By CHARLYNN SPENCER PYNE
Since 1998, the Library's Public Service Collections and Center for the Book have sponsored a spring "history lesson" for Washington schoolchildren to introduce students and teachers to the Library's collections. The series, which focuses on the themes of childhood and education, brings to life topics in United States history through the presentation of photographs, maps, letters, poems, biographies, speeches, journals, diaries and other material housed in the Library's rich and varied collections.
This year's program, "Discovering Hidden Washington: A Journey Through the Alley Communities of the Nation's Capital," held on May 22 in the Coolidge Auditorium, was attended by more than 400 students and teachers from J.O. Wilson, Watkins, Janey, and Shepherd elementary schools; Capitol Hill Day School; Sharpe Health School; and Stuart-Hobson Middle School. (A cybercast of the program can be viewed on the "Discovering Hidden Washington" Web site at www.loc.gov/loc/kidslc).
Presented in collaboration with the Washington Revels, the program featured material from the Library's collections blended with music and themes from the 1998 "Shepherd's Alley" Christmas Revels performance. Ms. Kresh served as emcee, and Library participants included John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book; Adrienne Cannon, African American history and culture specialist in the Manuscript Division; Judith Gray, coordinator of reference services in the American Folklife Center; and Marvin Kranz, American history specialist in the Manuscript Division. Technical support was provided by Beverly Brannan, of the Prints and Photographs Division, Elizabeth Miller, of the Network Development and MARC Standards Office, Colleen Cahill and Diane-Schugg-O'Neill, of the Geography and Map Division. The Washington Revels performers included lead baritone Charles Williams, Andrea Blackford, Joicey White Granados, Lisa Leak, Milan Pavich, Mary Swope, Harold Blackford, Terell Izzard, Brian Moore, Riki Schneyer, Michelle Terrell-Long, Leroy Campbell, Curtis Jones, Keith Moore, and Christina Speaks. Songs performed included "So Glad I'm Here," "Run Mary Run," "We've Come a Long Way" and "Amazing Grace."
In opening the program, Ms. Kresh noted that this year's presentation was also part of the Library's "Telling America's Story" reading promotion program. She said: "The Library of Congress is the nation's library, it is your library, it is the place where we collect stories of communities. For the next hour you will be a member of the Shepherd Alley community of the 1880s."
"Do you know why people lived in alleys?" she asked. "Lots of people moved North after the Civil War looking for jobs and opportunities, and the cities became overcrowded; so people began creating communities wherever they found themselves. They began creating cities within the city of Washington, D.C. … During that time there were 275 alley communities housing more than 16,000 people."
James Borchert, in his landmark study, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Urbana, 1980), notes that while residential directories in the 1850s list 50 alley communities that were probably built by owners of street-front properties for servants and laborers in their employ, Washington developers responded to the post-Civil War population influx by building on both the street and the alley simultaneously with the assumption that the middle-class would live on the streets, and the working-class would live in the alleys. He also observes that in 1880, 93 percent of the alley residents were black, and 91 percent of the street residents were white.
Mr. Kranz then asked the students to "imagine that we are traveling to Washington in a time machine that goes backward." He continued: "You wouldn't recognize the Washington of 1880. The Capitol was built and the White House, and a stump for the Washington Monument because they stopped building it from 1840 to 1880. … The city was much smaller then, extending only as far as Boundary Street, which today is Florida Avenue. Much of the Mall was a swamp and there were trains and locomotives and railroad tracks running across the Mall."
On an 1887 map of Washington Mr. Kranz noted a marker labeled "site of the Congressional Library," where the Jefferson Building now stands. He also discussed a city school map that cites Sumner, Miner, Anthony Bowen, and other schools; and an insurance map of streets and alleys.
Ms. Gray, in her discussion of 19th century children's games, said: "Children like you have their own folklore. …Who here has ever jumped rope? Played hide-and-seek? Played ball in places other than a baseball diamond? Played hopscotch? Repeated a saying about what will happen if you step on a crack in the sidewalk? Sang 'Happy Birthday' at a party? All except one of these activities were part of children's lives in Washington more than 100 years ago. The one exception is singing the birthday song, the melody was known then, but the words were, 'Good Morning to All.'"
She continued "What's really interesting is how we've learned those games and songs. … I'll bet we all picked up most games, songs or rhymes directly from older brothers and sisters or from other kids at school. They weren't trying to teach us anything; we just imitated what they did. And that's a major way traditions are passed along, from children to children. And since we know so many activities that children of the 1880s knew, it's clear that passing along traditions is a very effective way of preserving them."
The Washington Revels then led the audience in a rousing rendition of the 19th century children's hand-clap game "Juba."
The program continued with photographic slides, narrations and songs depicting life in the alley communities—life that was hard, in dwellings that were dreary, in communities viewed by many as breeding grounds for crime, disease and despair. But, nevertheless, communities in which people "made a life for themselves—raising families, going to work and to church, and providing a loving environment for the children" flourished, said Ms. Kresh. She explained that Congress embarked on a long and controversial campaign to "bring light to dark places" and eliminate alley communities.
Ms. Cannon said, "The people who lived in the alleys were not alone. There were strong women who dedicated their lives to improving the lot of families, women and children in Washington's alley communities." She then introduced two such figures (played by Washington Revels): Nannie Helen Burroughs, who organized the Women's Convention—auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention—and founded the National Training School for Women and Girls; and Mary Church Terrell, who taught Burroughs at the M Street High School and later founded the Colored Women's League of Washington, D.C., and the National Association of Colored Women). In dramatic monologues Burroughs and Terrell told their life stories (available on the "Discovering Hidden Washington" Web site at www.loc.gov/loc/kidslc/sp-burroughs.html and www.loc.gov/loc/kidslc/sp-terrell.html, respectively).
With several more songs in which the audience joined in and closing remarks, the performance came to an end. The schoolchildren then peppered the Library staff and Washington Revels performers with questions about the Library, the production, local history and alley life in Washington before filing out of the Coolidge Auditorium to return to their schools. Ms. Kresh encouraged the students to collect stories from their communities and to e-mail them to the Library or submit them via the form on the "Discovering Hidden Washington" Web site, to help the Library in "Telling America's Story."
Ms. Pyne is a network specialist in the Network Development and MARC Standards Office and editor of Library Services News, a staff newsletter.