Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

28 Blocks

During today’s bike ride on the Metropolitan Branch Trail I encountered a large mural on the facade of the Penn Center building at 1709 3rd Street (MAP), in northeast D.C.’s Eckington neighborhood. In addition to its massive size, what initially caught my attention was the realism and unusual yet simple gray tones that give the mural the appearance of an old black-and-white photograph.

The mural is entitled “28 Blocks,” and is the creation of American artist Garin Baker. Baker resides in New York City and is a traditionally trained realist painter, but his professional career spans across artistic disciplines. Baker spent four months hand-painting the 60’ by 160’ mural on 156 sections of parachute cloth in his studio. He then brought the work to D.C., and used a special polymer glue to attach the mural to the facade of the building, followed by a final coating and varnish that add UV and graffiti protection, thus requiring only minimal maintenance for many years.

The mural gets its name from the 28 blocks of marble used between 1914 and 1922 to erect the Lincoln Memorial’s iconic 120-ton marble statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln. But the mural isn’t intended to honor Lincoln. In fact, even the image of the Lincoln statue within the mural is only a peripheral image to provide context to the focus of the work. The mural depicts and is intended as a tribute to the men who are responsible for cutting out, hauling, carving and erecting the iconic Lincoln Memorial statue, which was designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French and planned by architect Henry Bacon. Most of those men were first or second generation black men who were born free, or Italian immigrants.

A quote from Frederick Douglass is also prominently featured on the mural. It reads: “Without culture there can be no growth; Without exertion, no acquisition; Without friction, no polish; Without labor, no knowledge; Without action, no progress. And without conflict, no victory.”

According to Baker, the color scheme of black, white and gray is intentional and carries symbolism. “People see things in black and white, but it’s really not the full story,” he said. “Only through all the shades of gray do we see the full truth.”

The mural is conveniently positioned adjacent to the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which gives cyclists, joggers and walkers a front row seat to view it. But not only that, the trail runs parallel to the train tracks that not only carries commuters and other riders on the Red Line between the Rhode Island Avenue and NoMa-Gallaudet University and New York Avenue stations, but also ferries people from New York to Union Station, allowing them to see the mural out their windows just before reaching the station. Officials with the city’s Department of General Services say 50,000 or more people a day can see the mural. I’m glad I was one of them today.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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Frederick Douglas House on Capitol Hill

Frederick Douglas House on Capitol Hill

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, which is administered by the National Park Service, is located in Southeast D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. Established in 1988, the site preserves the home and estate of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African Americans of the 19th century. Despite the home at the historic site being better known and more visited, however, this was not Douglas’ original D.C. home.

When he moved to D.C. in 1871, Douglass purchased an Italianate-style house at 316 A Street (MAP) in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Northeast D.C. Two years later he also bought the adjacent house at 318 A Street. It was not until years later that Douglass moved to a house he had built on 17th Street in northwest D.C., and finally to the house in Anacostia, where he lived until his death in 1895.

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February of 1818. His mother was a slave woman in Talbot County, Maryland, and his father was a white man, rumored to be her master. As a boy, he realized the importance of education, especially after his master forbade the reading lessons that a kindly mistress had begun to give him. So he secretly taught himself to read and write. While working as a slave in Baltimore, he met and married a free woman named Anna Murray in 1838. This was the same year he fled Baltimore to escape slavery, briefly passing through New York. After settling in Bedford, Massachusetts, he changed his surname to Douglass, taken from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake.”

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, and famously stated, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” It was this belief that helped influence him to become involved in the abolitionist movement to abolish slavery.  Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage.

However, as his involvement in the movement and his outspokenness brought recognition, it lead to his identity being found out. This resulted slave hunters trying to hunt him down, and caused Douglass to have to flee once again. This time he left the country and moved to England, where some British friends purchased his freedom in 1846, letting Douglass go home to Massachusetts as a free man and well-known public figure. In 1847, he settled in Rochester, New York where he continued his work, for which he gained even more recognition and popularity for his speaking and writing skills. As a leader of the abolitionist movement, he became known as a social reformer and American statesman, who stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.

He then moved to D.C. in 1871, eventually being appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to the position of U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia in 1877, and the Recorder of Deeds in 1881. It was also while living in D.C., in 1884, that he married his long-time friend Helen Pitts, a white feminist from New York, after his first wife to whom he had been married for 44 years died. After mounting criticism, including from both their families, Douglass responded by saying that his first marriage had been to someone the color of his mother, and his second to someone the color of his father.

The original houses on Capitol Hill stayed in the Douglass family until 1920′s, and remained in private hands until the mid-1960s when Warren Robbins established the Museum of African Art in them. Later Robbins gave the properties and the museum collection of 5000 works and an extensive photo archive on African art and culture as a gift to the Smithsonian Institution. To help subsidize the cost of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture currently being built on the National Mall, the Smithsonian institution sold the property.

The exteriors of the houses have changed very little since the Douglass family live there in the 1870s, and have been partly restored and furnished with period pieces. They currently house The Frederick Douglass Museum and Caring Hall of Fame.

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The Emancipation Memorial

On this bike ride I went to see The Emancipation Memorial in the heart of Lincoln Park.  The largest urban park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood in northeast D.C., Lincoln Park is bounded by 11th Street on the west, 13th Street on the east, the westbound lanes of East Capitol Street on the North, and East Capitol Street’s eastbound lanes on the south (MAP).  The park is situated one mile directly east of the United States Capitol Building, and four blocks northeast of Historic Eastern Market.  It is one of the oldest parks in D.C., having been included in Pierre L’Enfant’s original 1791 design plan for the national capitol city.  Lincoln Park is maintained by the National Park Service.

The Emancipation Memorial is also known as the Freedman’s Memorial or the Emancipation Group. It was also initially referred to as the “Lincoln Memorial” before the more prominent so-named memorial was built at the western end of the National Mall almost fifty years later.  Designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, The Emancipation Memorial depicts President Abraham Lincoln in his role of “The Great Emancipator” freeing a male African American slave.  Lincoln holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand, resting on a plinth.  The ex-slave is depicted crouching at the president’s feet, wearing only a loin cloth.  The former slave’s broken shackles lie at his side.

The bronze statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city.  They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

The dedication ceremony for this “original Lincoln memorial” was held on April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination.  President Ulysses S. Grant attended the ceremony, as did members of his cabinet, and congressmen and senators.  Frederick Douglass, the famed African-American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman, provided the keynote address to a crowd of approximately 25,000 who were in attendance on that day.

The monument has long been the subject of controversy and a source of mixed feelings.   According to the National Park Service, the monument was paid for solely by freed slaves, primarily from African American Union veterans.  However, despite being paid for by African Americans, some historians condemned it as paternalistic, portraying Lincoln as the savior of a race that couldn’t save itself.  Critics claim that it ignores the active role blacks played in ending slavery, and perpetuates racist ideology because of the supplicant position of the freed slave.  Others recognize that the imagery of the statue isn’t ideal, but embrace it nonetheless as part of history.  They derive its meaning and significance from knowing that it meant something to the people of its time. Perhaps the various thoughts and feelings about The Emancipation Memorial are best summed up by Anise Jenkins, president of an advocacy group for D.C. statehood named “Stand Up! For Democracy.”

In commenting about the statue at a recent Emancipation Day ceremony in Lincoln Park, she stated, “It’s part of our history and it depends what you bring to it.  If you’re ashamed of our history of slavery, then that’s what you bring to it. But we have to be honest. Enslaved people loved Abraham Lincoln. They called him Father Abraham. You can question it from a modern perspective, but you can’t ignore its significance.”

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