July 10, 2013
Known for the long sentences–93 years on average–its residents serve, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has many different meanings, according to New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, including as a symbol of “one of the most brutal and corrupt institutions in the post-Civil War South, the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist.” After negotiations with the prison, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will now include this history in its collections, highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery in post-Civil War incarceration practices, with an early 20th-century concrete guard tower from the Angola prison. The museum also acquired a cell from another section of the prison that was built on former slave quarters.
The prison officially opened in 1901, but the site of it had long been used as plantations which drew some of its labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to “lease” prisoners.
Curator Paul Gardullo told the New York Times, he credits the prison for its willingness to donate the items, allowing the museum “to portray a history that gets into some of these dark corners of American history” from a “place that still carries the legacy of slavery with it.”
June 3, 2013
The housewife that Jean Stapleton portrayed on “All in the Family,” was, by her own words, “very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.” The actress, who died Friday at the age of 90, offered the show a moral compass. Where her on-screen husband Archie, played by Carroll O’Connor, was known for his small-minded bigotry, Stapelton’s Edith represented a more enlightened view on the show, known for breaking with television tradition, showing social strife, marital discord and the growing generation gap.
Bruce Weber wrote in her obituary for the New York Times:
Edith was none too bright, not intellectually, anyway, which, in the dynamic of the show was the one thing about her that invited Archie’s outward scorn. Ms. Stapleton gave Edith a high-pitched nasal delivery, a frequently baffled expression and a hustling, servile gait that was almost a canter, especially when she was in a panic to get dinner on the table or to bring Archie a beer.
But in Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame.
In a 1978 ceremony, the American History Museum acquired both Edith and Archie’s set chairs. The objects are among the most visited and beloved in the collections.
“They are the equivalent of the Appomattox chairs in many ways because Archie’s chair and Edith’s chair are the point of debate in the conversation that goes on,” says entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. He cites the show’s comedic bickering that connected to a larger social context as one of the reasons it did so well and remains relevant today.
“They’re very, very popular with all ages, I’m surprised,” he says, “even kids, because of television syndication, which keeps the show on the air and in the public eye.”
Of the actress, he says, “Jean Stapleton’s legacy embraces her appearances on Broadway – in such shows as Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing, her recreations of those roles in those shows film versions, but uppermost her legacy is as Edith Bunker – a ditzy voice of reason and temperance that constantly balanced her husband’s prejudicial point of view.”
Note: Currently, only Archie Bunker’s chair is on display in the American History Museum’s “American Stories.”
May 22, 2013
Just a block from Harlem’s great thoroughfare, 125th Street, is a brownstone listed for a cool $2.3 million, courtesy of the Corcoran Group Real Estate. Advertising its proximity to the subway and trendy restaurants like Red Rooster, the listing provides a snapshot of the dramatic changes underway in the Manhattan neighborhood. Projects like the expansion of the Harlem Hospital Center and the plans for Columbia University and rezoning efforts have brought a wave of development interest to Harlem, which suffered along with the rest of New York during the 1970s when the city was verging on bankruptcy.
In the process, the profile of the neighborhood, long considered the Mecca of African-American culture, has changed. According to census data for Central Harlem, the population of white residents grew by more than 400 percent between 2000 and 2010. In the meantime, the average sale price for housing in Central Harlem increased 270 percent from 1996 to 2006, the fourth largest increase of all neighborhoods city-wide. Starting at the north edge of Central Park on 110th Street, real estate interests staked their claims. Glossy businesses like the hotel chain Aloft moved in.
But for all the attention paid to the changing skyline and demographic profile, Harlem historian and architectural consultant John Reddick argues there’s more beneath the surface of Harlem’s development. He says the roots of the community’s development have long been building to this economic high note, and that despite the common conception that much of this change has come from the outside, it’s established community members who brought it about.
The fight for affordable housing, for better schools, for renovated properties–all that, he says, came from the community itself. “There were people who lived there during the worst of times and really made a commitment and who were part and parcel of the genius to turn things around,” says Reddick, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1980, ”and nobody knows who they are!”
In part to rectify that error and to highlight the ways Harlem inspires and innovates in the design fields, Reddick has been curating a series and lectures and programs in conjunction with the Cooper-Hewitt titled, “Harlem Focus Series,” that will continue through the summer. Museum director Caroline Payson says the series, “encourages people to think about design in their own backyard.”
Reddick has done much of his work in the neighborhood on memorial projects and in the parks, which he calls the “treaty grounds for everybody.” Whether as a place to walk a dog or to hold a barbecue for a birthday party, the parks draw everyone in. His favorite park space is at the north end of Central Park by the Harlem Meer lake, where the landscape is rockier and hillier. “It’s very different from the rest of the park.”
But it’s the people as much as the parks that make Harlem the inviting neighborhood he remembers from his first visit in 1965. “As an African-American, it was just mythic,” he remembers. “I just was energized by all of it. I knew I’d end up here.” Neighborhood staples like the churches felt familiar to Reddick. Others were attracted by that same energy.
Now Harlem is home to a large percentage of African immigrants concentrated on 116th Street, in addition to a growing Asian and Hispanic population. All around him, Reddick says he can see the global influences taking shape in Harlem as it orients itself on a wider stage. Even Harlem’s most famous rapper today, A$AP Rocky borrows from rap cultures around the country in his music while still representing the “pizzazz, spunk, charisma, character” he says is indigenous to his childhood home.
“I think Harlem is this amazing brand,” says Reddick, “greater than Chanel.” And yet, he says, its story has been stunted in the telling.
Reddick’s own research into the Jewish and black roots of music in Harlem prior to the Harlem Renaissance challenges the idea that Harlem was “happening” in discrete moments. Outside historians and writers, he says, are “like explorers in the black community and once they document it, they’re like Columbus: history starts when they decide Harlem is improving or it has value and so it diminishes anything that was there before.”
Harlem’s recent economic development has brought a similar reading. But Reddick says the changes that are just now starting to bring attention have been a long time coming. Fights like the one that kept Marcus Garvey Park, with its amphitheater and swimming pool, public and available to the community helped protect major neighborhood assets.
Decades before City Council speaker Christine Quinn stopped by Make My Cake in Harlem as she set about laying the groundwork for her mayoral bid, JoAnn Baylor was baking up her tasty and addictive creations in her basement, according to a profile of the business on DNAInfo. In 1996, the family opened their first shop. Now with two locations, the shop is co-owned by Baylor’s daughter and has irregular hours which don’t hurt the demand one bit. Though its success was made visible by high-profile patrons and inclusion in a Small Business Saturday American Express campaign, the roots of the business were long part of the neighborhood.
Or there’s the American Legion Post 138 on West 132nd Street in Harlem, whose weekly Sunday jazz jam session was ranked the best free Uptown jazz in 2012 by the Village Voice and is one of Reddick’s personal favorites. Though the show was started in the late 90s, its organizer, Seleno Clarke, has been playing organ professionally for more than 40 years. His connections to Harlem musicians help him keep a steady rotation of guest artists, in addition to the international musicians who also stop by.
The creative, collaborative spirit that enlivens the American Legion is precisely the sort that first attracted Reddick to Harlem and what he hopes to highlight with his Cooper-Hewitt series. “There are creative people who have this energy.” When people talk about things like rooftop gardens and urban farming, he says “people in Harlem are thinking about this, it’s not just happening in other well-to-do neighborhoods.”
The series continues May 22 with architect Jack Travis, who will discuss the Harlem Hospital’s Mural Pavilion, connecting Works Progress Administration-era murals by African-American artists to contemporary African-inspired color palette, pattern and philosophy.
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.
May 3, 2013
When Christopher Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of a Western route to Asia, the continent became a footnote in the discovery of America. But before the country was even founded, Asians and Asian Americans have played integral roles in the American story. Some chapters of that history are well known: the impact of Chinese railroad workers or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But countless others have been overlooked.
In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a new traveling show developed by by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center seeks to provide a more complete story of Asian American history. Now on view at the American History Museum, the exhibition “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” begins with the pre-Columbian years and spans the centuries, to tell of the Asian experience with a series of posters featuring archival images and beautiful illustrations that eventually will travel the country. A condensed set of exhibition materials will also be distributed to 10,000 schools nationwide as teaching tools.
Though often marginalized with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asian Americans were central to American history, “from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement,” explains Konrad Ng, director of the Asian Pacific American Center.
The densely packed exhibit resonates with many of today’s conversations around immigration, identity and representation. Beneath the broad banner of Asian American identity dwells a deeper, more diverse set of experiences. The Puna Singh family, for example, represents a unique blending of cultures that occurred when Punjabi men–unable to immigrate with Indian brides–became employed in agriculture in the West, and met and started families with female Mexican fieldworkers. “The story of Asian Americans,” says Lawrence Davis, who worked on the exhibition, “is very much one that’s not in isolation.”
The Asian experience is one that includes a diversity of cultures and countries. As early as 1635, Chinese merchants were trading in Mexico City. By the 1760s, Filipinos had set up fishing villages in the bayous of New Orleans, and Vietnamese shrimpers and fishermen are a large part of the Coast’s current economy. Asian Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, including two brothers, who were the sons of the famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, brought to the U.S. by circus-owner P.T. Barnum. In 1898, Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese American, won a landmark Supreme Court case, which established the precedent of birthright citizenship. In the 1960s, Filipino workers marched alongside Cesar Chavez for farm workers’ rights.
The exhibit borrows its title from the 20th-century Filipino American poet, Carlos Bulosan who wrote:
Before the brave, before the proud builders and workers,
I say I want the wide American earth
For all the free.
I want the wide American earth for my people.
I want my beautiful land.
I want it with my rippling strength and tenderness
Of love and light and truth
For all the free.
“When he arrived in the U.S., like most immigrant stories, it wasn’t easy,” says Ng of the poet. “And yet he still came to love this country.” Despite the hardship, discrimination and even vilifying, many Asian Americans came to love this country as well, and from that love, they improved it and became an integral part of it.
Though Ng had a hard time singling out any favorite chapter from the show, he says many present “new ways to think about the community,” including the politics of international adoption, the spread of Asian food cultures and much more.
“I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” will be on display at the American History Museum through June 18, 2013 before traveling to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.