“Barry Farm: Past & Present” premiers at HSW June 5th
In a scene from the documentary “Barry Farm: Past and Present” filmmaker Tendani Mpulubusi El asks a young man in the Barry Farm community if he is familiar with Howard University. The young man affirms he knows the campus located off Georgia Avenue NW is “uptown” and, with a small smile says, “There be some girls up there. That’s what I know.”
The Barry Farm community and Howard University are, in fact, linked by more than a 15 minute ride on the Metro’s green line; they are linked by a common history being brought to life in a new documentary, “Barry Farm: Past and Present”, that makes its world premier June 5th at the Historical Society of Washington.
Barry Farm History:
Potomac City, Howardstown, and Hillsdale were all past names for an area of the city now known in the vernacular as “The Farms.”
To put the film together Mpulubusi El, supported by a D.C. Community Heritage Project grant, went back to when the Anacostan Indians lived in present-day Barry Farm. Archaeological evidence discovered during the Anacostia Metro station construction provided insights into the area’s earliest inhabitants.
The Barry Farm community was originally part of, white farmers, David and Julia Barry’s Farm which extended from the Anacostia River to what is now known as Garfield Heights. In 1867, Union General Oliver Howard, then Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, utilized federal money to purchase the 375-acre site. The lots were then sold for $125-$300 per acre to families of freed slaves and refuges from the Civil War, creating the first African-American homeownership community in the city.
One of the stories brought to life in the film is the story of Solomon G. Brown, the first African American to work for the Smithsonian Institution, who lived on Elvans Road. Born a free man in Washington in 1829, he worked at the Smithsonian from 1852 to his retirement in 1906, at the age of 77. Over his 54 years of service to the Smithsonian, he held numerous positions of influence in the community.
He was a trustee of Wilberforce University, and was elected to three consecutive one-year terms, 1871 – 1874, as a member of the House of Delegates under the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Alexandria Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began to separate the original community from the Anacostia River and Poplar Point. By mid-century, the land between the tracks and the river had been converted to military bases, and following Ward War II, Interstate 295’s construction further isolated the neighborhood from the waterfront.
In 1954, the Redevelopment Land Agency acquired much of the remaining land and built public housing for displaced residents coming from the Southwest urban renewal and other areas of the city. That public housing remains today as an amalgamation of the 624 low-income units between Barry Farm and Park Chester, off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
One of the most powerful scenes in the documentary is when nearly two dozen students from Howard University travel to the Barry Farm recreation center to have a meeting and conversation with their peers from the Barry Farm community.
Noted local historian CR Gibbs is seen in the film reflecting on the unique historic connections, “It also speaks to how closely linked together Barry Farm and Howard University were – they share a common history. The relationship between Barry Farm and Howard University – obviously founded by the same man – it is strange. It is troubling that Howard University, today, is not more closely involved in the Barry Farm community.”
The opportunity for Howard to get involved in present-day Barry Farms is closing, ever so slowly.
In November 2005, in conjunction with the Barry Farm Advisory Committee, the city began a public process to create a revitalization plan for the southeast community; known as its New Communities Initiative. The plan, which spans more than a decade, would change present day Barry Farm and the neighboring Park Chester.
In late December 2006, the DC Council approved the Barry Farm/Park Chester/Wade Road Community Revitalization Plan consistent with the New Communities Initiative, the eventual goal being to revitalize the public and low income housing developments and its neighborhood into a mixed-income, mixed-use community, according to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Planning and Development.
“The New Communities engagement is not effective. People either don’t know this is going to happen or they know it is coming and they don’t care,” says Mpulubusi El.
At 19, after graduating high school and briefly attending Guilford College in Greensboro North Carolina Tendani Mpulubusi El found himself homeless and being increasingly pulled into the temptation and allure of street life.
With a collection of friends attending local universities he was able to stay in college dormitories; rent-free. At the University of Maryland he would spend hours on end in the library researching and studying business, marketing, history, and politics.
Looking for direction, a cousin of his worked for the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) and he was recruited to join the AmeriCorps Program. The ECC began in 1989 as an outgrowth of a White House domestic policy initiative, and in 1992 the Hollywood environmentalist Bob Nixon took over and invested his own money. Nixon, who produced “Gorillas in the Mist”, integrated multi-media arts education into ECC’s curriculum.
It was with the ECC that Mpulubsi El was first exposed to the transformative power of film. The self-described, “historic preservationist” has come a long way from then until now, but he is by no means a newcomer to the local arts scene. He currently serves as the Ward 8 Commissioner on the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and is an active multi-disciplinary artist with multiple public works featured throughout the city.
Mpulubusi El, who has worked at DCTV and interned at National Geographic, said as he discovered elements of the neighborhood’s history, doing research at places like the Martin Luther King Jr. Library’s Washingtoniana Division, he would ask his peers if they were familiar with the history of where they live. More often common knowledge concerned the criminal justice system, not the neighborhood’s history.
As Mpulubusi El uses the June 5th screening to promote an awareness of his film and the history of the Barry Farm community, Cultural Tourism DC is in the active process of generating its Anacostia Heritage Trail.
Jane Freundel Levey, Director of Heritage Programs, says the heritage trail will consist of 15 – 18 signs placed throughout Anacostia that taken together create a self-guided tour.
Through a process that mixes long-time and more recent residents, community members work hand-in-hand with professional historians. Their next meeting will be held later this summer and completion of the heritage trail is estimated to take 18 months.
“Anytime there is an obvious transition going on people become interested in history. This is what has been happening in Washington,” says Levey, “Our first heritage trail was on U Street NW. We began the process in the early 1990’s. As people see change happening, they want to know what came before, and what they might lose.”
By hosting the world premier of “Barry Farm: Past and Present” the Historical Society of Washington (HSW), founded in 1894 and located in the Carnegie Building at 801 K Street NW, is helping to create new audiences for people interested in the city’s history says Dottie Green, Director of Public Programs and Education.
He caught her attention at an event the DCCAH held at the HSW where he mentioned a film he was working on.
Ms. Green approached him and they spoke about screening the film at the HSW and making it an interactive presentation where the audience would be encouraged to share their own personal stories giving the event an added dimension according to Ms. Green.
“Our mission is not only to serve as an archive for DC history, but also to make Washington’s history a relevant part of contemporary life,” says Ms. Green, “Tendani has recorded a very rich part of DC’s history and his film is a creative documentation of this important history.”
Mpulubusi El sees the June 5th screening of his film as the first step in many more to take which will include submission to a wide range of film festivals and exploring local broadcast opportunities.