May 6, 2013
“None of us know the Lord’s will,” Burtis J. “Bert” Dolan wrote to his wife about his journey on the new airship, the Hindenburg. He had purchased his ticket for the trip on May 1, 1937, two days before setting off from Frankfurt, Germany. It cost him 1,000 RM, equivalent to about $450 during the Great Depression, according to the National Postal Museum. His ticket survived the disaster on May 6, 1937. He did not. He died, along with 35 others.
The exhibit, “Fire and Ice,” which opened in spring 2012 for the 75th anniversary, included never-before-seen discoveries like the map of the Hindenburg’s route across the Atlantic, but now, thanks to the Dolan family, it will also include what may be the only surviving passenger ticket from the disaster.
Had Dolan not listened to his friend, Nelson Morris, and changed his travel plans, he would’ve headed back from Europe by sea. But Morris persuaded him to try the passenger airship and surprise his family with an early return. It was the perfect plan for Mothers Day and so Dolan agreed. When the airship caught fire just before docking at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, Morris jumped from a window with Dolan behind him. But Dolan never made it.
Not knowing he was on board, Dolan’s wife learned of her husband’s involvement through Morris’ family and, along with the rest of the country, followed the newsreel and audio reports from the disaster that made headlines. Debates continue about what caused the initial spark and ensuing flame that consumed the ship within 34 seconds.
As part of the museum’s exhibit “Fire and Ice: Hindenburg and Titanic,” visitors to the National Postal Museum can view Dolan’s ticket and passport and learn more about the disasters that still captivate audiences.
April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
March 6, 2013
Looking for something to do today, while the snowy weather conditions persist? The Smithsonian museums will be open for business today. But the National Zoo will be closed Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Plan your visit, using our convenient Tours app, a free download is available here.
February 7, 2013
Friday February 8: The Last Step
Catch one of Iran’s biggest stars, Leila Hatami, in her latest film, The Last Step. Directed by her husband, the movie focuses on a grieving widow whose successful acting career put a strain on her marriage before her husband (acted by Hatami’s real-life husband, Ali Mosaffa) died under mysterious circumstances. Part murder mystery, part love triangle, the film showcases some of the greatest talents in Iran now. Free. 7 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Saturday, February 9: Valentine’s Workshop
Once upon a time, Valentine’s Day meant hand-crafted lacey, paper hearts and stickers galore for every kid in the class. Then that one too-cool-for-school kid throws in a few Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cards and pretty soon everyone’s out buying pre-mades. Well no more. Reclaim the day in the name of craft with the National Postal Museum’s Valentine’s workshop. The museum will be stocked with papers and stamps, you just have to bring the creativity. And, because it’s the Postal Museum, you can even mail them right then and there. Free. 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. National Postal Museum.
Sunday, February 10: Steinway Series
Your weekly dose of chamber music comes to you courtesy the American Art Museum’s Steinway Series this week, with your favorite Russian renditions. Members of the National Chamber Ensemble, including Leo Sushansky, violinist and artistic director; Kathryn Brake, pianist, and Lukasz Szyrner, cellist will perform works by Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Arensky. Free tickets are available in the G Street lobby thirty minutes before each program. 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. American Art Museum.
Also check out our specially created Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is also packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
February 4, 2013
In the early 1900s, a small utopian settlement of African American families took shape in the New Mexico plains about 20 miles south of Roswell. Founded by homesteader Francis Marion Boyer, who was fleeing threats from the Ku Klux Klan, the town of Blackdom, New Mexico, became the state’s first community of African Americans. By 1908, the town had reached its zenith with a thriving population of 300, supporting local businesses, a newspaper and a church. However, after crop failures and other calamities, the town by the late 1920s had rapidly depopulated. Today little remains of the town—an ambitious alternative to the racist realities elsewhere—except a plaque on a lonely highway. But a small relic now lives on at the National Postal Museum, which recently acquired the postal account book kept for Blackdom from 1912 t0 1919.
“Here the black man has an equal chance with the white man. Here you are reckoned at the value which you place upon yourself. Your future is in your own hands.”
Lucy Henderson wrote these words to the editor of The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, in December, 1912, trying to persuade others to come settle in the home she had found in Blackdom. She said, “I feel I owe it to my people to tell them of this free land out here.”
Boyer traveled more than 1,000 miles on foot from Georgia to New Mexico to start a new life and a new town in the land his father once visited during the Mexican-American War. With a loan from the Pacific Mutual Company, Boyer dug a well and began farming. Boyer’s stationery proudly read, “Blackdom Townsite Co., Roswell, New Mexico. The only exclusive Negro settlement in New Mexico.” Though work on the homesteading town began in 1903, the post office would not open until 1912.
When it did, Henderson was able to brag to Chicago readers, “We have a post office, store, church, school house, pumping plant, office building and several residents already established.”
“The climate is ideal,” Henderson claimed in her letter. “I have only this to say,” she went on, “any one coming to Blackdom and deciding to throw in their lot with us will never have cause to regret it.”
By the late 1920s, the town was deserted, after a drought in 1916 and less-than-plentiful yields.
The post office spanned nearly the entire life of the town, operating from 1912 to 1919. Records in the account book detail the money orders coming in and out of Blackdom. “When you look at a money order,” explains Postal Museum specialist Lynn Heidelbaugh, “particularly for a small community setting itself up, this is them sending money back home to their homes and families and setting up their new farms.”
Though Blackdom did not survive and never expanded to the size Lucy Henderson may have hoped, black settlements like it were common elsewhere during a period of migration sometimes called the Great Exodus following the Homestead Act of 1862, particularly in Kansas. According to a 2001 archaeological study on the Blackdom region from the Museum of New Mexico, “During the decade of the 1870s, 9,500 blacks from Kentucky and Tennessee migrated to Kansas. By 1880 there were 43,110 blacks in Kansas.”
Partly pushed out of the South after the failures of Reconstruction, many of the families were also pulled West. The report goes on, “Land speculators used a variety of methods in developing a town’s population. They advertised town lots by distributing handbills, newspapers, and pamphlets to a target population. They sponsored round-trip promotional excursions that featured reduced rail fares for Easterners and offered free land for schools and churches.”
The towns had varying degrees of success and many of the promises of paid passage and waiting success proved false. Still, the Topeka Colored Citizen declared in 1879, “If blacks come here and starve, all well. It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South.”
After the Blackdom post office closed, the money book was handed off to a nearby station. The book sat in the back office for decades until a savvy clerk contacted a historian with the Postal Service, who helped the document find a new home at the Postal Museum, years after its old home had vanished.