Category Archives: Lectures

Determining what Jesus looked like, Lecture ~ Walter’s Art Gallery

Friday, I attended a lecture at the Walter’s Art Gallery: “Is this the Face of Christ? A Good Friday Lecture”

Bring your light lunch to this richly illustrated talk, in which Gary Vikan will explore the emergence of the ‘canonical’ face of Christ in the early medieval period. For nearly 1,500 years, illustrators of the story of Jesus of all backgrounds — from Byzantine mosaics to Hollywood filmmakers — have remained true to this face.

Dr. Vikan will explore how that face was and is used in Orthodox devotion, and how, over the centuries, it was subtly adapted theologically and stylistically to suit the various Christian nations of the world.

Gary Vikan is the director of the Walters Art Museum.

Early Christian examples of Christ in art, depicted him in a number of classical motifs: the classical shepherd, hero and philosopher.  These appear especially on Roman sarcophagi of early Christians, who at the time existed as an underground cult in a society where religious syncretism was the norm and the Christian and Jewish cults resisted it to their detriment.

Vikan went onto describe the development of pilgrimage and relic-veneration through the acts of Helen, Constantine’s mother in the Holy Land.  This comes, at least in part, out of an older classical, pagan tradition, but in the Christian tradition Christ and the saints transfered their holiness to the things they touched and the places they visited.  For early Christians before Constantine’s conversion this compunction to travel and collect material was largely unknown as God was understood to be everywhere.  This notion of holiness-concentrated from the Late Antique is the origin for the pilgrimages and relics of Christendom.

It is roughly from this point that the lecture turned to a very specific relic: a shroud discovered around 550 AD/CE.  The significance of this shroud comes from a story, in which King Abgar of Edessa sends messengers to ask for aid from Jesus, who refuses Abgar’s request.  Determined for some source of aid, Abgar sends a painter to capture an image of Jesus, but Christ’s radiance prevents him from his mission.  Jesus takes a piece of fabric and wipes his face with it, giving it to the artist, and upon this the image of his face is preserved.  This is the semitic image of Jesus that becomes the canonical image of Jesus in the Orthodox religions and eventually moves to the West (Vikan hypothesized by the mid-7th century it has certainly made the trip).

Once it is clear, from the tradition of Abgar, what Jesus looks like, it is the only way he can be represented.  (It also mandates that the image of Jesus be two-dimensional, because that is the way the image is past down from Jesus, himself, thus ruling out statuary.)  Having said that, each culture (indeed, each artist) makes the image its own–something regarded as quite natural since Jesus is the Son of Man.  A debate, and ultimately a conflict, arises over the images: iconoclasts ultimately believing that the images, or icons, were the objects of worship and thus idols to be cast down and destroyed; whereas, iconophiles regarded the image as an object of veneration–not worship–which served to focus the faithful.  Icons could do more by harnessing the holiness on the image.  As a result, they were frequently brought to the city walls for defense–a practice continuing in twentieth-century Russia, even as recently as the Cold War.

This adoption of the image of Christ to one’s culture persists today in artistic representations of Jesus and in cinematic representations.

Werner Sullivan's blue-eyed Jesus

In America, the persistent image of the blue-eyed Jesus Christ starts with the painting (that was handed out to every G.I. in World War II) by a Swedish-American immigrant, Werner Sullivan.  This prompts the image of Jesus in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told and subsequently Mel Gibson’s selection of James Caviezel for The Passion.  Thus, the image of  the (anglo-) American Jesus.

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A Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airman on a "Buy War Bonds" WWII poster, autographed by Dr. Cyril O. Byron and Bill Peterson.

Thursday night (2/17/11), I attended a Tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen sponsored by the Community College of Baltimore County’s Aviation Club, Black Student Union and History Club.  It was a thrill!  Guests Dr. Cyril O. Byron, an original Tuskegee Airman (part of the ground crew) and Bill Peterson (a heritage Tuskegee Airman–his father was an original and he was the paperboy from 1945-46, later joining three years after integration) shared some of the experiences of serving in the military during the era of segregation.

During World War II, many black military units were minimized.  There were exceptions, such as the 761st Tank Battalion that served 183 consecutive days following General Patton.  The Navy had the Golden 13.  Black nurses served, but could not treat white combatants.  The Marines did not commission a black officer until November 10, 1945.  And, the colonel in command of the Tuskegee Airmen was a graduate of West Point, Col. Theo Davis, Jr., where he spent his four years in isolation, no one speaking to him.

Those who attended the tribute heard about popular contemporary fears that Army Air Corps-trained pilots from the Tuskegee program might seek work as commercial pilots after the war.  Everywhere the squadron went they were unwelcome.  At one point during the evening, a brief clip was shown that featured three Tuskegee original pilots.  Capt. Luther H. Smith, inspired at a young age by Charles Lindberg’s daring trans-Atlantic flight, was shot down on a mission, but told friends and colleagues that he was treated better as a POW than he was in America or in the military.  Lt. Col. Lee Buddy Archer, the Ace of the Red Tails, explained how as a boy in Saratoga Springs a pilot who was selling airplane rides for $5 refused his father and added to his determination to fly.  Col. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee pilot flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, logging the most combat hours (as far as they knew) of any combat pilot.

Dr. Cyril O. Byron, now ninety years old, was a sophomore at Morgan State College when Uncle Sam invited him to join the Army, in 1942.  After time spent in New York, he was transferred down to Tuskegee, AL and assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron.  He described Tuskegee as being as unfriendly to the colored units, as they were known, as one might guess.  They could not go into town.  If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to make arrangements in advance at the base, go down to the cinema in one truck, wait while one man bought all the tickets and then file in through the side door and up to the balcony.  And, all this while wearing the uniform of the United States Army!  Dr. Byron said he actively chose to think positively adhering to his father’s words, “Don’t resent what you can’t prevent.”

The squadron would eventually be sent overseas, but would bounce around from unit to unit–all of the first few being British units–until they were assigned to an American base in Salerno, Italy.  Italian children would ask for candy then circle around the airmen.  At the time, they thought it was just a ploy to get more candy out of them, but then someone spoke to the children and learned that they had been told that black men had tails.  Italians  familiar with American culture would ask the airmen why they fought for freedoms that they did not have in America.  It was hard to answer such queries.

As an escort squadron, recognized by the red paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs–thus their nickname, “Red Tails“–they became one of the most requested units by bomber squadrons who had no idea that the pilots were black.  They were in such high demand, in fact, that one of the leaders named his aircraft, “By Request”.  A couple of years ago, Dr. Byron said a white man approached him to thank him for the success rate of the Red Tails, because his father had always insisted that had it not been for them he would not have survived the war.  Nonetheless, back on American soil, even German POWs had more access on American bases than the successful Tuskegee Airmen because of the color of their skin.  It would take 62 years for the United States to finally award medals of recognition to the airmen.

Following the war, Dr. Byron would finish his degree and then proceed to NYU for his Masters and further to Temple for his Ed.D.  Peterson would join up three years after the armed forces were integrated and through the military complete his education.

The presentation concluded with a final thank you from a CCBC aviation student, Doug, who had been a part of the Tuskegee Youth and Aviation Program at College Park, MD–CCBC awarded a $500 donation to the same program in gratitude for Mr. Peterson and Dr. Byron’s presentations and time Thursday evening.  Doug expressed his thanks briefly, not only for the direct involvement he had in their program, but also for the legacy that they had handed down to him from the days of segregation.

The evening’s events concluded with the movie, The Tuskegee Airmen.  It was a special evening and the parties involved at CCBC did a terrific job in bringing it all together!

Bill Peterson (standing, left, in red) and Dr. Cyril O. Byron (seated, right) sign autographs with Doug assisting (standing, right, in red).


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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 1

This past week historians descended on Boston thicker than a Nor’easter snow storm!  This is an enormous conference, not least because it is open to as wide a collection as possible of the fields and subfields under the history umbrella.  In hundreds of workshops, innovative ideas are presented, discussed, have sex with each other and create new little ideas that will grow in the work and research of both the presenters and the audience.  These are great moments for those of us in the field to develop professionally and grow in the field.

I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share this week from the conference and which I will spread over a couple of posts.

Rhetorics of Reform and Medieval Religion

The Semiotics of Pious Reform and Insurgent Historiographies in Early Islam, Thomas N. Sizgorich, University of California at Irvine

A Conversation Across Centuries: Reforming the Secular Clergy in Western Christendom, 800-1200,  Maureen C. Miller, University of California at Berkeley

Reform, and Ever Reforming: From “Movements” to Conflicts, from Persons to Institutions, from the Twelfth Century to the Fifteenth, John H. Van Engen, University of Notre Dame

Comment: Mayke de Jong, Universitiet Utrecht

I have been interested in various reform movements in the Medieval period, spending the most time with the Carolingians and the 11th century.  In most cases, I was concerned with the intended reforms and not their relative success, in other words: trying to grasp what was intended in these reforms on the part of specific reformers though not necessarily how successful any actually were.  The reason for this is obvious–we have the documentation for the reformers so we can make that effort to get inside their heads, but determining their successful or unsuccessful implementation is not as well-documented.  But, this is where the challenge is and historians are remiss to ignore it.  This was, to a large degree, the substance of the talks.  The word “reform” has started to lose its currency in much the same way that the word “feudalism” has.

Whereas Miller turned to material culture to try to trace attempts at clerical reforms and actually ascertain to what degree the reforms were implemented, Van Engen discussed the difficulty in the idea of “reform” for an institution that should be continually devoted to self-reflection and, thus ideally, self-correction.  The point is this: to really return a sense of substance to the word, it would behoove us to stop considering reform in terms of waves of movements, and instead focus on the changes that occurred (or didn’t) as a result of calls to reform.  De Jong congratulated the presenters on this precise point when recalling the work of Robert Markus (recently deceased and remembered) who suggested that the real work for scholars would be to look at the spaces and places that changed and shifted in the Church’s history.  (This is what he did so well in The End of Ancient Christianity.)

Without this revision to our approach, the word “reform” seems to require definition and explanation every time it is used.  It also means that we need to leave behind the purely intellectual history of most previous reform discussions and try to tease out the actual effects of these propositions on the ground.

This is what Miller did in her presentation regarding the priestly vestments and their evolution through the period of the 800-1200 reform movements, seeking evidence of these alterations in the material culture–a challenging task given the limited number of sample artifacts.  Her project is clearly attempting to rectify not only the problems with our discussions about reforms but also the means by which we gain insight to movement on the ground.  In addition to the vestments, she made use of the regional liturgical legislation as a method for inter-textual reading against the legislation that was coming out of Rome which faced unique challenges that were not experienced in most regional churches.

Van Engen compared the resistance to these movements among the clergy as being frequently resisted among large segments of the targeted population to a hypothetical reform in academia wherein professors would lose their offices and instead congregate together as a return to academia’s purer roots!  Given that, it seems worthwhile to identify actual successes or setback in such programs.

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The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

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V. The City as Stage and Shrine | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

Visitors seldom come to Washington DC specifically for the city the way they might visit New York or Chicago.  They typically visit for what the locals often refer to as “the marble”.  On the one hand, DC’s great federal buildings represent the shrines of our democratic government, the legacy of the good things our forefathers set in motion even though it was imperfect.  It is as Kennedy said in Berlin in his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (translation: “I am a jelly doughnut”) speech: “Democracy may not be perfect, but we have never had to build a wall to keep our people in!”

In addition to the Capitol and the White House, there are other things that draw people to the city such as the universities like Georgetown University, Howard University and Gallaudet University.  There are religious buildings such as the National Cathedral and the National Shrine of  the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.  There are also the museums such as the National Memorial Museum of the National Holocaust, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art–all federally owned and maintained, so free to the public (i.e.: taxpayers).  And, cultural attractions such as the Kennedy Center, Verizon Center (concerts, the NHL’s Capitals, the WNBA’s Magic and the NBA’s the Wizards) and National’s Park (MLB’s Nationals).  But, the biggest draw are the monuments and those federal buildings that have an iconic place in America’s civic religion.

These icons are pilgrimage sites for the American family, but also have become the  stage with which to relate the ideas of one’s cause to the ideas that make America unique and special–freedom and rights–even where deficiencies are found or perceived.  Thus, the meaning of the cause is to be tied to the cause of the forefathers or Lincoln, and, because of the place’s history, the cause of the Civil Rights movement which so early identified the value of these spaces for its mission.  What follows, to conclude this series about Washington DC and its places and spaces, is a photo essay devoted to the usage of the city as shrine and stage.

After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to desegregate Constitution Hall for international opera star Marian Anderson's performance, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her concert to be held at the Lincoln Memorial.

Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial

March for Life along Constitution Avenue from the White House up to the Supreme Court

AIDs Quilt on the National Mall

The Promise Keepers' Rally on the National Mall

Demonstrations for Immigrants's rights at the Capitol

Glenn Beck's Rally to Restore Honor

John Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

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IV. The Capital’s Space | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

In honor of Veteran’s Day and Armistice Day, thank you.

While DC is a city never far from federal jurisdiction there are several places that have always been part of the capital as opposed to the city: the Capitol, the White House and the National Mall–though the separation became more complete over time.  Where L’Enfant drew up the original plans for the National Mall, what we see today is a renovated design based on the 1901 McMillan Plan.  Some of its designs have been implemented, but as Dr. Judy Scott Feldman and her organization, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, have pointed out the Plan has faltered and is now in the hands of several different departments and jurisdictions.  Plans for the National Mall are first and foremost in the hands of the National Park Service which has projects for the Mall that it tackles as money comes in.  Additionally, the Capitol Architect, the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the District government all have competing plans in the pipeline.  So, while the space has failed to be fully developed along the original plans, and has in fact evolved in some respects away from these plans, the future is unclear and a cohesive whole–part of the goal for McMillian Plan–seems unlikely.

Andrew Ellicott's remembered version of Pierre L'Enfant's original design.

Notice the position of the Potomac River in these two images!

1901's McMillan Plan, intended to create a cohesive design for a democratic stage.

The competing visions and boundaries of the National Mall.

The Mall has always been a disorderly space of competing claims and as a result is really a compilation of ideas and interests.  Dr. Mark Levitch spoke at the conference this past weekend about the plans and ultimate failures to build a World War I Memorial where the National Gallery of Art now stands–a plan that would be tied to providing the city with a large auditorium space.  The World War I Memorial was tied to existing plans for a George Washington Memorial–again the main feature here was an auditorium.  At first, George Washington was dropped and the emphasis was to build just a World War I victory memorial, and there existed a real fever among Americans to fund and build such memorials.  George would be reinstated in the plan and there was an attempt to link the hero of the Revolutionary War with General John J. Pershing, American hero of World War I.  In the end, neither building would be built (only a foundation would be laid) and no National World War I memorial would be built on the National Mall–the only 20th century American war not so represented (though a DC WWI memorial can be found among the trees on the south side of the Reflecting Pool).  Levitch suggested that the project’s chameleon-like nature to re-envision itself into various George Washington and [other] plans was as much to blame as anything, though other factors contributed.

While tomorrow’s post will look at the use of this space as a democratic stage (mostly through photography), I did want to direct interested people to the website for Feldman’s organization, which provides information about existing plans and a suggested direction for future management called the 3rd Century Mall which specifically considers its democratic functions as public space.

Thanks to Mark Farrell for directing me to this particular workshop at the conference!!

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III. The Locals’ Space in the City | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

Part of the point in yesterday’s post was that the challenge of jurisdiction and use go back to the Constitution–well before the land is even acquired or surveyed.  The city would be built slowly–much of the work done by slaves from Maryland as Joy Kinard reminded conference attendees this past weekend–and its governmental organization would change again in 1871, abolishing the previous courts and cities.  In its place, from 1871-1874, a new government based on that of the U.S. Territories was put in place with a Presidentially appointed governor and council, with an accompanying House of Delegates elected by the city’s men.  In 1874, a three man Commission, much like that from the city’s foundational years, replaced the territory-style government.  This system would remain unchanged until 1967, when an office for a Presidentially appointed mayor was established as a prelude to 1973’s District of Columbia Self- Government and Governmental Reorganization Act (87 Stat. 774) which granted self-government to the city, though Congress would retain a final say in accord with the Constitution’s provision.  Citizens of the city remain unrepresented in the U.S. Congress and have never had a meaningful vote for representation in that body.

Washington DC's flag, based on George Washington's coat of arms.

The city’s history has long been tied to America’s race history, beginning with its construction using slave labor.  Debates in Congress would lead to the closing of the slave markets between the Capitol and the President’s House (later the White House).  And, in April 1862, Lincoln signed the DC Emancipation Act, originally providing immediate emancipation and compensation for Unionist masters.  This made DC a popular location for runaways and refugees, a city that was already a station of the Underground Railroad, now offered freedom much closer than Canada.  Many of the refugees would settle in the neighborhood now called Shaw/U Street.  Howard University was established in this general vicinity and this would become a prominent and diverse neighborhood in the city.  This neighborhood would be a vibrant portion of the city up until it’s economic decline following Depression-era policies such as red lining (a practice, established by FDR’s administration, forbidding banks from making “unsafe investments” in “bad” neighborhoods–such as black, immigrant or Jewish neighborhoods–in order for banks to get FDIC insurance).  But, as Rachel Bernard pointed out at the conference this weekend, the state of universal disenfranchisement created a situation that was almost akin to equality with white residents in the city–particularly with schools.

DC's Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862.

Alice Addison filing for emancipation for her and her family; their masters, the Soffells, filed for compensation.

The next section of the blog is devoted to a discussion summarizing some of Bernard’s key points about the schools of Washington DC at the beginning of the 20th century.  Under the Commissioner system, there was a school Board of Trustees in which the two races were proportionately represented and superintendents corresponded racially with the segregated schools.  Teaching was a prestigious field for the black community and, thus, highly competitive.  With this competition came a certain amount of scandal surrounding the appointments, though in general the black schools had many fewer problems and scandals than the white schools.  During Congressional investigations into the DC school system white officials attempted to deflect scrutiny and mismanagement by drawing attention to hiring scandals among the black schools.  This deflection came with the suggestion that DC’s black school officials were simply not up to the task and should be reorganized under white supervision.  The backlash from the black community was swift and immediate (though its representative before Congress was soft and conciliatory).  Washington Bee editorials demanded that until DC and America’s black population was regarded as fully equal they would prefer the system remain as it was.  “We want our own,” became the rallying cry as it was forecast that if white influence took control of the black schools–some of the best in the country for either race–black teacher’s would be fired, black students would be treated unfairly and the quality of education would decline (here, they fore-casted, in many cases, the exact predicament that followed for black schools after Brown v. Board).  While total reorganization under white leadership was put off at this time, black leadership of black schools would begin to legally erode in the District.*

This case demonstrates the inherent challenges of both jurisdiction and space for city residents.  The U.S. Congress was running the city by proxy in this system and had a hand in everything.  So, what space belonged to the citizens, the City of Washington?  Everything was federal, but DC’s citizens had no vote in the assemblage of the federal legislative body.  Later, in response to federal slum clearing projects that threatened to eliminate neighborhoods for federal building projects and highway construction, District residents would form Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) to remind Congress that there were citizens living in the city.  If Congress wanted to proceed with urban renewal in the nation’s capital, District residents wanted to make sure they were part of the planning process–not displaced and moved into projects as had been the residents in Southwest DC when their neighborhood was replaced by highway 395 and federal buildings which today house, ironically, HUD among other departments.  St. Dominic’s Church is one of the only buildings to survive the neighborhood’s “revival”.**

St. Dominic's Catholic Church, 501 Sixth Street, S.W., Washington DC

A Southwest DC resident with her victory garden and service stars in the window.

Redevelopment projects in Southwest DC--many residents would be removed to other parts of the city.

This experience is similar to that of  Southeast residents who were displaced by the construction the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.  Unlike Southwest DC at the time of its “renovation”, this area was almost exclusively black.  The stadium, which opened in 1961, would be the home of the Washington Redskins–the last team to desegregate and more popular at this time with the suburban population in Virginia and Maryland–and the Washington Senators–a team named after a body in Congress that governed in DC, but for which DC residents had no vote.  While it promised economic renewal, none developed and the stadium was unpopular in the city for decades.

For many people outside of the Washington metropolitan area, the residents of DC are forgotten or disregarded.  This is all made more awkward by the fact that the city’s residents do not have full control of their own laws or neighborhoods.  However, with the expansion of the Metro system many neighborhoods have expanded and grown and are again vibrant places to live, visit and play.  On the other hand, many residents with deep roots have been forced out by rising property taxes and an increase in cost for everyday goods.  DC is a city that is also being gentrified and while crime has greatly declined (from absurd heights), it has shot up in neighboring counties.  A tug of war exists between longtime residents and newcomers in every neighborhood west of the Anacostia River, in addition to that between residents and the federal government.

In the next post, I will look more at the federal areas of the city and the competing visions for them.  This includes the use of public space by the city and its residents, as opposed to the feds.

*Rachel Bernard’s talk, “We Want Our Own: The Politics of African-American Education in Early Twentieth-Century Washington” is a section of her dissertation which is scheduled for submission in the summer of 2012 from Berkeley.

** I wanted to point interested readers to another blog focused on DC that also talks about Southwest’s redevelopment and a National Park Service article on the subject in general:

1) DC Mud blog –

2)NPS –

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I. Introduction: Spaces and Places | Washington DC, the Place and Space, Series

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, site of the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference, Nov. 5-6, 2010

The Program for this week.

In honor of and inspired by the 37th Washington Historical Studies Conference held this past weekend in Washington DC at the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, this week is devoted to the investigation of the city from the perspective of places and spaces.  This taps into an old love of mine–Washington DC history–and takes me back to my first career path out of college as a tour guide for Bike the Sites and a Program Instructor for the Close Up Foundation.  For the first few years after graduating from The Catholic University of America, Washington DC was my classroom, my stage and my playground.

The conference this past weekend was in all honesty indulgent!  Sadly, my teaching schedule and my family engagements prevented me from attending the entire conference, but I really enjoyed what I was able to attend.  It was great to discuss both the academic and methodology questions with professional historians.

What follows in this post is an introduction to the overarching theme I am following this week in a series of posts dedicated to Washington DC, its places and spaces.  DC is not like most other cities in the United States, nor other capitals in the Western World from which it was born.  The many unique circumstances and situations were both intended and accidental.  It is essential when discussing the history of the city to understand its at times conflicting roles which create challenging concepts of space in this city and capital.

The Place . . .

First and foremost in the minds of most Americans is the fact that Washington DC is the capital of the country.  As such it is the primary workplace and hub for the federal government.  For many people, the concept of the city begins and ends with this idea.  Like other big cities, people are drawn to it for career reasons that often revolve around our federal workings and mechanizations.  I know many people who have worked in the city for multiple decades but have no other connection to it.  When people use the expression “inside the Beltway”, they often refer narrowly to the offices from which the federal government is run, highly misleading if one were to look at a map and conceive of the space that actually sits “inside the Beltway”.  The “Beltway” is the 495 loop which encloses not only the District of Columbia but parts of northern Virginia and counties of southern Maryland–multiple jurisdictions, in fact!

Where Federal employees go to work: the National Mall and Federal Triangle.

Secondly, people in this country think of the great marble edifices that dot the Washington landscape.  While this includes sites such as the White House and the Capital, they are seen not so much as office buildings, but as monumental shrines along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.  These are symbols to be visited, photographed and cataloged in the family records (often on hot and humid summer days or in eighth grade school groups!) and are part of the DC civic pilgrimage that often further includes the Smithsonian Museums or the National Gallery of Art.  What’s more these are all free of charge (unless you pay for a transportation or guide service), making them further highly desirable because they make for a cheaper vacation in many respects than other family vacations as families can stay further out and use Metro to get into the city.  This is the “visited DC” as opposed to the one people come to for a job or even a mission–although, there is certainly room for overlap!

Some of the marble shrines of Washington DC: the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Finally, there is the awkwardly forgotten residential DC which is frequently only remembered by the people who actually live in or near the city.  It is entirely possible to visit the District of Columbia and completely avoid the residential portions!!  In fact, other than passing through the city jurisdiction on Metro you can spend an entire week in DC and pretty much avoid the city’s actual jurisdiction altogether–hotel in southern Maryland or northern Virginia, Metro to Smithsonian Station on the Mall and spend the entire vacation either at the Mall’s monuments or the Smithsonian museums, Metro back out of the city from the Smithsonian station and back to the hotel.  When you think about that, it is pretty astonishing.  But, in fact, people do live in DC and some of DC’s best cultural niches, stores, cafes and restaurants are in these residential neighborhoods.  (Besides, how much time can you really spend looking at museums and monuments before you just start to go a little numb in the brain?)

U St. Neighborhood in DC and Ben's Chili Bowl--best half-smokes anywhere!

. . . And, thus, the Spaces.

So, this small plot of land, under 70 square miles, is geographically a cacophony of uses, experiences and jurisdictions–you wouldn’t believe how many police forces exist in that small plot of land–DCPD, FBI, Amtrak Police, National Park Service Police, Capitol Police, etc…   There are many claims on this land and people experience this city differently: sometimes because of race or economics, sometimes because of politics or personal quests, sometimes because of greater or lesser understanding about how our country functions.

The health and maintenance of the city as well as the capital is difficult to achieve at times because there are often competing ends.  The city does not have full autonomy to self-govern, nor does the Congress necessarily have vested interest in cooperating with city’s requests.  City government is always difficult, but far more so if one has to involve Congress–and this has been the rub in DC’s history from the very beginning.  Solving its problems and accommodating its growth and residents has been an ongoing tug of war on top of the social issues that affected our country from its beginnings to the present.*

The week ahead.

In conclusion, DC is unique.  Whether you are talking about mayoral races or greater issues such as segregation, DC has always been a special case.  Again, with the inspiration of this past week’s conference presentations, I am going to run a 4-post a series looking at the unique space of the District of Columbia.  These will include a look at the city’s inception and the original conception of the Federal City, tomorrow; the locals’ space in the city, Wednesday, versus the locals’ space in the capital, Thursday; and finally, the city as it is a democratic stage and shrine on Friday.

In these posts I will cite some of the historians I listened to this past week.  Their ideas along with the many I have cultivated in the course of a handful of years studying and presenting on the city (both for entertainment and education) will be a brief introduction into the complexities that few people outside of the DC metropolitan area regard or consider, presented both with an eye to the past and the present.

*Note: There exists a much more sophisticated discussion about spatial relations in sociology and social justice.  I am not sufficiently well-versed or well-read to open an extensive discourse along those lines but they feature prominently in debates centered around urban-planning and spatial claims of social justice, in particular, and broader areas considering the lived environment in the U.S., including rural, urban and suburban living.  Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Edward Soja treat these ideas specifically in their works–the application of which on the case of DC is a particularly intriguing question (one that George Washington University doctoral student, Greg Borchadt, is researching and presented on in “Democracy’s Stage as Contested Terrain: The Spatial Politics of Washington’s Early Civil Rights Movement, 1939-1954” at this conference).

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