Stories from a native Washingtonian
Moving to a new city is intimidating, particularly because most of your time is spent stumbling into familiarity. Guidance, trial, and error are often what eases a period of transition. I have trial and error covered. But my work at the museum has also helped to introduce me to my new city, particularly the opportunity to explore photos from our Archives Center that depict African American life in Washington, D.C. Some of these photos are now on view in our lower level gallery display, Celebration: Snapshots of African American Communities, part of our celebration of the upcoming opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Curious to learn more about the D.C. depicted in these black-and-white photos, I spoke with author and native Washingtonian Gay G. Gunn. After emailing for a few weeks, we sat down to have a chat about her experience growing up as an African American in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s and 60s. She experienced segregation, integration, its effects on the city, and more.
Gunn was full of stories and connections, not least of which was her relation to George Scurlock, a photographer of African American life in the 20th century, many of whose photographs we have here at museum's Archives Center. She also thought she spotted her childhood friend's baptism portrait in our blog post for our upcoming photo display. What better way to learn a city than from one of its ultimate insiders? Our conversation taught me about D.C.'s complicated history and what it's like to see it as home. Here are my favorite parts.
Local photo studio captured everyday moments in D.C.'s African American community
In 1972 Gunn's aunt married George Scurlock, the photographer known for capturing much of African American life in the 20th century here in D.C. He and his brother Robert took over Scurlock Studios, which was founded by their father, Addison. (Learn more about the family.) Gunn was close with his son, "Scurly."
"He had the shop at 9th and U," Gunn said, referring to the U Street corridor in northwest D.C. "This is before integration, so that was the only place you could go for professional pictures because you couldn't go to Sears. . . . I think that integration really hurt our whole community because then you could go to Sears." Meaning, Gunn believes that integration led to big corporations like Sears drawing customers away from small businesses that were owned by African Americans.
Community organizations instilled values
In 1955 Gunn became a Camp Fire Girl. The group focuses on teaching young people how "to care for themselves, their environment and the people around them." Gunn sent us a picture of her graduation ceremony from Bluebirds to Camp Fire Girls.
"[We] were going from Bluebirds to Camp Fire Girls. You entered these organizations with the idea that you will go through . . . like your sisters did. . . . I'm looking at this group of young people [who] came from very good families: middle-class, two-parent homes."
African American parents saw these organizations as important ways to shape their children and share values as they grew up in segregated Washington, D.C., in the 1950s.
"When you grew up in a segregated situation . . .you wanted to make sure . . . your children . . . know that the possibility is always there for them to do what they want to do and be what they want to be with no limitations. . . . [Parents] were forming their own organizations to instill pride. . . . You don't need the validation of anyone but your own," Gunn said.
Blockbusting reshaped neighborhoods
When she was around seven years old, Gunn's family moved from 10th Street NW, a black neighborhood, to Arkansas Avenue, previously an all-white neighborhood. In 1955 this type of movement was becoming increasingly common. As a result, blockbusting began. Real estate agents would introduce black families to white areas to scare away white homeowners. After which, houses were sold well below market value and then were resold to black families at huge markups. (Learn more about blockbusting at BlackPast.org)
"When I was six or seven years old I was unaware of all of this. . . . I didn't feel the effects because we moved in between the Scharbers . . . a Jewish family . . . and the Pfisters . . . a French family. . . . I didn't feel the effects of being called names. . . . I never saw 'black only' or 'white only' because we stayed in our own enclave."
As middle-class black families increasingly moved to white neighborhoods, less wealthy black families who couldn't afford the high prices had to stay.
"When those of us who could move . . . we left the people there with fewer role models. . . . That was a sense of community I think we lost when people moved out and didn't get back as often."
Many native to D.C. feel pride in their ever-changing city
Gunn is a native Washingtonian, meaning she has a specific perspective on the city that I'm still getting to know. I asked her what being a native Washingtonian means to her. She responded, "You don't forget [about each other]. [We] all are pretty much one." In the 1950s and 60s, Gunn remarked how the city "had a very Southern feel. . . . We could go to bed with our doors unlocked." It began growing in the 1970s when 'Big Government' came in. Before then, she had a saying regarding how everyone seemed to know each other: "Six degrees of separation for non-blacks, and for blacks it's two degrees and a phone call."
Although segregation was apparent, Gunn's family enjoyed their part of the city.
"We didn't go downtown . . . you couldn't use the bathroom." However, Gunn and her family would often take visiting family around town. "We went to the Smithsonian, the Capitol, we did all the touristy things," she said. "We treated Rock Creek Park like it was our backyard. . . . We had everything as far as I could see."
I'm sure trial and error will continue for me, but Gunn's guidance and stories have aided some of my period of transition. Talking to her gave me a foundation for the city as I figure it out. It was fascinating listening to Gunn's stories about D.C. back when it felt like a small town. It is certainly very different now, but as she said to me, "Everything must change. You better go along or you'll be left behind."
I'm happy to report that Gunn is "very, very, very excited about the opening of the Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture."
Evelyn Mantegani completed an internship in the museum's New Media Department and the Photographic History Collection. She's enjoying getting to know new parts of D.C. now that her internship is complete and she has found a job in the city.
Want to learn more about African American history in our collection? Volunteer to help pinpoint moments in D.C.'s African American history through a new project on the Smithsonian's Transcription Center. Visit us to see African American history on display around the museum, including our new case in American Enterprise titled Black Main Street: Funding Civil Rights in Jim Crow America.