Broadcast: August 18, 2003
Washington, D.C., has many museums. Some examine Washington as a federal city. But a new museum tells the story of the nation’s capital and its people. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. We tell about the City Museum this week on the VOA Special English program, This is America.
Barbara Franco is director of the City Museum. She says visitors learn that Washington, D.C., is much more than just the historic buildings. D.C. means District of Columbia, the name of the larger federal area with Washington at the center. The museum tells about the people and events that helped shaped the capital. Five-hundred-thousand people live in the city.
The City Museum is a thirty-million dollar project. It was created by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The Historical Society was founded in eighteen-ninety-four.
The City Museum is inside the Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square, in Washington’s newly redeveloped downtown area. The Carnegie Library was the city’s first public library. It was open from nineteen-oh-three until nineteen-seventy. The Carnegie Library was chosen for the museum because of its own history as a welcoming place. There was a time when laws could keep black people out of buildings. The Carnegie Library is one of the few public buildings in Washington that was never segregated.
Barbara Franco says the City Museum is designed to be interactive. Doors open to different periods in Washington's history. Visitors pick up a speakerphone and listen to stories about the city. A film tells the history with hip-hop music and special effects. Pictures of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln speak and appear to jump out at you.
The main room has many pictures and rare documents. Visitors can read the freedom papers of a former slave. A poster from eighty-sixty-five offers reward money to find the killer of President Lincoln. The killer was John Wilkes Booth, an actor who supported the Confederate states of the South. Booth was caught and killed before there could be a trial.
But Barbara Franco says the most popular thing at the museum is a huge lighted floor map of Washington. The map was made from a satellite picture. Local visitors can find their home, or school, or anyplace else around the city.
Around the map, the room is divided into time periods. These begin with the Piscataway Indians who settled the area four-thousand years ago.
Visitors learn about Pierre L’Enfant, a French-born building designer who lived in America. L'Enfant designed the city of Washington in seventy-ninety-one, at the direction of George Washington, the nation's first president.
And there was Alexander Shepherd. He was governor of Washington from eighteen-seventy-three to eighteen-seventy-four. He led an improvement campaign that included building streets and planting trees. But he left the city several million dollars in debt.
There is also the story of James Wormley. His father was a slave. Yet in eighteen-seventy-one, after the Civil War, James Wormley opened one of the best hotels in the city.
Barbara Franco says this success shows that African Americans played an important part in Washington's early history. But she notes that some of that progress was harmed because of future laws in America that treated blacks unfairly.
Washington has more than one-hundred-twenty-five neighborhood communities. Visitors to the museum learn about areas such as Adams Morgan, Georgetown and Chinatown.
Chinese immigrants established a community on Pennsylvania Avenue during the middle of the eighteen-hundreds. They were later forced out, but found a permanent home along H Street in Northwest Washington.
The City Museum also deals with longstanding tensions over local control of Washington. Today, Washington has an elected mayor and city council. But citizens protest that while they have taxation, they have no voting representation in Congress. Some people think the solution is to make Washington the fifty-first state.
The museum also explores the city's history of racial problems. Tensions were high during the slavery debates before the Civil War in the eighteen-sixties. In nineteen-nineteen, race riots took place. Whites attacked black neighborhoods. In nineteen-sixty-eight, blacks rioted after the murder of Martin Luther King Junior in Memphis, Tennessee.
During the nineteen-sixties, African Americans also protested racial inequality in schools. They worked to desegregate eating places and theaters. And they worked to end restrictive housing laws.
Some streets in Washington are named after letters in the alphabet. U Street, for example, has a long and interesting history. In the early nineteen-hundreds, Greater U Street was the center of entertainment and business in Washington.
U Street was part of the artistic movement of the nineteen-twenties and thirties known as the Harlem Renaissance. People heard some of the city’s best music along what became known as the black Broadway. Singer Bessie Smith played at the Howard Theater. So did a Washingtonian who became a famous orchestra leader, Duke Ellington.
U Street also was home to the Twelfth Street YMCA, a center for community activities and sports. YMCA stands for Young Men's Christian Association. The Twelfth Street "Y," as it was called, was the first black YMCA in the country. It was built in nineteen-twelve.
Here was one of the few places where African Americans could find a home away from home and make life-long friends. Political activists met at the Y to organize marches to demand the same freedoms as white people.
Teachers and professors lived at the Y because rooms there did not cost much. Writer Langston Hughes lived at the Twelfth Street Y when he wrote his first book in the nineteen-twenties. Listen now to a recording from the City Museum of a doctor and his wife:
MAN: "I probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the Y. Because, as I can look back, I came to Washington, never been out of Texas, had less than five dollars after I paid the cab fare from Union Station to the Y -- now this was in January, snow was on the ground -- and here I am, they literally took me in."
WOMAN: "The Y gave me my first job. That was my first time being away from home, where I took care of myself. I made friends back then, who are still my friends. I think being at the Y had an impression on my life."
As visitors explore the City Museum, they learn about the period when Marion Barry was mayor of Washington. He began as an activist seeking home rule for the District and civil rights. His popularity won him election to the school board, the city council and finally the mayor’s office. He served from nineteen-seventy-eight to nineteen-ninety.
But there were mismanaged social programs, debt and repeated accusations of dishonesty in his administration. In nineteen-ninety, Marion Barry was arrested for drug possession. He resigned and served six months in prison. Then, in nineteen-ninety-four, Washington voters elected him to four more years as mayor.
When people in Washington are tired of politics, they can turn to sports. Washington has a number of teams, although no Major League baseball team for more than thirty years. Yet, during segregation, even sports was no escape from racial realities.
Negro League baseball teams were popular in the nineteen-thirties. But they could not play white teams. Sports centers for blacks often lacked equipment and space. Race also divided play areas for children. Listen to this recording from the City Museum:
WOMAN: "Only ten white children are using the spacious New York Avenue playground, while across the street a thousand Negro girls and five-hundred Negro boys at the Dunbar High School have no play space at all. Dark-skinned children peer wistfully through the fence at a well-equipped white playground in their neighborhood. Historian Constance Green."
Over the years, some government agencies and businesses have left Washington for nearby areas of Virginia and Maryland. Many whites fled the city after the nineteen-sixty-eight riots and the high crime rates of more recent years. So did a lot of blacks, especially wealthier ones.
Today, some people are returning to Washington. There is a lot of building and redevelopment going on. City Museum director Barbara Franco hopes the new exhibits will get more people to explore what she says is the real museum -- Washington itself.
This is America was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk. This is Faith Lapidus.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another program about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, This is America.