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Not Just Another Pretty Facade

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    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A38609-2004Jan22.html Not Just Another Pretty Facade By Nicole Arthur Washington Post Staff Writer Friday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2004
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      Not Just Another Pretty Facade

      By Nicole Arthur
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Friday, January 23, 2004; Page WE30

      There's no official starting point for Washington's African American
      Heritage Trail, but the Ninth Street home of scholar and activist
      Carter G. Woodson seems like the obvious choice. It was Woodson who
      began the drive to popularize the study of black history and who, in
      1926, launched Negro History Week, the celebration that is now Black
      History Month.

      Woodson's three-story Victorian rowhouse is one of almost 100 stops
      on the Heritage Trail, a compendium of neighborhood tours released
      last month by Cultural Tourism DC, in conjunction with the city and
      the National Park Service. The illustrated booklet contains 98 sites
      organized geographically into 15 self-guided tours. They include
      everything from the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, where
      Thurgood Marshall and others argued 1954's Brown v. Board of
      Education, to Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church in
      Anacostia, where two of the plaintiffs, Barbara and Adrienne
      Jennings, attended church.

      The guide, written by historian and project director Marya Annette
      McQuirter, is not your typical glossy handout from the Chamber of
      Commerce. For one thing, it's more than 50 pages long. For another,
      it interprets the conventional notion of "sightseeing" broadly by
      including many sights that are in jeopardy -- or long gone. "It goes
      beyond the usual expectation of a tourist brochure," says Cultural
      Tourism DC Executive Director Kathryn S. Smith, a consulting
      historian on the project.

      She's not the only one who thinks so. "I've been handing out these
      brochures to people, and they say, 'My God, did the city do this?' "
      says Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation
      Review Board.

      The Heritage Trail's destinations include museums and monuments, but
      also private homes and derelict buildings surrounded by chain-link
      fences. Some, like Banneker Park and the African American Civil War
      Museum, are open to visitors; others, such as the former homes of
      Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer
      Duke Ellington, may be viewed only from the street; and others, like
      the site of the 60-years-gone Suburban Gardens amusement park, now
      occupied by Merritt Elementary School, require some imagination.

      Indeed, a look through the guide suggests that much of the city's
      African American history is hidden in plain view. Maybe that church
      you walk by every day was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Or the
      modest house on the corner once belonged to a New Negro Renaissance
      playwright. Or that boarded-up building down the block was the
      neighborhood's first black elementary school. "[African Americans]
      have played a significant part from the beginning," says
      Smith. "They're a major thread in the history of the city."

      The project began in 2001 as an inventory of the city's African
      American history sites. McQuirter, working with a 20-member advisory
      committee of historians and local leaders, including Mayor Anthony
      Williams, produced a list of more than 200 sites, from which 98 were
      chosen for inclusion in the guide. The selection process involved
      what Smith calls "balancing historical integrity and the tourist
      experience." Criteria such as whether an original structure was still
      standing, whether a site represented a "first" and whether a site had
      ties to a person, event, issue or place with local or national
      importance were among those considered. (A decision was also made to
      exclude people who are still living and to avoid current businesses
      and structures simply named for historic figures.)

      The Heritage Trail includes sites in all eight of the city's wards.
      Although 18 million tourists visit Washington each year, surveys
      suggest that few deviate from the Mall-and-monument circuit. The
      guide is part of an ongoing effort to change that, of course, but it
      is also intended for locals. "Part of the idea is raising
      consciousness," Smith explains. "Even though 'Tourism' is in our
      name, the first audience is people in Washington." She is fond of
      pointing out that most tourist maps of Washington have the key
      printed over Southeast. (Not so the guide, whose Old Anacostia trail
      is among its most interesting.) "Deanwood, Brightwood, Brookland,"
      Boasberg says, reeling off the names of featured
      neighborhoods. "These are areas that people don't know very well --
      even the people who live there."

      Certainly proximity does not guarantee awareness. The view out the
      Weekend section's windows is dominated by the back of a red brick
      building that is one of the trail's most distinguished buildings: The
      Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, circa 1886, whose
      pulpit has been host to many of history's most illustrious speakers.
      Yet this is news to many of those who see it every day.

      The guide's architects hope to garner more than admiration for some
      of its destinations. "[Inclusion in the guide] could translate into
      real legal protection," explains Boasberg. The Heritage Trail may now
      be submitted to the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and the National
      Register of Historic Places as a single "multiple-property" listing
      rather than 98 separate ones. "We are behind as a nation in
      recognizing black historical sites," says the guide's editor, Jane
      Freundel Levey. That lag is one reason it's important to simply
      catalogue and map these sites. While the guide is, at face value, a
      recreational brochure, it is also a document of record and a
      manifesto of sorts: The aggregation of so many historic places in
      need of protection speaks for itself.

      If the public doesn't hear what it has to say, it won't be because
      the guide is hard to use. A fold-out map of the District shows the
      tours' locations in relation to one another, while smaller
      neighborhood maps accompany each tour. Symbols after each site denote
      whether they are open to the public, awaiting restoration or, as they
      are in many cases, long gone. Although some of the tours require
      cars, most can be covered on foot. (Of course, anyone who attempts a
      walking tour in the dead of winter is apt to wonder why Woodson chose
      to schedule Negro History Week in February. It's because both
      Frederick Douglass's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays fall during the
      week Woodson chose.)

      The Heritage Trail repays both serious and casual interest, and
      encompasses a panopoly of eras and disciplines. If you want to know
      where Martin Luther King Jr. stood to deliver the "I Have a Dream"
      speech, it will tell you that the National Park Service marked the
      exact spot just last year; if you're studying painter Lois Mailou
      Jones, the guide will lead you to the house on a quiet Brookland
      street where she lived until her death in 1998; if you're a Civil War
      buff, it will take you to Fort Stevens, site of the city's only
      battle in that conflict. At best, the tours hold unexpected surprises
      like the remarkable photography exhibit "Crowns: Portraits of Black
      Women in Church Hats," at the Anacostia Museum, Works Progress
      Administration-era murals in a municipal office building, or the
      panoramic view of the city from the front porch of Douglass's Cedar
      Hill home. They also offer the heady, if not particularly enobling,
      satisfaction of a successful scavenger hunt.

      The historians involved in the project would like the trail to be
      participatory in more ways than one. "On an individual level, I hope
      it encourages people to document their family's history," says Maria
      R. Goodwin, co-author of "The Guide to Black Washington" and an
      advisory committee member. "I hope people come forward with
      information that we missed." The inventory -- and the corresponding
      online database, which the organization will continue to revise and
      update -- remains a work in progress. Suggestions for additional
      locations may be sent to trail@.... "We fully
      expect [the collection] to grow," Levey says. "We just want people to
      know about this stuff -- to use it to improve the city and people's

      Nicole Arthur is a staff writer for Weekend.
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