As African American Museum Site Is Weighed, The Mall Looms Large
Everywhere on the Mall are echoes of marching feet, slaves' cries, market peddlers' calls, children's laughter and the singing of black men at the Million Man March. But there never has been a place there to commemorate the African American story. Today, more than 42 years after King's triumphant moment, that history is expected to find a home. The Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution is scheduled to meet this morning to select a site for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of the four spots under consideration, two are on the Mall and two are nearby.
Some groups argue that the Mall is too crowded. But others -- including President Bush and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) -- argue that the museum needs to be on the Mall because the place is so central to African American history and because it is impossible to understand American history without understanding the African American experience.
"In the 20th century, the Mall became a magnet for political expression not only for its accommodating space but also the symbolic -- and in the television age -- photogenic backdrop of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial," says Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the African American museum. "Almost every story you want to tell crosses the Mall, all protests from the right to the left. For African Americans, there's no greater symbol than being in view of the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. It reminds people of America's promise. Not only am I protesting, but I am using your symbols of power as a way to mirror and remind us of what America doesn't do."
Some of this history is burned into public consciousness, such as the grand Marian Anderson singing "My country, 'tis of thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution shut their doors to her at Constitution Hall. But much of it is hidden.
Few tourists hear of the pens where slaves were kept on the Capitol grounds or learn about Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught astronomer and mathematician working with Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the city of Washington in 1791.
"The country has always been reluctant to come to grips with the slave part of its history. Washington, more than any other city, has that contradiction," says journalist Charles Cobb, who is writing a tour guide to national civil rights landmarks. "People look at the South with the cotton plantations and sugar plantations and say, yes, slavery.
"But the idea of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as slaveholders is a much more difficult idea. You don't sit in Lafayette Square and think about the slave auction block."
The slave trade was legal in the District until 1850. According to the late historian Frederic Bancroft, Washington merchants conducted a brisk slave trade that, "although far from being the largest, was the most notorious." The city provided slave buyers and purchasers a good location, between two slaveholding states, Maryland and Virginia, and on a major waterway.
Slave labor helped build the city, including the White House. Records show dozens of slaves worked on the Capitol, and slaves worked at the Aquia Creek quarry in Stafford County, Va., cutting sandstone that was used in the Capitol and the Treasury Building. One account says these slaves generally were given a blanket and some clothing. In most cases, the master retained the money earned through these labors, but some slaves were paid under the table.
To house the slaves, the federal government let owners keep them in local jails for 34 cents a day. Slave owners also used a system of privately owned jails called "Georgia pens."
Along Seventh Street, which cut through the heart of the Mall, the slave trade flourished. Slaves frequently were sold in front of Lloyd's Tavern on the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and at the nearby Isaac Beer's Tavern on Seventh. The pen and tavern of Washington Robey stood at Seventh Street SW, between B Street and Maryland Avenue. The private jail of William H. Williams stood across the street in a yellow brick house.
"The slaves didn't stay at the Willard Hotel. They were locked up in these jails at night," says John Whittington Franklin, a program manager at the African American museum office. (His father is the noted historian John Hope Franklin.)
From 1802 to 1931, the huge Center Market at the corner of Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW -- where the National Archives now stands -- was where slaves and freed blacks could sell products outside the building. Some beat the odds: Alethia Browning Tanner, a vegetable vendor near the Capitol, saved enough money to buy her own freedom and that of several family members, part of the beginnings of a black middle class.
Tensions between the races were very evident, especially when the immigrant white population and freed blacks vied for jobs.
In 1835 a race riot occurred, beginning at the Epicurean Eating Grill on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street NW. Beverly Snow, the owner of the restaurant and a free black, allegedly made remarks about the wives and daughters of men working at the Navy Yard. Whites trashed the restaurant, but Snow escaped. The rioters also destroyed black churches, schools and houses.
In his 1791 plan, L'Enfant established the positions of the Capitol and the White House and showed an expanse that generally went from Third Street to 14th Street. He envisioned a 400-foot-wide savanna, lined with trees and important buildings, but the Mall initially evolved into a disorganized range.
Work sheds and shacks stood behind the Smithsonian Castle, which was completed in 1855. During the Civil War, the Mall was used for military drilling and to hold grazing pens for bison. The stench of sewage and slaughtered animals from the Washington Canal (covered today by Constitution Avenue) was so bad that President Abraham Lincoln established a summer retreat up North Capitol Street to get fresher air.
Railroad tracks were set down across the south side of the Mall in the 1870s, connected to a depot where the National Gallery of Art now stands. An African American neighborhood sprang up on land where the National Museum of the American Indian stands. Blacks lived in houses facing the Mall and along nearby alleys. All of the structures on that land were razed in the 1930s.
Things began to change in 1901 when Sen. James McMillan of Michigan formed a commission of distinguished planners to bring order to the Mall. The group extended its boundaries over existing waterways to the edge of the Potomac River and filled in the swampy land that would support the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
The grand buildings of today's vista started to arrive at the turn of the 20th century. By the 1930s, much of the land had been cleared of trees and leveled. When temporary office buildings built during World War II were finally removed in the early 1970s, the area looked much like it does today.
Most chronicles of black Washington detail the night life on U Street, the intellectual oasis of Howard University and the sports events at old Griffith Stadium. What is often overlooked is that black life did exist beyond segregated areas, and the Mall was often a respite from those restrictions.
"The Mall was a green space where you could go and have picnics and just sit out and enjoy the weather. Black residents, even in the context of segregation, were claiming the city," says Marya Annette McQuirter, a historian who has written about leisure and the development of black communities.
But even recreation wasn't always pleasant. Instead of opening the Tidal Basin to all swimmers, Congress closed the beach in the 1920s.
There were other troubling moments.
In 1922 the Lincoln Memorial, later a symbol of unity, was dedicated. The tribute to the man who had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves, was given one of the most prominent locations on the Mall. But the celebration was marred when black participants were roped off in a separate section. Even one of the guest speakers, Robert R. Moton, the president of what was then Tuskegee Institute, was kept separate from the white crowd.
"He was relegated, along with other distinguished colored people, to an all-Negro section separated by a road from the rest of the audience; and the language of the ill-tempered Marine who herded the 'niggers' into their seats caused well-bred colored people as much indignation as the segregated seating itself," wrote Constance McLaughlin Green in her landmark book, "The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital."
Three years later, on Aug. 8, 1925, blacks stood at the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania NW to watch a Ku Klux Klan march.
But the notion of the Mall as a special place for blacks took root. The following year, on Aug. 6, members of the A.M.E. Zion Church -- 2,000 strong -- stood at the west end of the Mall, holding what many describe as the first civil rights rally. From that time, the Mall and marches became intertwined.
By the next decade, the uses of the Mall became more defined for organizers. "With the building of the Lincoln Memorial, blacks and everyone else began to be focused on the Mall. In the 1930s, when the Mall was cleared, it became more of a national space," says Lucy Barber, a historian at the National Archives. Veterans of World War I, including blacks, camped out on the Capitol grounds and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue demanding back pay during the Bonus Army March in 1932. Their shantytowns were burned by the U.S. Army.
At Anderson's concert in 1939, 75,000 people -- black and white -- showed up dressed in their Sunday best to hear the African American singer. "This was a concert, but it was an early interracial protest against discrimination, and that discrimination was symbolized by the DAR," says Bunch, the museum director.
A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was one of the first black leaders to understand that the Mall's location and a powerful message could help break down segregation. His union was a powerful organizing force in the black community, and in 1941 he planned a march to demand the government stop employment discrimination.
"The organizers were savvy about how they imagined they could use the Capitol and assemble at the Lincoln Memorial," Barber said. "In a way, African Americans played a crucial role in seeing the Mall's potential and taking a space in the center of the city and making it a place for protest. The 1941 plan was an act of political imagination."
The Randolph march was canceled in June 1941 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an end to discrimination in federal agencies and at defense plants, but the blueprint for a mass rally on the Mall was set. In 1947, a prayer session, as part of an NAACP convention, was held at the Lincoln Memorial, with President Harry S. Truman participating. Ten years later, Randolph organized a prayer pilgrimage, attended by 20,000 people and featuring an address by King.
The 1963 march, capped by King's "I Have a Dream" speech, sealed the Mall's identity as a nexus of political protest.
In the aftermath of King's death, his followers tried to carry on one of his goals -- to mount a Poor People's Campaign on 15 acres in West Potomac Park, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. In May and June 1968, thousands erected a "Resurrection City" of temporary houses, struggling through the mud and rain to proclaim the need for economic equality. The "city" was dismantled after six weeks, its leaders taking credit for some minor concessions.
The Mall became a destination for other rallies and protests, including the Vietnam War Moratoriums in 1969 and 1971, annual gatherings of advocates for and against legalized abortion, and the 1987 display of the massive quilt made in memory of those who had died from AIDS.
From 1971 to 1975, a musical event called Human Kindness Day was organized to mark racial solidarity. Held near the Washington Monument, Kindness Day attracted 200,000 in 1975, but violence on that day led to its cancellation.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1963 march, about 750,000 people came to the Mall to mark that event and complain that a King holiday was long overdue. Legislation creating the holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan later that year. Now, carved into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King stood in 1963 are words commemorating that first March on Washington. Also, a parcel of land near the Mall has been promised for an official King memorial.
And in 1995, a huge television audience saw hundreds of thousands participate in the Million Man March.
The Mall continues to be a place of festivals, concerts and Fourth of July fireworks. But today, in large part because of the civil rights movement, it has become a symbol of free debate, serving as a national megaphone.
"Even people who are critical of America chose the Mall to say we are Americans, too," Bunch says.
The question now is whether the Smithsonian will make room on the 21st-century Mall for a museum that would unavoidably have to tell the history, hidden and celebrated, of the Mall's 19th and 20th centuries.
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