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Nearly a quarter-century ago, Kathryn Smith first showed up to do research at the august headquarters of what is now the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (HSW). She was in for a disappointment. A neighborhood historian whose work often focuses on D.C.’s African-American community, Smith says she found a stuffy, invitation-only club that was largely uninterested in either her or her research.
“I came to the Historical Society in 1975, when it was a very private organization,” Smith says. “Eastern historical societies originally began as social clubs of white males to preserve the history of the elite. I’m from the Midwest, where historical societies are public institutions for education. When I came to Washington, I found a very different model.”
Rather than shunning the society, Smith stayed put. By 1989, when she began a four-year term as president, Smith had watched the society add full-time professional staff in the ’70s, restore its Heurich House headquarters off Dupont Circle in the ’80s, and begin public programming, currently aimed at D.C. school students, at community outfits like the Latin American Youth Center, and at ordinary history dweebs, in the late ’80s.
Today, her successors are trying to raise the once-shuttered society’s profile even further. And in doing so, D.C.’s premier nonprofit collector of memories has stumbled upon a particularly unpleasant batch of recollections.
The can of worms was opened late last year when Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans introduced a bill to name HSW as D.C.’s official historical society. HSW Executive Director Barbara Franco says the designation would allow the society to work more closely with the city government as well as to access new federal monies. But others see something more suspicious.
At a hearing two months ago, a handful of history buffs came out of the woodwork to slam the society for exactly the same sins its leaders say they’ve spent 20 years fighting. “As I talked to many of these other organizations, they conceded that the D.C. Historical has pretty much been private,” said Janette Hoston Harris, the District’s recently appointed city historian, in prepared testimony at a May 12 council hearing. (Harris is out of town on vacation and unavailable for comment.)
Foes say they fear the official designation would give official sanction to what has been a hermetic, self-interested institution. “I thought that it was necessary that history become more inclusive and an authentic reflection of the real history,” says Peggy Seats, leader of a drive to build a Benjamin Banneker memorial. “[It should] record and recognize all contributions, not just the contributions of Europeans and European males in particular.” Seats argues that a more diverse group should oversee any official D.C. historical activities.
But Georgia Avenue historian Bill Hasson, an HSW trustee, says that in tarring the society for past elitism, Harris is giving the HSW of today a bum rap. “She’s way behind the times,” he says. “She’s misinformed. I think that she has the perception that many people had of the organization years ago. But it’s changed. I’m not trying to say that Janette’s testimony wasn’t true ever; I just think she’s misinformed. I certainly wouldn’t have been on that board 10 years ago.”
According to D.C. Council staffer Chris Murray, Evans’ bill is idling pending a compromise solution. Murray says that the proposal made by Harris and Secretary of the District Kathleen Arnold, that a consortium of historic agencies be given the “official” designation, will be on the table at a meeting Council Chairman Linda Cropp plans to hold sometime in the next couple of months. Murray says that plans are in motion to give the argument over D.C. history the good, old-fashioned semantic smoothover.
One of the great ironies of D.C.’s cultural landscape is that Washington, a city cosmopolitan enough to house museums of textiles, African art, and American Jewish military history, has no hometown history museum. Right now, locals can find out about old D.C.’s presidential grandeur at the National Museum of American History or learn about how it was designed at the National Building Museum. But as far as a permanent city museum, the kind that cities like Philadelphia and Cincinnati have, the District is out of luck.
That’s not for lack of trying. A move to establish a museum for and about D.C. got as close as setting up shop in the former Rutherford B. Hayes school in 1988. It quickly shut its doors after funding dried up.
D.C.’s financial crisis has been even worse for the remaining local historical institutions. The city’s archives have been eviscerated, with its staff cut from 14 to just two, according to former archivist Philip Ogilvie, currently an HSW trustee. These days, he says, most phone calls to the archives don’t get picked up. Considering that the archives were playing catch-up even in their heyday, they were only established in the mid-’80s, a decade after the advent of home rule ended the federal government’s responsibility for hometown record-keeping, the current lack of stewardship has serious potential costs.
In such a context, locals of all stripes ought to be thrilled that the stars seem to be aligning to create a permanent hometown repository of memory. Last week, the Senate added $500,000 to its D.C. appropriations bill to fund studies of a proposed Museum of the City of Washington, to be located in the Carnegie Library. The House version topped even that by appropriating $2 million for the museum.
Establishing such a museum would fulfill a longtime goal of local historians. But unfortunately, even as they’re trying to talk through a contentious past, D.C. historians are getting tripped up over what should be considered a bright institutional future. The tiff over making HSW the official state historical society would seem like just a petty squabble among a small academic family were there not millions of dollars and a long-awaited museum in the balance.
In fact, the notion of a newly empowered and officially designated institution has a lot of longtime D.C. history types nervous. “This is considered the official state library,” says Roxanna Deane of the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division. “There are a lot of funds we get for that.” Aside from grant money, Deane also worries about individual gifts. “I want there to be a museum….I just don’t want them to be seen as the official repository of papers, and people feel like they have to give to them.”
“There had been some fear that if one organization were named official, the rest of us who collect would be cut off,” says Dr. Thomas Battle of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Archives. Battle oversees one of the best collections on African-American Washington. He worries that folks who would ordinarily leave their papers to Moorland-Spingarn might be swayed to leave them to D.C.’s official museum instead.
And there are other externalities to the designation that have interested parties concerned about who will end up owning D.C. history. Evans’ proposed legislation includes language that would allow HSW to enter into contracts with the D.C. government for, among other things, archival services. HSW would also be empowered to charge fees for its services. Currently, all published government documents are collected by the Washingtoniana Division, while unpublished ones are housed, albeit with scant funding, in the city’s archives.
The fight is not just a turf war, people are legitimately worried that, in an age of privatization, citizens might have to pay for access to their own public history. “It is a question of what the appropriate role of private organizations is in preserving the memory of the city,” says Washingtoniana’s Matthew Gilmore.
HSW partisans counter that numerous states have named private nonprofits as their official historical societies. Ogilvie says HSW is the only outfit in the city that’s up to the task. “If we’re going to have a city museum,” he says, “then you need to have some kind of a going organization that will establish that museum.”
Ogilvie discounts the idea that anyone could ever charge for access to the archives. “There wouldn’t be any charge to examine the records. The city would never sign any contract which required a fee to examine the records. They’re public records,” he says.
Franco says she still thinks a little more dialogue could make everything work. “Linda Cropp has offered to set up a meeting of all of the people that are involved with history in the city to see what all the responsibilities are. It’s not always clear who covers what,” she says.
Historians, of course, are always arguing over something. Marxians don’t talk to liberals. No one agrees about the French Revolution. They’re still going back and forth over whether slavery caused racism, or vice versa. It’s no different for D.C., an anomalous, politically neutered city whose odd history keeps its own quiet conflicts roiling. The only difference this time is that rather than squabbling about philosophies of history, the District’s memory-keepers are tugging over money, power, and honor. They’ve learned their D.C. history well.