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 		 [A museum exhibit about successful protests in Washington DC
during the civil rights era defending neighborhoods from "urban
renewal" projects is really raising a question: Do people have a right
to the city? ] [https://portside.org/] 

 COMMUNITY MUSEUM SHOWCASES WASHINGTON, DC’S LONG HISTORY OF
ACTIVISM  
[https://portside.org/2018-08-08/community-museum-showcases-washington-dcs-long-history-activism]


 

 Sarah Freeman-Woolpert 
 August 2, 2018
Waging NonViolence
[https://wagingnonviolence.org/2018/08/anacostia-community-museum-showcases-washington-dc-activism/]


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 _ A museum exhibit about successful protests in Washington DC during
the civil rights era defending neighborhoods from "urban renewal"
projects is really raising a question: Do people have a right to the
city? _ 

 The Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis, centered in
Brookland, standing up for the anti-freeway cause at a D.C. City
Council meeting in 1969., DC Public Library/Washington Post 

 

One of the most unique and vital museums in the Smithsonian network
can be found in the heart of Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia
neighborhood, a place long-neglected by government funds and all but
forgotten by the city’s tourist crowds. Since its founding 50 years
ago — when it became both the first Smithsonian museum located off
the National Mall and the first federally-funded community museum in
the country — the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum has served
as an interactive space, engaging local residents in the power of
neighborhood storytelling.

In April, the museum launched a landmark exhibit called “A Right to
the City,” which uses artifacts, photographs and oral histories to
explore the history of activism and community organizing in six
Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. The exhibit, which will be on display
for the next two years, is a testament to the ways in which D.C.
residents have fought to influence the forces shaping their city,
particularly in a context of displacement and dispossession.

On my first visit to the exhibit, I was surprised to hear a security
guard tell me, “I have lived in this neighborhood all my life and
never knew all this happened.” But responses like that are precisely
why chief curator Samir Meghelli worked on putting the exhibit
together. I recently spoke with Meghelli to find out more about the
exhibit’s impact on the community and the city as a whole. In the
process, he told me about the little-known stories uncovered
throughout the exhibit and the lessons these stories offer residents
still fighting for their right to the city.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO SPEND THREE YEARS CONDUCTING RESEARCH TO CREATE
THIS EXHIBIT?

The issues of neighborhood change and gentrification were very much a
part of my own experience growing up. One of the focuses of this
exhibition is the federal policy of urban renewal, which started in
the 1950s [and continued] into the 1970s and 80s, and really led to
the redevelopment — and ultimately the destruction of — a lot of
cities across the country. I grew up in the city of New Haven,
Connecticut, the city that received more urban renewal dollars per
capita than any other city in the country. So I had a sense — both
as a historian and as someone who grew up in a city shaped by these
forces — of some of the broader structural issues that have shaped
this city. To be able to document stories of Washingtonians who have
spent their lives shaping the city, to tell this history from the
perspective of folks who live here, was a transformative experience.

WHY IS THE SMITHSONIAN ANACOSTIA COMMUNITY MUSEUM THE RIGHT PLACE FOR
THIS HISTORY TO BE TOLD?

As we were looking toward our 50th anniversary, we wanted to develop
an exhibition in the tradition of the museum’s work. Our work has
always broached urgent social issues, and it has always been about
developing exhibitions collaboratively with the communities whose
history we’re sharing. There is probably no issue that has been as
urgent and on peoples’ minds as neighborhood change and
gentrification in Washington, D.C. So we started to explore how and
why neighborhoods change and are transformed, but also how communities
have mobilized in the face of that change to try to shape their
neighborhoods in ways that best serve their needs and interests.

We wanted to feature neighborhoods from across the city that each tell
different stories about change, but also about organizing and
activism. We wanted to connect the much larger history of organizing
to the contemporary moment — so people can draw lessons from the
successes and failures of redevelopment policies, as well as
organizing tactics.

The title of the exhibition, “A Right to the City,” is really
raising a question: Do people have a right to the city? [Do they have
a] right to exercise influence over the change that’s happening to
their city? And do they have a right to access the resources and
opportunities that a city provides?

What I think is distinctive at this museum is that our approach to
building exhibitions is deeply collaborative. The history we’re
telling in the exhibition is told from the perspective of the people
who’ve lived in these neighborhoods and shaped these neighborhoods
for years. We interviewed nearly 200 people from across the city —
longtime residents, activists, organizers, architects, planners — to
better document that history and share it in a way that is from a
first-person perspective.

WHAT ARE SOME STORIES FROM YOUR RESEARCH THAT CAN SERVE AS INSPIRATION
TO GROUPS OF ORGANIZERS OR ACTIVISTS STILL FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHT TO
THE CITY TODAY?

There are many largely untold stories throughout the city of really
powerful and impactful organizing. In Anacostia, there are two groups
that grew out of the organizing work of the Southeast Neighborhood
House, which was founded in 1929 as a community center providing
social services to displaced and low-income residents in Southwest.
One group, called Rebels With A Cause, was an outgrowth of their work
with young people east of the river. The Rebels got the city
government to build more recreational facilities and to renovate older
recreational facilities, including getting several Olympic-sized
swimming pools built here. They had streetlights installed where there
were pedestrian accidents. They had an after-school program and a
police relations committee. They served as an important model for
cities across the country who did similar work.

[The other group, called] the Band of Angels, was made up of the women
residents of Barry Farm dwellings — which is public housing here in
Anacostia. They were self-proclaimed “welfare mothers” who did
organizing work around getting the city to repair and better maintain
Barry Farm dwellings. A couple of the women also became some of the
early founders of the city-wide Welfare Alliance and ultimately the
National Welfare Rights Organization, which advocated locally and
nationally around things like a guaranteed minimum income. [The Band
of Angels pushed for] better and more public assistance, but also for
things like dignity and justice for those receiving public assistance.
So they ended up being really important, both locally and nationally.

There are a lot of stories like that, where people living in these
neighborhoods were able to do things that, at the time, seemed nearly
impossible — things like defeating the North Central Freeway, which
was going to cut through the entire city, until residents from [the
neighborhood of] Brookland organized to fight its construction.
There’s also the story of the Adams Morgan Organization, which
created a literal neighborhood government at the time when the city
had no elected city council or mayor. When the city did finally get
home rule in the 1970s, what are today called the Advisory
Neighborhood Commissions were in part modeled after the neighborhood
government that the Adams Morgan Organization had set up. So there’s
lots of stories like that that are too little known and reveal a rich
history of organizing in this city.

ONE OF THE CENTRAL FEATURES IN THIS EXHIBIT IS PREVIOUSLY UNSEEN
FOOTAGE OF A SPEECH BY MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DURING A 1967 VISIT TO
WASHINGTON, D.C. COULD YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HIS
VISIT AND THE MESSAGE HE GAVE TO RESIDENTS?

[The video is a] powerful window into this moment in the late 1960s,
just a year before Dr. King’s assassination. He’s lending his
support to what he calls one of the most important efforts happening
anywhere in the country, led by residents in the neighborhood to
devise a plan for the renewal of their neighborhood.

[King’s visit came about through his connection to] Reverend Walter
Fontroy, who was born and raised in the Shaw neighborhood of
Washington D.C. [Rev. Fontroy] saw what had happened in Southwest D.C.
with [the federal policy of] “Urban Renewal,” and how it had
resulted in the large-scale demolition and clearance of much of the
neighborhood. It became clear to him that Shaw was another potential
victim of that kind of urban renewal, so he helped create an
organization called the Model Inner City Community Organization, or
MICO, whose mission was to create a resident-led, small business
owner-led redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. Part of their idea
was to have urban renewal “with the people, by the people, for the
people,” in contrast to the top-down federally-informed renewal that
had destroyed much of Southwest.

Rev. Fontroy had also served as the D.C. representative of Dr.
King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped organize
the March on Washington in 1963. He invited Dr. King to come to Shaw
to lead a parade from Dunbar High School to Cardozo High School, and
to give a speech in support of MICO’s efforts to involve the
residents in its redevelopment efforts.

In March of 1967, Dr. King led the parade through that neighborhood,
which drew people of all ages. There were marching bands, beauty
queens, all kinds of people involved in that parade. And in the speech
that he gave at Cardozo High School, he had this refrain where he
said, “Prepare to participate. Tell it in the pool rooms, tell it in
the market, tell it in the town square. Prepare to participate.” He
was really encouraging [the idea that] if this resident-led
redevelopment plan is going to be successful, it would require the
participation of the residents of the neighborhood. That idea is one
we wanted to echo throughout this exhibition, and we wanted people to
carry it with them when they left.

HOW DO YOU HOPE THIS EXHIBIT WILL IMPACT THE COMMUNITIES IT FEATURES?

The idea of sharing these stories is really to inform people about a
history that is too little known in a moment when that history is
crucially needed. People three blocks away who have lived here all
their lives can come and see their neighborhoods’ history recognized
and celebrated, maybe even learn something. As part of the exhibition,
we created a storytelling hotline that anyone can access by calling
(202) 335-7288. We interviewed 200 people for the exhibition, and we
wanted to share those stories, but also to let people record and share
their own stories about their neighborhoods [for others to hear].

[The exhibit can also serve to educate] young people who are coming to
D.C. for the first time to learn this city’s history, so they can
start asking difficult questions about how it parallels to their own
home communities. The questions we wrestle with in this exhibition are
not just about the past, but about the present and about [creating] a
more equitable and just future for our communities. Our ultimate hope
is that people will leave better informed and inspired to engage more
with these issues.

[_Originally from New Hampshire, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert lived for two
years in the Balkans, researching and supporting youth activist
movements. She now works as the Youth Social Justice Program
Coordinator at the William Penn House in Washington, D.C. and serves
as the Assistant Editor for the Journal of Resistance Studies._]

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