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UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See prorev.com for full contents of our site

January 27, 2010

DOCUMENTING A SUBMERGED BLACK PAST





SCURLOCK STUDIO - SMITHSONIAN 

Smithsonian Magazine - Long before a black family moved into the president's quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. was an African-American capital: as far back as Reconstruction, black families made their way to the city on their migration north. By the turn of the 20th century, the District of Columbia had a strong and aspiring black middle class, whose members plied almost every trade in town. Yet in 1894, a black business leader named Andrew F. Hilyer noted an absence: "There is a splendid opening for a first class Afro-American photographer as we all like to have our pictures taken."

Addison Scurlock filled the bill. He had come to Washington in 1900 from Fayetteville, North Carolina, with his parents and two siblings. Although he was only 17, he listed "photographer" as his profession in that year's census. After apprenticing with a white photographer named Moses Rice from 1901 to 1904, Scurlock started a small studio in his parents' house. By 1911, he had opened a storefront studio on U Street, the main street of Washington's African-American community. He put his best portraits in the front window.

"There'd be a picture of somebody's cousin there," Scurlock's son George would recall much later, "and they would say, 'Hey, if you can make him look that good, you can make me look better.' " Making all his subjects look good would remain a Scurlock hallmark, carried on by George and his brother Robert.

A Scurlock camera was "present at almost every significant event in the African-American community," recalls former D.C. Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis, whose father, Howard University physician Charles Drew, was a Scurlock subject many times. Dashing all over town-to baptisms and weddings, to balls and cotillions, to high-school graduations and to countless events at Howard, where he was the official photographer-Addison Scurlock became black Washington's "photographic Boswell-the keeper of the visual memory of the community in all its quotidian ordinariness and occasional flashes of grandeur and moment," says Jeffrey Fearing, a historian who is also a Scurlock relative. . .

At a time when minstrel caricature was common, Scurlock's pictures captured black culture in its complexity and showed black people as they saw themselves. "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise," an exhibition presented through this month by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, features images of young ballerinas in tutus, of handsomely dressed families in front of fine houses and couples in gowns and white tie at the NAACP's winter ball.

"You see these amazing strivers, you see these people who have acquired homes and businesses," says Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum, whose permanent home on the National Mall is scheduled to open in 2015. (The current exhibition is at the National Museum of American History.) "In some ways I think the Scurlocks saw themselves as partners with Du Bois in. . . crafting a new vision of America, a vision where racial equality and racial improvement was possible."

SLIDE SHOW

Sam Smith, Why Bother? - There is a community centered around U Street now known as Shaw where for decades just such a collective form of survival thrived. It has been a particular interest of my wife, historian Kathryn Schneider Smith. In the wake of the Civil War, this area north of Washington's downtown -- originally occupied by both whites and blacks -- experienced a building boom.

With Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change. Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300. Every aspect of the community followed suit.

Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem's Apollo converted to black performances) and two first rate movie palaces. There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.

Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York. This was a proud community. "We had everything we needed," recalls one older resident. "And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well." T

The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: "There was no family my family didn't know or that didn't know me. I couldn't go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn't just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us."

All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation. Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize.

Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement. Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization's headquarters on U Street -- at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed over the decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold.

Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.

With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride -- not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington's early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.

Kathy Smith's updated version of Washington at Home - featuring 26 DC neighborhoods (each by a different author) and hundreds of photos - many never published before - will be available from John Hopkins Press in the spring. 

Addresses of the past

If you're visiting Washington and interested in black history, here are some addresses of people who once lived there, all within walking distance of each other.

PEARL BAILEY, 1300 Florida NW
MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE, 1318 Vermont Ave NW
STERLING BROWN, 2464 6th NW
CAB CALLOWAY, Whitelaw Hotel
DR CHARLES DREW, 328 College NW
PAUL LAWRENCE DUNBAR, 321 U NW
DUKE ELLINGTON, 1212 T NW
SWEET DADDY GRACE, 11 LOGAN CIRCLE
CHARLES H HOUSTON, 1444 Swann NW
LANGSTON HUGHES, 12th Street YMCA
GEORGIA DOUGLAS JOHNSON, 1561 S NW
ODESSA MADRE, 2204 14th NW
THURGOOD MARSHALL, Whitelaw Hotel
JELLY ROLL MORTON, 1211 U NW
ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, 8 LOGAN CIRCLE
A PHILIP RANDOLPH, Whitelaw Hotel
ADDISON SCURLOCK, 1530 T NW
MARY CHUCH TERRELL, 326 T NW
JEAN TOOMER, 1341 U NW
CARTER G. WOODSON, 1538 9th NW


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