Tag Archives: District of Columbia Teachers College

Musing on the National Museum of African American History

Experience tells me that I am not alone as fall creeps stealthily into our lives. Early evenings, falling leaves and an evitable autumnal languor herald a season when many of us find ourselves in a reflective mood. On the one hand, we yearn to hang on to the carefree days of summer. Still, we know it’s time to face the facts, which means re-visiting a jumble of memories. So I spent last evening absorbed with the memories conjured by the opening of the National Museum of African American History. (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/24/495302034/national-museum-of-african-american-history-opens-its-doors)

My ritual morning click on The Writer’s Almanac reinforced the reflective mood.   Today’s show recalled the day six decades ago when the “Little Rock Nine” walked into Little Rock Central High School. Protected by federal troops they bravely “put a face” on the legendary decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the doctrine of “separate but equal.” (http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160925/)

My thoughts turn to the tragically slow trajectory of history. Thus, as I share in the celebration of the NMAAH I wonder about the world faced by the grandchildren of the Little Rock Nine.

It seems to me that there are times when we better understand seismic forces if we have a thread that ties us to the enormity of a movement or societal awakening. For me, the thread to the narrative preserved in the National Museum weaves through the story of the Brown vs Board of Education decision and the bravery of the Little Rock Nine and their families.

Some reflections:

For five years in the 60’s my days were spent as a fledgling librarian at the District of Columbia Teachers College. As an agency of the DC Public Schools, the College, like virtually all the of the nation’s capital, operated under the political thumb of the United States Congress. DCTC was a merger of two teacher education institutions — Wilson (historically White) and Miner (historically Black)* – a marriage forced by the same Brown vs Board of Education decision. Any observer of school integration or white flight in the 60’s would instantly know that, by the time I showed up at DCTC, the student body and the faculty were 99.9% African American.

Totally immersed in an environment that was far beyond my experience, I learned in a way that has shaped my life.   As a librarian I learned about brilliant Black writers, the Harlem Renaissance, about the paucity of research on the African American experience. I learned, too, about emerging authors who were turning their attention to young African American readers.

As a newbie on a professional team of outstanding Black librarians I heard the stories of powerful African American leaders – writers, educators, artists, athletes, politicians, leaders of the faith community, veterans of wars and labor movements. In time I grasped what my elders shared about the unique characteristics of African American academic institutions, their fraternities and sororities, about the Washington, DC Gold Coast, and, of course, I absorbed back-stories on the civil and human rights movements of the era. Above all, I learned about the pain – and about the unflinching hope — that inspired the Black community’s compulsion to speak out and stand up for the inalienable rights so long trampled by the diabolical myth of white supremacy.

My life has been forever enriched by this long ago experience – the daily brown bag lunch in the back room, the petty gripes and celebrated birthdays, the wisdom shared with patient generosity of spirit by my older and much wiser co-workers.

All of these memories flowed as I viewed the spectacular opening of National Museum of African American History. The impact of the Supreme Court decision, the turbulence of the 60’s struggle for human and civil rights, the history we share but too often prefer to ignore or deny.  All of this history I learned by listening to my elders – wisdom shared over long lunches in the “back room” of DCTC. My oral history learning was not so much about facts but about the power of a people to believe, to hope, and put their shoulder to the wheel of freedom – not for individual gain but for the good of the race and of society.

The National Museum of African American History makes a powerful statement – the stories behind the objects can “put a face” on those who lived their lives and helped to shape a history filled with pain and injustice could not break the spirit of my colleagues and their forebears.

________

* (In an earlier post I wrote about Myrtilla Miner, the white woman for whom the African American college was named – an interesting historical footnote —https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/myrtilla-miner/)

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Delilah Pierce- Visionary artist and educator

Black history month is a great time to connect or reconnect with people who have made a difference – sometimes in my own life.   It’s a chance to learn more about great people I’ve known or known about – people about whom I have always wanted to learn more.

Delilah W. Pierce is one such person. When I was a neophyte librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College Mrs. Pierce was an art teacher. What I knew was that Delilah Pierce was an elegant – classy – soft-spoken lady, a loyal member of Phi Delta Kappa, who had been chosen to join a group of business leaders, educators and clergy to tour Europe and Africa, including Ethiopia, Nigeria and other nations still little known to Americans. What I knew best was that Ms Pierce labored without a proper classroom or adequate supplies to share her love of art. I knew Ms Pierce as a teacher who shared her vision with countless future teachers who attended DCTC, the woefully under-funded public institution that operated under the thumb of the United States Congress….

Ignoring the conditions, Ms Pierce embraced her role as educator with a spirit of hope that she shared generously with students and faculty alike.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Delilah Pierce was highly regarded in the world of African American artists – a world as yet unknown to many American art lovers. I discovered Ms Pierce the painter on a stroll down the C&O Canal near Georgetown when I happened upon her studio and gallery. Her paintings were everywhere – magnificent depictions of seacoasts and rural landscapes that reflected New England more than the banks of the Potomac…. For the first time, I saw Delilah Pierce, the artist, a woman highly regarded by colleagues and critics, a woman I had never known in the uniquely dreary setting of DCTC.

Born in 1904 in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC Ms Pierce knew segregation, racial tension, rampant injustice. She also knew activism, including the rise of labor unions, evolving housing patterns, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Her biographer writes that “the experience of such challenges did not taint or restrain her spirit. Inspired by the concept of freedom and equity, her art reflects an expansion for traditional African American heritage art. …In many ways she liberated herself by capturing the beauty of the New England and European coastal landscapes….To Delilah New England was not only a northern American location, it was a place where African Americans could enjoy and exhale from the ugliness of the American South.”

One of her biographers writes that “Delilah captured what was beautiful, simple, and innocent in the world.” Art critic Judith Means adds that “the way she perceives the world, with joy and optimism, and the stunning clarity of her finely-developed aesthetic sense are integral not only to her character but also to the vivid visual textures of her work.”

I never really got to know Delilah Pierce, the artist; I knew her as a colleague in the challenge to share the joy of learning and beauty with young people for whom hope was elusive and racial injustice was immediate.

It is delayed joy for me to know that I can visit her work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Modern American Art, the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Smith-Mason Gallery of Art and other sites. Of even greater joy is the knowledge that Ms. Pierce’s work is also on display at the University of the District of Columbia, a major institution built on the ashes of DCTC. Before Delilah Pierce’s death in 1992 that institution awarded Miss Pierce an honorary doctorate, a token award for a grand woman who did not hesitate to share her immense talent with some of the District’s most deserving students.

To learn more about Delilah Pierce, the woman and the artist, visit her website http://delilahwpierce.com/. Or find her story on Facebook or twitter. The photographs of her paintings tell the story far better than words.

Myrtilla Miner – A tribute to a woman long before her time

Sunday, December 26, marks the start of Kwanzaa, an African American celebration with roots that date back to 1966 and the creativity and commitment of Dr. Maulana Karenga.  Reading and thinking about Kwanzaa takes me back to that turbulent era that has had a profound impact on my own life.  In that year I was a fledgling librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College, a crumbling school building on 13th and Harvard in Northwest Washington, DC.  Though the library what was known as the Wilson Building,  half of the campus was a few blocks away – the Miner Building was at 2565 Georgia Avenue NW, just across the street from the famed Howard University.  At that time, DCTC was part of the public school system of the District of Columbia, the training ground for a huge percentage of the district’s teachers and administrators.

This story has to do with Myrtilla Miner to whom the beautiful building on Georgia was dedicated in 1917.  It’s a story I’ve always wanted to know and now to share.

Myrtilla Miner was a white woman, born March 4, 1815, near Brookfield, New York.  Trained as an educator Miner taught at the Clover Street Seminary in Rochester, New York,  then at the Newton Female Institute, a Mississippi school where she was refused permission to conduct classes for African American girls.  That experience awakened Miner to the idea that she should open a school for young African American girls who would become teachers.  Encouraged by the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and a contribution from a Quaker philanthropist Miner opened the Colored Girls School in Washington DC in 1851.  Though there were at the time some private schools for African American youth, this was the first school for African American girls that was dedicated to teacher education.

Within two months the enrollment grew from six to forty.  Despite the hostility of many in the community the school prospered.  Contributions from Quakers continued to arrive.  Harriet Beecher Stowe gave $1,000 of her Uncle Tom’s Cabin royalties to the Colored Girls School.  In a short time the school outgrew its quarters and moved in 1854 to a three-acre lot near the edge of the nation’s capital.  The first board of trustees included both Henry Ward Beecher and Johns Hopkins.

The curriculum in the early days focused on primary schooling with classes in domestic skills, hygiene and nature studies. With great stamina and persistence Miner pursued her vision of  rigorous academics and teacher education.  By 1858 six graduates of the Colored Girls School were teaching in schools of their own.

By that time Myrtilla Miner’s health was failing, though her dream and her commitment to building a teacher education institution for African American woman was thriving.  When the school was forced to close in 1860 Miner traveled to California with the hope of regaining her health.  Though she returned to DC, she was never able to return to the school when it reopened though she did serve on the first board of trustees.

Myrtilla Miner died in a carriage accident in 1864.  Her grave can be found today in Oak Hill Cemetery near Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown where she rests with some of the nation’s most distinguished leaders and their progeny.

Clearly, the story doesn’t end here. During the Civil War, on March 3, 1863, the U.S. Senate granted the Colored Girls School a charter as the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth.  In the early 1870’s the school was associated with Howard University, its near neighbor.  In 1879 it became part of the DC public school system; it was then re-named Miner Normal School   In 1924 Miner Normal School moved into a grand new  building designed by Leon E. Dessez and Snowden Ashford.  An act of Congress eventually accredited the institution as Miner Teachers’ College, a major source of African American teachers for the DC public schools until the mid-1950’s.

Because it was a part of the DC public schools Miner, the African American teacher education institution and its neighbor, Wilson Teachers College, preparer of white teachers, were merged to form the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955..  The impact of the Brown decision, the merger of the two schools, and the influence of Myrtilla Miner shaped my five years at DCTC – five wonderful years of learning about worlds I had not known and would never have known except for my good fortune to be hired as a wet-behind-the-ears librarian with much to learn about the profession, African American history, and myself.

In the late 1960’s, as the education of African American youth gained national prominence,  Congress moved with all deliberate speed to create the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) which absorbed with a mighty flourish the District of Columbia Teachers College.  UDC, a totally urban institution, was awarded land grant status with a $7.24 endowment in place of the usual land grant.  I will never forget the desperate efforts of one African American librarian at DCTC, Walter Williams,  to stash and thus preserve the exquisite collection of African American literature that was no doubt dumped in the transition.  The original institutions, both Miner and Wilson, are no more, of course.

Still, the memories and the impact of Myrtilla Miner endure.  Thousands of teachers have studied their profession at Miner and DCTC.  Hundreds of thousands of DC youth have learned from those teachers.  Young people of color have been inspired by the high standards instilled by the indomitable Myrtilla Miner and the African American educators who followed in her footsteps.

The beautiful Colonial Revival building that was once Miner Normal School, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, stands proudly on Georgia Avenue Northwest as a present reminder of a white woman who recognized the possibilities, established standards, and found the means to reach high goals.  A white woman before her time who lived by the principles that inspire the celebration of Kwanzaa over 150 years later.  I am honored to have worked in her shadow those many years ago.

A search of MnKnows indicates that Minnesota libraries do include some important resources, included these:

  • Foner, Philip Sheldon, Contributions to Women’s Studies, Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, chapter on Myrtilla Miner.
  • Harold, Stanley, Antislavery, abolition and the Atlantic world, Louisiana State University Press
  • O’Connor, Ellen, American Negro, his history and literature.  Reprint of two works originally issued separately in 1885.  Includes memoir of Myrtilla Miner.