On July 4, 1967, a heavyset, bearded community worker named John Robert Kinard was handed the keys to the old Carver Theater on Nichols Avenue SE. From the shambles of a movie house he was to create a museum.
Some people from the Smithsonian Institution downtown, who knew what they were doing, helped out, as well as the guys on the corner who yearned more for muscatel than a museum. Two months later something called the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum opened.
Ten years have passed. Nicholas, the byway to the heart of Anacostia, is now Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The dudes are still on the corner. John Kinard has dropped a few pounds but still has a wrestler's build, he has changed the style of his beard and he has shaped his museum into a cultural staple of the city and the international museum network.
In his 10th anniversary assessment, S. Dillon Ripley, the patriarch of the Smithsonian empire that includes the Anacostia museum praises its projects and consciousness-raising efforts and says, "The museum is no longer an experiment."
Today the museum is actually three buildings: the main exhibition hall; the Anacostia Research Center and innovative historical project; and the Anacostia Exhibits Center, a laboratory that not only designs shows but trains people for careers in museum work. The budget has steadily climbed from $45,000 to $500,000 annually.
"We have reached a degree of emotional, academic and technical security," says Kinard, who is now 40. "I'm not coming begging anymore. I am offering something."
To celebrate its first decade, the museum gave an informal reception last night and is planning a banquet on Saturday.
Yet, as Kinard turns in his leather chair behind his large and neat desk, fixing his eyes on a steeple beyond the green shutters, he talks of fears. The fear of a museum as an unknown that didn't belong to his life - the life of a city man who grew up poor, protected by parents who used the church as shield against wrongs - and as an alien factor to a life that had focused on the essentials of daily existence in African ghettos.
He talks of the fears of deep-sea diving overcome by the thrill of exploring the coral reef off Belize, briefly in the shadow of a shark. And the fear of mediocrity, its crippling effects on his life and his community.
"I have a fear more sociological than anything, a fright induced by circumstances, ones that don't allow people full growth. Because circumstances determine so much, and inner-city kid might have the paranioa that not only does the larger world not belong to you but you don't belong to you.
"Not to have a sense of identity is a fear. But I have been fortunate, people were concerned about me before I was concerned about me."
And Kinard broods about these things, not only because he knows people speak of him as a role model, or because he's an ordained minister, but because he is a genuine humanitarian. He gets up in the middle of the night when a street dude gets evicted and he argues for the penniless in that largely rarified world of museum directors, a devil's advocate role that's admired even by his critics.
"John really believes his mission is to help," says his wife, Marjorie Kinard. "He is not a status seekers. He lives his convictions, and he wants to be one of the people." The seminary student was smitten with the young undergraduate at Livingstone College in Salisbury, N. C., because, she recalls laughing, "He just realized I was a fine fox."
No matter what his forum, Kinard isn't different things for different folks, a quality rare in a city where postures are created for the moment's gain.
"I don't play myself cheap, I have abilities. I have a sense of me. I am no better, no worse than the next," says Kinard. "Also, I have a willingness to accept every person as I find them and then engage them in a constructive dialogue."
And the exchange typically is blunt, rarely belligerent, but always persistent. "He raises the issues very effectively and then argues, strongly, forthrightly," says Atley Shidler, chairman of the planning committee for the newly formed area Cultural Alliance. "He led an exhaustive discussion on the responsibility to the city until the issues were very clear." Arguing that the Alliance should concentrate on Washington the city, rather than the region, Kinard was outvoted and now says, very cautiously, "I intend to keep my eye on the equality of funding."
Most of his life Kinard has questioned. As a kid, he wondered why Anacostia was discussed in such remote and awesome terms, terms at the other end scale from good. "If you came over to play baseball, you knew you would play, then get beaten up. The guys were bad but the family doctor was here, too," says Kinard, whose slightly Jamaican-sounding accent does not indicate that he grew up at 15th and C Streets SE, near the jail. His father was a porter, loading and unloading trucks for Capitol City Liquors. The three Kinard boys scrubbed bathrooms for $1 and delivered groceries, for spare change.
After Spingarn High School, Kinard wanted to become a historian; he had questions about the past, the lessons to be learned for the future. At Livingstone College, he became very interested in Africa, spending the summer of 1962 building a cafeteria and dormitory in Tanzania. The next summer, when the civil rights events captured the energies of many college students, Kinard worked for Operation Crossroads Africa in Kenya. For more than a year he worked full time on Africa projects.
Then, at the height of the poverty programs thrust, Kinard switched to community action, arguing against marching and picketing. "Part of the psychological problem of Anacostia has been that we criticize and complain. Not that it is wrong but the problem is that we often fail to suggest a way out. I wanted to sit down and figure out what are our alternatives, what are the ways out," says Kinard, who worked with the Southeast Neighborhood House and other development programs.
He was outshouted and began looking for a newer approach to social action. At the same time, a group of citizens in Anacostia had heard Dillon Ripley raise the idea of a community/storefront museum.
"No one knew what they wanted. I thought of the Smithsonian as remote and austere; it was and still is," says Kinard. He was approached by the local group to be the director; responded, "No, I don't know anything about museum;" was told, "Good, we don't know anything either;" and Kinard decided, "What the hell."
Of the 40 exhibitions in the last decade, many bringing new perspectives on historical epochs such as the American Revolution, the one Kinard liked the most was "The Rat: Man's Invited Affliction," mounted in late 1969. Live rats scampered around in cages, while the wall panels told the historical, biological and contemporary facts of the rodent.
"We have been most successful at being attentive to the needs of the people of Anacostia," says Kinard. "Our problems are housing, education, transportation, health and sanitation. How does this notion of serving the people jive with the museum structure? The 'Rats' gave us an awareness of the problem. The rats are still with us."
Kinard is a tense person but relaxes by cooking vegetables stews and juices, combing the hair of his three young daughters, reading African history and politics, entertaining his wide circles of friends in his modest, two storey house a quick walk from the museum. Occasionally the preaches at John Wesley A. M.E. Zion Church, where he is assistant pastor.
But he has a fear. "The 10 years have given me a frightful occupation. In my head I am constantly trying to justify the inactivity, the mediocrity among my residents, even among my staff people. The community of Anacostia should be a model. It poses a creative challenge because I am the perpetual optimist. I think God uses us in spite of ourselves."