells Douglass used to stay fit -- that could qualify as treasures. The framed, yellowed print in the foyer barely registers.

Yet it has a story to tell: The 1890 lithograph, "Storming Fort Wagner," depicts the African American 54th Massachusetts ­Volunteer Infantry Regiment entering into battle with Confederate forces at Fort Wagner in July 1863, not far from Charleston, S.C.

In the image, the men make a bold advance on the white Confederate troops; their leader, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, raises his sword toward the sky in a battle cry.

Among the soldiers that day? Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass, one of Douglass's sons, who survived, though the unit was defeated. Another son, Charles, also was a member of the 54th, the first unit of its kind in the Civil War. Douglass, it's said, hung the piece in the home himself before his death in 1895.

As for the 54th, you might know its story: The unit inspired the movie "Glory."

 

U.S. Capitol

Washington, DC

The D.C. Emancipation Act at the Capitol Visitor Center

The signature on the D.C. Emancipation Act says it all: "Approved, April 16, 1862. Abraham Lincoln."

More than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln turned the District into a kind of trial run, freeing nearly 3,000 people. With the act, Lincoln made the unusual promise to compensate slave owners for lost property, explains Jane Freundel Levey, chief historian for Cultural Tourism DC. "The abolition movement focused on getting Washington to free the slaves as an example," she says. "Washington has always been a laboratory for the Hill." A commission was created by the D.C. act to evaluate slave owners' claims, and 930 petitions for compensation were approved.

Some of the particulars from the D.C. Emancipation Act never made it into the Emancipation Proclamation, including the payments to slave owners, and an option to pay $100 to former slaves who chose to leave the United States after attaining their freedom.

The earlier document is at the National Archives, where it, like the Emancipation Proclamation, is only occasionally on display. But come March, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it will be part of an exhibit at the Capitol Visitor Center for nearly six months. Make a point of seeing it.

(On display March 12-Sept. 8)

 

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