A showing of slides tracing the development of the District's Mount Pleasant community and a music and storytelling session closed out the fifth annual historical conference on life in Washington last week.
About 300 persons attended the six lectures during the two-day conference, which was sponsored by the Columbia Historical Society and George Washington University. Meetings were held at the Martin Luther King Jr. library.
Perry G. Fisher, executive director of the historical society discussed the evolution of Mount Pleasant.Original and traditional folk compositions about life in Washington were sung by guitarist Joe Glazer, an employee with the U.S. Information Agency. The spirit and nuances of Washington folklore were presented in a videotaped, storytelling session featuring participants in last year's folk life festival sponsored by the Smithsonian. School librarian Jean Alexander and children from the Brightwood Elementary School performed children's singing games.
"We want to raise the level of sophistication of people to make them aware of the city," said Roderick S. French, explaining the university's purpose for initiating the conferences with the historical society in 1974. French is director of GWU's Experimental Programs Division, the department that organized the conference.
Traditionally most historians have only been interested in federal Washington, he said. The conferences have allowed people interested in Washington as a city to meet with professional and amateur historians to "rediscover the neighborhoods," he said. The D.C. school system is considering development of a program in local history with courses beginning in the ninth grade, said French.
During the folklore program, presented this year for the first time, the audience applauded and hooted with laughter as Glazer sang about racism, Congress, and real estate in Washington. Accompanying himself on a steel-string guitar Glazer crooned "At the Lincoln Monument Abe said to me, I thought I freed the slaves back in '63. But it's a bourgeoise town . . ." from Bourgeoise Blues, by Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter, king of the 12-string guitar.
Later the audience again reeled with laughter at the antics of fish seller Lincoln Murray, cabdriver Bob Chapman and Bob Sanders, a retired Capitol Hill policeman.
Murray sang the original, rhythmic chants that had moved his boat from last place to the number three selling position on the wharf.
School librarian Alexadner directed a group of third graders in a series of traditional ring and rope singing games to show the variations that have developed over the years in Washington. Children begin collecting a repertory of games at about age 4, said Alexander. Four years later they'll know 30 games or more. Games are continued throughout "the playground generation" into sixth grade, she said. By this time they've become more elaborate and intricate in nature.
Accompanied by slides showing historical and present day Mount Pleasan, Fisher narrated the history of what was once one of the major properties of land in Washington - the Pleasant Plains.
After the Civil War the plains developed into the fashionable suburb known as Mount Pleasant. The inhabitants were originally New Englanders who had become well-to-do Washington bankers, teachers and attorneys, he said. Residents were known for their independence, high regard for education, hard work, sobriety and love of family, Perry said. Fourteenth Street became the major business and transportation center of the village and nearly all of Mount Pleasant's black population also lived there, he said.
During World War II the area began to change, Perry said. Row houses were converted into apartments and a tenant population developed. By 1970 the area was 65 per cent black. Today it is inhabited by affluent homeowners and low-income residents who are being pushed out of their homes by real estate speculation, said Perry.