Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Monday, April 11, 2022

Piedmont Manufacturing: More than Just a Textile Mill

 By Joe Hursey

The Archives Center possesses an incredible set of architectural drawings of late 19th-century textile mills, known as the Lockwood-Greene Records. At first glance, these drawings seem nothing more than well-drafted images of factory buildings on heavy linen material. But to the people who worked in the mills built from these drawings, they represent the beginning of numerous communities throughout South Carolina. The most impressive of these mills was the flagship mill, Piedmont Manufacturing Company.

Between 1862 and 1863, Henry Pickney Hammett and his partner and father-in-law, William Bates, purchased a total of 415 acres at Garrison Shoals along the Saluda River. On this river their textile mill would be built and named Piedmont Manufacturing. The town would also take the name, to be known as Piedmont, South Carolina. Unlike the previous style of smaller mills in upstate South Carolina, Hammett's grand mill would be based on larger New England-style mill designs. After completion, the mill stood as the largest mill in the United States until 1900.

Despite their best efforts, the ongoing Civil War delayed the project, and later Bates died in 1872. Not one to be deterred by challenges, Hammett continued the project. He began raising money toward building his mill, but due to the financial after-effects of the Civil War and the economic panic of 1873, Hammett struggled with obtaining investment capital. In order to stay on budget, Hammett reduced building costs by constructing onsite brick-making and ironworks, obtaining construction material from local forests, and bringing in architects, craftsmen, and workers to Piedmont.  

By 1876 the first stage of the plant, Mill #1, was fully operating 5,000 spindles and 112 looms.  Hammett continued to add additional buildings for a total of four mill buildings to the textile manufacturing plant in Piedmont. Hammett's mill would usher in the industrial revolution to the upstate. But in order to meet the needs of the growing mill, Hammett needed increased power for it.

Architectural Drawing of the Piedmont Mill, later renamed J.P. Stevens & Company, from the Lockwood-Greene Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Hammett built a dam that provided the necessary structure for the mill's hydropower system. The dam, built in 1889, designed with a main span and a central overflow section, had a large raceway at each end, serving mills on both sides of the river. As one of the few hydropower mills in the upstate area, Piedmont mill machinery operated by a belt-driven hydro-powered system. This was later updated to a hydroelectric system. Spanning the central overflow portion of the dam, a metal truss footbridge supported by columns anchored to the dam allowed workers to move quickly between the mills. The footbridge was destroyed in 2020 during a high-water event when a dislodged boat dock went over the dam, dragging the steel bridge with it. The Piedmont dam stands as the oldest continually power- producing dam in the state.   

As the mill grew and required more power to operate, it also required increases in labor. The Great Migration provided much-needed labor to the mill industry, which came in two waves. Between the 1880s and 1890s, cotton prices fell, driving farm laborers from the field to the factory. And by 1900 when cotton prices rose, additional buildings were built and workers were recruited. In order to recruit workers for Piedmont Manufacturing, housing planning became an important factor. One method was naming streets, such as Transylvania Street, after the location of where many workers were recruited from, such as Transylvania County, North Carolina. These workers from Transylvania settled on Transylvania Street, knowing that they would live amongst similar people coming from the same place.   

Not only did Piedmont Manufacturing Company build homes for the workers to live in, they built the community infrastructure that provided for every need of the mill's workers: churches, schools, mercantile shops, community buildings, hotel, gymnasium, YMCA and YWCA, and a library.  

Eventually Piedmont Manufacturing led South Carolina to become the largest textile producer in the world. The mills were sold to J.P. Stevens and Company in 1946 and subsequently updated to include modern features such as air conditioning. New buildings were added to the mill campus and the mill houses, which had belonged to the company and were leased to employees. But as competition from foreign mills increased, Piedmont Manufacturing Company's hold on the title of king of textiles started to slide. In 1977 the mill ceased most of its operations and completely closed in 1983.

While Piedmont Manufacturing is no longer in business, it stood as an important facet of America's Reconstruction period and the New South Movement, transforming a mostly agrarian society into an industrial community. And  it was more than just a factory. To the local people and their community, it was the center of the universe. Hammett's dream of a grand textile plant will remain an important part of American history. 

Joe Hursey is the head of reference services for the National Museum of American History Archives Center through Friday, April 15, 2022. His Archives Center colleagues thank him for his years of service and for this contribution to the SI Collections Blog.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Women, Cameras, and Images

By David Haberstich

In recent years the Smithsonian Collections Blog has featured numerous posts about women photographers represented in Smithsonian collections. For instance, I’ve blogged about the photographers Katherine Joseph, Dawn Rogala, and Melody Golding, whose work is in the NMAH Archives Center, but now I want to highlight a much earlier Smithsonian effort to celebrate women in photography. The National Museum of American History (then the Museum of History and Technology) featured female photographic artists in a series entitled “Women, Cameras, and Images” in 1969-1970, initiated by Curator of Photography Eugene Ostroff. Although three of these photographers were famous, even legendary, and already included in general histories of photography, two were comparatively unknown at the time. Prints by all five are in the museum’s Photographic History Collection, acquired in conjunction with their exhibitions. This program was an early attempt to emphasize the contributions of women to twentieth-century photography via a series that combined three famous photographers, who utilized standard photographic techniques to achieve their unique personal vision, with two younger, relatively unknown artists who experimented with “obsolete” photographic processes, combined with hand techniques, to interrogate assumptions about the nature of photography. Indeed, Betty Hahn later challenged standard notions about photography (and the nature of her multi-media variations) in the very title of her book, Photography…Or Maybe Not. *

Betty Hahn (b. 1940), "Seasonal Rainbow Transition," gum bichromate with paint on paper, 1968. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History.

All four exhibitions were accompanied by poster-checklists and formal, if modest, openings. The first show in the series, “Women, Cameras, and Images I,” was a retrospective of Imogen Cunningham’s classic imagery. I well remember her sly humor and witty sarcasm at her opening: she was delightful, and it was especially gratifying for me after my failed attempt to meet her during a trip to San Francisco.

Imogen Cunningham (1882-1976), "Unmade Bed," gelatin silver photographic print, 1957, printed 1957, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The second exhibition, “Women, Cameras, and Images II,” combined the work of Betty Hahn and Gayle Smalley. I had met Betty in graduate school at Indiana University and vaguely knew Gayle, who had graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology five years before I had. Their work was very different from that of the other three women, employing radically new approaches to the medium. Hahn was one of the first photographers to experiment with “obsolete” photographic processes, including gum-bichromate, and combined photography with textiles, sometimes adding hand-work, such as paint, needlework and embroidery, which in her words represented a homage to the unsung women who traditionally practiced such stereotypically feminine “crafts.” Independently, Gayle Smalley combined photography with hand printmaking techniques. Hahn’s and Smalley’s prints were colorful, semi-abstract, and often playful and humorous, heavily influenced by contemporary printmaking.        

Above: Gayle Smalley (left) and Betty Hahn (center) talking with Eugene Ostroff at the opening of their exhibition, 1969. Smithsonian photographer unidentified.

“Women, Cameras, and Images III” was devoted to the work of Berenice Abbott, whose long and influential career ranged from documentation of New York City to the development of techniques for  scientific photography, in which she was an important pioneer. Unfortunately, we lacked funds to bring her to Washington for the opening, and I think she never quite forgave me.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), "Night Aerial View, Midtown Manhattan," 1933, gelatin silver print. Photographic History Collection, National  Museum of American History.

Barbara Morgan was the artist of “Women, Cameras, and Images IV.” Noted for her photographs of Martha Graham’s dancers, a major component of the exhibition, she worried about the design of the show, and explained her concern with rhythm and flow in the placement and sequencing of the framed images. I was tempted to let her develop the layout or collaborate with me, but was warned not to permit her participation lest it delay the opening. It was a nail-biter for me as I hung the show, fearing that she didn’t fully trust my curatorial eye, but I needn’t have worried: she was pleased and pronounced it a huge success, telling me “You got it!” She had been honored previously in a similar retrospective solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by my photo-history mentor, Peter Bunnell, and pronounced my design “better.” At social occasions for several years afterward she proudly introduced me as “the man who hung my Smithsonian show, you know,” and we had a lovely and rewarding friendship.

Barbara Morgan's photographs have been collected not only by NMAH, but also by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). This is also true for the work of Imogen Cunningham and Berenice Abbott. However, NMAH was the first Smithsonian museum to collect and mount exhibitions of their work. 

Barbara Morgan (1900-1992), "Martha Graham--Letter to the World--(Swirl)," 1940, gelatin silver print, printed ca.1980. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Virginia Zabriskie. 

However, the series, which originally was intended to continue for another year, foundered and ended when some photographers objected to being “classified” or identified as “women photographers” within a special series, as if each photographer's work couldn't stand on its own merits. Similarly, I recall hearing certain women criticize the creation of Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts for what nowadays some might call bad “optics,” appearing to relegate female artists to a separate category rather than striving to integrate them in greater numbers into existing art museum awareness and practice.

Opinions, perspectives, and tactics intended to promote social change often themselves change with the times and the politics of culture, however. In 1970 we found that for some women photographers, the prospect of inclusion in a series of gendered exhibitions (curated by men) entitled “Women, Cameras, and Images” could be interpreted as more demeaning than celebratory, perhaps suggesting mere tokenism. Controversial “optics!” By contrast, the emphasis on equity in the 2020s has regularly employed group solidarity and separation as a logical, effective tactic to highlight marginalized groups and their members’ individual stories--for example, through Black History Month and Women’s History Month. I recently noticed a current exhibition at Lehigh University entitled “Hear Me Roar: Women Photographers II,” reflecting the similar strategy of the Smithsonian’s “Women, Cameras, and Images” exhibitions of the tumultuous late 1960s. I couldn't help smiling.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

Archives Center, National Museum of American History 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Iconic, Controversial Sidney Poitier: A Tribute for Black History Month

By David Haberstich

Actor Sir Sidney Poitier, Feb. 3, 1977, photograph probably by Robert Scurlock. Gelatin silver acetate  negative, Scurlock Studio Records,Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Above is a photograph from the National Museum of American History Archives Center’s Scurlock Studio Records, probably taken by Robert Scurlock, showing famed actor Sidney Poitier besieged by young fans seeking autographs. More than any other African American actor, Poitier (who died in January this year) helped to integrate Hollywood. I first saw him many years ago in his 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, and recall his magnetic performance vividly. I viewed it again recently, perhaps finding fault with the screenplay, but no less awed by Poitier. He played an unruly teenager who comes to his white teacher’s aid during a deadly classroom brawl at the climax of the film.

Poster for "Lilies of the Field." Copyright © 1963 by United Artists. Scan via Heritage Auctions. Cropped from original image. Public Domain,

He was the first African American to win a “best actor” Academy Award for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1967). Despite the acclaim he received, he was not universally admired by African Americans. The Black critic and playwright Clifford Mason famously denounced him as “dishonest” in a New York Times article, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” (Sept. 10, 1967):  “I submit that the Negro (or black, if you will), image was subverted in these films much more so than it was in the two films he seems worried about.” Playing Porgy in Porgy and Bess was one of the roles that concerned Poitier, supposedly accepting it against his better judgment as the price for being allowed to play such roles as the heroic Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. What Mason liked about the Porgy character was that “at least we have a man, a real man, fighting [for] his woman and willing to follow her into the great unknown, the big city, poor boy from Catfish Row that he is.”

        “But he remains unreal,” Mason continued, “as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.” The critic was disappointed that the Virgil Tibbs character had no apparent love interest to certify him as a “real” man. Furthermore, he minimized the significance of the famous slap which Tibbs gives a white bigot, complaining that it occurs only after the bigot slaps Tibbs first. Perhaps Mason had not yet heard Poitier declare that he had insisted that his character should respond with a retaliatory slap, refusing to continue without it. I found the scene riveting, not only for Tibbs’s sudden explosion of righteous pent-up anger, but for the expression of startled, befuddled disbelief on the face of the racist sheriff, played by Rod Steiger. At first I thought the tears and sniveling of the white “aristocrat” in the aftermath of the slap were overdone, but later decided his reaction was perfect symbolism. For the first time, these figures of white oppression were beginning to realize that their comfortable world might be crumbling.

Apart from Poitier’s acceptance of film roles that Mason and others found troubling, the actor’s life was a rags-to-riches story that I find inspiring. First, he nearly succumbed to a premature birth while his parents were working in Miami, Florida. As a barely literate Black teenager from Cat Island in the Bahamas, he suffered racist indignities in the Jim Crow South of Miami, then moved to a slightly more congenial New York City, where he toiled as a dishwasher while seeking a better job. He tried to join the American Negro Theatre, initially failing in humiliation due to his shaky reading skills. With timely coaching from a friend, he quickly solved this problem, then embarked on a personal campaign to suppress his Bahamian accent and hone his acting skills. Eventually he acted on Broadway, then found his niche in film, especially with his break-through role in Blackboard Jungle. His subsequent roles explored many aspects of the Black man in white society. His prominence in Hollywood echoed aspects of the real-life civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, not only through the impact of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on the previously taboo topic of interracial marriage. Moreover, he was an active participant in the civil rights struggle, risking arrest or worse by helping to deliver $70,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers in 1964.

Poitier’s achievements beyond acting are extensive, including directing films and publishing memoirs and a novel. He was also a diplomat, serving as Bahamian ambassador to Japan (1997-2007) and concurrently to UNESCO (2002-2007). He was even granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth in 1974. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Perhaps his most satisfying honor was the acknowledgment by younger Black actors that he had broken ground and opened doors for them. Denzel Washington gratefully cited Poitier’s contributions while presenting him with the Honorary Academy Award in 2002. His remarks were followed by sustained, enthusiastic applause from the audience.

        Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of Sir Sidney Poitier on January 19, 2022.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Hidden History, Part 2: Joy McLean Bosfield Sings at Kennedy Center Dedication

 By Jennifer Sieck

Joy McLean Bosfield framed this page from the score for “Gloria in Excelsis” signed for her by MASS composer Leonard Bernstein. She sang in the choir for MASS’s world premiere, conducted by Bernstein for the Kennedy Center’s dedication in 1971. Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

"Gloria in Excelsis" proclaims the title of this autographed musical score in prelude to the story of Joy McLean Bosfield (1924-1999), a musician, educator, and entrepreneur who lived in Washington, DC from 1962 to 1985. Like another accomplished African American musician in the District featured in a prior post on this blog, McLean Bosfield was instrumental in bringing the Kennedy Center into being. Her contribution took the form of singing in Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers at the Kennedy Center’s dedication on September 8, 1971. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in memory of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein riffed on the traditional Latin mass to honor the nation’s first Roman Catholic president in an operatic piece featuring more than 200 performers and choreography by Alvin Ailey. The Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary Season concludes with a new interpretation of MASS in September 2022.

Original Production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, 1971. Photo by Fletcher Drake. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center Archives, 1971. Joy McLean Bosfield might be among the robed choir members above the dais, possibly the second singer in the first row to the right of the center aisle. The photo ran on the front page of The Washington Post on September 9, 1971.

The framed sheet music might have been especially meaningful for McLean Bosfield, as she had co-founded a business that prepared printed music for publication in 1959. This excerpt from “Gloria in Excelsis” shows the choral and orchestral parts for an exuberant response to the absolution of sin. Across the opening bars, Bernstein inscribed in red ink, “Gloria to Joy McClean!” [sic] along with his signature and the date. Significantly, it is the only framed item among the newspaper clippings (including Washington Post articles about MASS at the Kennedy Center), photographs, and programs in the Joy McLean Bosfield papers at the Anacostia Community Museum.

A photo from Joy McLean Bosfield’s scrapbook shows the cast of 
Porgy and Bess in Hollywood in 1954: left to right, unidentified man, Irene Williams, Leslie Scott, Joy McLean, LeVern Hutcherson. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

“Joy McLean” appears among the names in the MASS program along with other renowned artists, such as Alvin Ailey dancers Judith Jamison and Sylvia Waters. The name served as both her real and stage name for much of her career, including when she sang the role of Clara in an international touring production of Porgy and Bess that played a significant role in Cold War cultural diplomacy in the 1950s. 

Norman Scribner wrote a letter to the original MASS cast members on Kennedy Center letterhead, Feb. 16, 1972. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

McLean Bosfield’s papers also include a letter from Washington Choral Arts and MASS choir director Norman Scribner. Its salutation reads, “Dear ‘Original Cast’ Member,” and invites her to participate in a 1972 touring revival of MASS. Professional obligations likely prevented her from participating, such as her service as music minister for John Wesley AME Zion Church in the District’s Logan Circle. A church colleague, Rev. John R. Kinard, became the founding director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967. Recognizing the value of her papers, he worked with Senior Curator Portia James to acquire them for the museum’s collection as McLean Bosfield prepared to retire to Mexico in 1985.

Annotated scrapbook photos show Joy McLean Bosfield teaching her choreography to youth in rehearsals for the Community League of West 159th Street’s Cotillion in New York City, 1958. Courtesy of The Joy McLean Bosfield papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Joy McLean Bosfield.

Born and raised in New Jersey, McLean Bosfield came of age artistically in New York City. Like Bernstein, she performed and conducted at Lincoln Center. Her scrapbooks attest to a wide-ranging repertoire rooted in African American musical traditions, including those of her mother’s birthplace of Demarara, British Guiana (Guyana, in 2022), alongside fluency in mélodie (French art song), classical compositions, and Broadway showtunes.

A verse on a handmade card congratulating McLean Bosfield on her college acceptance concludes with the double entendre, “Let Joy Be Unconfined.” Her archive and students bear witness to a legacy of unconfined Joy.

In harmony with this post and in honor of Black History Month, McLean Bosfield’s scrapbooks are being relaunched on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Digital volunteers can refine prior transcriptions, which proved challenging due to the scrapbooks’ varied and fragile materials. Check out the scrapbooks: here and here.

Jennifer Sieck, Ph.D., Collections Researcher

Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Monday, January 24, 2022

Butter and Egg Money

By Lily Stowe-Alekman

Elizabeth Bourne Robinson was born on December 3, 1892, and died on July 25, 1976.  On November 20, 1929, she married Frank A. Robinson and moved to the Robinson family farm near Brandywine in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They had three children: Mary Elizabeth, Franklin Alexander, and Robert Lee. After Frank’s father died in 1937, he bought out his siblings’ and mother’s portions of the estate to retain the property as one. In 1937, the farm consisted of "1 corn house & cow stable, 1 stable, and 1 Granary & Stable.” Elizabeth kept a record of life on the farm in her diaries beginning in 1951 through 1960. 

Elizabeth and Frank Robinson, December 25, 1957, Ferndale Farm. Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 33, AC0475.0000342,  Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Elizabeth’s farm diaries are housed in the Archives Center’s Robinson and Via Family Papers, AC0475. In her earliest diaries, 1951 to 1953, she writes about the farm workers, her children’s activities, what her husband does, who visits, where she goes, the weather, and anything else that seemed important to her. A large part of her entries consists of logging the work done on the farm. The family grew many things, but tobacco was a very important crop on the farm. In her diaries, Elizabeth also tracked how many eggs were collected from the chickens each day, how much money was made on eggs, and how much money was made on butter. At the end of each month and year, Elizabeth totaled the income from these items made and how many eggs were collected. In 1951, Elizabeth recorded making $151.90 on butter, $85.35 on eggs, $237.25 together, and collected 5062 eggs.  Elizabeth recorded making $161.90 on butter, $49.40 on eggs, $211.30 together and collected 2880 eggs in 1952.  In 1953, Elizabeth wrote, “took in for year from eggs and butter. $255.80.”  From looking at only these three years, one can see that Elizabeth was bringing in significant income from her egg and dairy production. Elizabeth tends not to record amounts of money from other ventures, so clearly tracking the sale of butter and eggs and her egg collection was important to her.

Elizabeth’s totals for income from butter and eggs and number of eggs gathered for 1951 in Elizabeth Robinson’s Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953, page 58, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 4, Folder 6, NMAH.AC.0475,

Scholars have written about farm women’s egg and butter production and sales. While it is uncertain how much control Elizabeth had over managing farm operations, her recording the eggs and butter shows they were important in her daily notations. In "Women Who Work in the Field": The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women, Stephanie Carpenter states, “By 1940, female field labor had in many areas become obsolete. Removing women from field work downplayed their importance in field production and placed greater emphasis on their part in dairy, garden, and poultry operations.” Carpenter also notes that this changed during World War II as women went to work in the absence of men fighting in the war, indicating that “during the last years of war, more than three million farm and nonfarm women provided labor to farmers through private employment and as members of the Women’s Land Army.”

Elizabeth Robinson (left) and Adina Mae Via (right) in a field of wheat, June 1956. Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 17, AC0475-0000341. Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

In 1953, the Women’s Bureau recorded that 730,000 women were “farmers and farm workers” as opposed to 690,000 in 1940. Elizabeth’s first diaries are firmly placed in this period. While I have not researched Elizabeth’s experience during WWII, placing her in the context of other farm women in this period is important. Following WWII, there was a push for women to resume and return to their traditional feminine roles as mothers and wives and out of the workforce. Part of this would mean a return to the jobs women were supposed to embrace instead of field work in 1940: “dairy, garden, and poultry operations.” Carpenter believes that “in their effort to embrace the feminine ideal of the postwar era, farm women described their lives as they hoped they would be.” As such, in popular farm magazines, women weighed in that they should not do field work, but also that this was not all that was realistic for them. Butter and egg production, it seems, were acceptable tasks for women to do on farms while maintaining this image of femininity. I wonder if there were other ways for Elizabeth to earn money for her work on the family farm or if egg and butter production were the only socially acceptable ways? It is difficult to tell what additional work Elizabeth herself completed on the farm, as she often writes without crediting tasks to different people; however, she often notes that her son Franklin did the milking. It seems Elizabeth spent most of her time on the farm and was thoroughly involved in its day-to-day operation. Her daily diary entries provide a very personal and detailed look into life on a mid-Atlantic family farm for a woman in the mid-20th century. 

"Planting tobacco, standing: Norris Grose; sitting: Elizabeth Robinson; and driving: Frank Robinson, July 1955, Ferndale Farm." Gelatin silver photographic print, Robinson and Via Family Papers, Box 17, AC0475.0000340, Archives Center,
National Museum of American History.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Stephanie. “’Women Who Work in the Field’: The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women on the Farm.” Agricultural History 74, no.2 (Spring, 2000), pp. 465-474.

Find a Grave. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson.” Accessed December 1, 2021.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953.” January-December 1951. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 1, 1951-1953.” January-December 1952. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Elizabeth Bourne. “Elizabeth Bourne Robinson Farm Diary Volume 2, 1953-1955,” January-December 1953. Robinson and Via Family Papers, NMAH.AC.0457, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Robinson, Franklin A., Jr. “Guide to the Robinson and Via Family Papers.” NMAH.AC.0475, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

U.S. Women's Bureau. Women as Workers: A Statistical Guide. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1953. In Carpenter, Stephanie. “’Women Who Work in the Field’: The Changing Role of Farm and Nonfarm Women on the Farm.” Agricultural History 74, no.2 (Spring, 2000).

Living Documents and Historic Postcards of Guinea

By Haley Steinhilber

Writing? On an archival document?! Traditionally, archives are known for their dedication to preserving original photographs, documents, and visual materials in their original condition and order—but what happens if the donor invites collaboration?

When former USAID Foreign Service officer Stephen Grant donated his annotated copy of Images de Guinée (1991) to the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (EEPA) in 2020, he hoped that the book should remain open for others—specifically Guineans and those with ties to Guinea—to share in the margins their own reflections of the historic postcards.

Adding to a collection is not a rare occurrence. In fact, Grant himself has donated over 10,000 photographic postcards from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Senegal, and the Republic of Guinea in separate instances in 2001, 2018, and 2020. The EEPA also accepts new donations to the African Postcard collection (EEPA.1985-014) every year, continuously altering the make-up of the collection. One of the many things that makes Images de Guinée unique is the concept of a typically static item (a book) remaining active in a concept known as a “living” document. 

A living document is a text that is continually edited and updated, and perhaps limited by a set of frameworks.(1) This term has been applied to materials like the United States Constitution, but it can also refer to a website like Wikipedia, the digital encyclopedia that allows account holders to update articles freely.(2)  In the context of the archive, a living document can be a way for visitors to connect in a more personal way—no longer an observer, but an active participant in history making. 

In a 2020 interview with museum staff, Grant explained how postcards helped him relate to others in the countries where he lived: 

I learned something about introducing oneself when you go abroad for the U. S. government. You can say your name, and shake hands, and that’s it. Or, soon after you meet someone, you can surprise them by pulling out of your pocket a small stack of picture postcards of the country and see how your new friend or colleague reacts. There will be astonishment that you have these items in the first place; most people throw away postcards.

Secondly, the person will invariably make a comment comparing what the scene looked like in the past, and looks like today. Thirdly, for more impact, show the postcards simultaneously to children, young adults, and older adults, and listen to their different reactions! Picture postcards open up conversations. They provoke the beholder to compare the past with the present. They prompt unsuspectedly rich exchanges in a family setting.

When Grant helped put together the book of postcards in 1991, he had already been collecting postcards for over 10 years. He was inspired by an exhibit at the National Library in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, in 1980, which featured hundreds of old picture postcards of the country. In turn, while living in Guinea as a USAID officer, Grant inspired others with his own postcard exhibit, which took place at the Franco-Guinean Cultural Center in Conakry. The exhibit attracted around 1,700 visitors in March 1991.

German Ambassador to Guinea, Dr. Hubert Beemelmans, was so taken with the exhibit that he approached Grant about turning it into a book. They could repair and use a printing press at the Catholic Mission in Conakry—they only needed the staff and supplies.(3) Beemelmans requested money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bonn, Germany to buy paper, ink, materials for binding, and to train additional local staff on the printing press. Postcard collectors from France, Bernard Sivan and Pierre Dürr, also provided images from their large collections. The resulting publication became the first book published in Guinea in the private sector. All previous publications had been printed by the Patrice Lumumba National Printing Office, according to Seydouba Cissé, the Assistant Director of National Archives in Conakry.

Stephen Grant (left) speaking with German Ambassador to Guinea, Dr. Hubert Beemelmans, at the postcard exhibit, 15 March 1991, Conakry, Guinea. 

From the beginning, the book was grounded in remembering Guinea’s past. As Dr. Beemelmans writes in the preface (translated from French): 

The past is the foundation of the present and future. Humankind and nations that ignore their past do not know each other and do not know where they are going. One can criticize the past, but at the end of the day one must accept it or at least come to terms with it...This book is the memory and the messenger from the past...This book is intended to appeal to those Guineans and foreigners who love Guinea and want to know its past in order to better understand its present and be able to accompany its future.

At first, only Grant’s fellow contributors wrote in the book: the collectors Sivan and Dürr, printer Augusto Bindelli, and Seydouba Cissé, Assistant Director of the National Archives in Conakry. But soon, Grant began inviting others to leave inscriptions before he departed for his next assignment in Indonesia. 

What resulted was an assortment of experiences, from fellow USAID officers to local politicians and educators to a descendant of one railroad family in Conakry. The inscriptions date from 1991 to 2020, when Grant invited the current Ambassador from Guinea to add his own recollection to the book. 

Stephen Grant’s leather-bound annotated copy of 
Images de Guinée
, 1991.
The cover was designed by Annick Grant.

From the Pages of History

Education For All 

Une école primaire indigène en Guinée Française - F.N. [An indigenous primary school in French Guinea], Ag. Ec. De l’A. O. F., c. 1910, Postcard, collotype, EEPA 2001-001-0940, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Page 119 of Images de Guinée, featuring postcard and text from inscription by Aïcha Bah Diallo, 2. Une école primaire indigène en Guinée Française - F.N. [An indigenous primary school in French Guinea], Ag. Ec. De l’A. O. F., c. 1910, Postcard, collotype, EEPA 2001-001-0940, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. Grant, thank you for asking me to write something about this photo. You recognize my role as mother and responsible for education. I love school and aim to do something significant for this sector with which I have been entrusted.

Which school is this? I’ve asked a lot of people. Not one could tell me. Nevertheless, I am leaning toward the region of Mamou because of the Moslem leader (almamy) holding a child. 

Thank you, Mr. Grant. You have led me to relive the olden days thanks to your photos. We realize how much we have lost by not saving mementos (photos, postcards). With your cards, how many memories come back, and with what emotion! It is the history and the culture of our country that we relive. This is what explains the triumph of your exhibit. Thank you for that. I wish you good luck. 

--Aïcha Bah Diallo, President of the Network for Education for All in Africa, and former Minister of Education of Guinea. Original French:

Mr. Grant, Merci de m'avoir demandé d'écrire quelquechose devant cette photo. Vous me reconnaissez mon rôle de mère et de responsable de l'Education. J'aime l'école et je souhaite faire quelquechose pour ce secteur qui m'est confié depuis Juin 1989.

Quelle école est-ce? Je l'ai demandé à beaucoup de monde. Personne n'a pu me le dire. Cependant on peut dire que cette école doit être dans les environs de Mamou à cause de l'Almamy tenant un enfant.  Merci Mr. Grant. Vous nous avez fait revivre les temps anciens grâce à vos photos.

Nous avons realisé combien nous avons perdu en ne gardant pas les souvenirs (photos, cartes postales). C'est une leçon que vous nous avez donnée. Avec vos cartes combien de souvenirs nous remontent et quelle émotion! C'est l'histoire et la culture de notre pays que nous vivons. C'est ce qui explique le succès de votre exposition. Merci pour tout cela. Je vous souhaite beaucoup de succès.

Diallo braids several themes into her inscription—her role as a mother, a friend to Grant, and an elected local official entrusted with the education of the community. She writes about connecting with others around her and asking about the history of the school, which further highlights Grant’s observation that the postcards inspire conversation. 

Nostalgia of the Railroad

During the 1930s when the Conakry-Niger Railway was a real railroad, you could count more than ten trains per day from Conakry to Kankan and back. My father was a station master at Kolenté where I was born. My father trained five other members of our family as station masters. Of the thirty or so stations in the Conakry Niger, my parents occupied half a dozen.

Image Caption: 682. C.F.C.N. (Guinée Française) - Station de Siffray [ C.F.C.N. Chemin de fer, Conakry, French Guinea - Siffray Station, Collection de la Guinée Francaise, A. James, Postcard, collotype, c.1907, EEPA 2001-001-1032, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

I spent several vacations at Siffray station (Dagomet) where my father's last little brother served as a station master for a long time. In short, I experience a great admiration for this beautiful collection characterized by discipline and perseverance exceptionally moving for connoisseurs.

I like the rails, I like the train, I like the stations, I like everything related to the railroad because I belong to the family of railway workers. Thank you, Mr. Grant, for this beautiful work which makes me very nostalgic. Thank you for your warm friendship.

[El Hadj] Tafsir H. Thiam, 6/30/92, Deputy Director of Peace Corps in Conakry and child of prominent railroad family in Guinea

Guinée - Une Station de chemin de fer. [A railway station.], unknown photographer, c. 1910, Postcard, collotype, EEPA 2001-001-1057, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution. 

Pendant les années 30 lorsque le Chemin de fer Conakry-Niger était un vrai chemin de fer, lorsqu'on pouvait compter plus d'une dizaine de trains par jour de Conakry à Kankan et retour. Mon père était chef de gare à la Kolenté où je suis né. Mon père a formé cinq autres membres de notre famille comme chef de gare. Sur la trentaine de gares que comptait le Conakry Niger, mes parents en occupaient une demi douzaine.

J'ai passé plusieurs vacances à la gare de Siffray (Dagomet) où le dernier petit frère de mon père a servi pendant longtemps comme Chef de gare. En bref, j’éprouve une grande admiration devant cette belle collection caracterisée par une discipline et une perseverance exceptionellement émouvantes pour les connaisseurs.

J'aime les rails, J'aime le train, j'aime les gares, j’aime tout ce qui est lié au chemin de fer car j'appartiens à la famille de cheminots. Merci Mr. Grant pour cette belle d’oeuvre qui me rend très nostalgique. Merci pour votre chaude amitié.

In this recollection, nostalgia infuses every word Thiam writes. From the Siffray station where he spent several vacations with his uncle, to the crowded platform that reflects a typical day on the railroad, the impact of these two postcards of the railroad draws memories of his family history that may not have been written down elsewhere.

The Familiar Crocodile 

Colonies Françaises-- Guinée - Le Niger à Kouroussa [French Colony – Guinea - Niger river at Kouroussa], unknown photographer, c. 1910, Postcard, Collotype, EEPA 2001-001-1135, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Boda Kudu:

 A little downstream, there was a familiar crocodile, guardian of all the children of Kouroussa. He hunted any foreign crocodile, but alas! also munched on the foreign children who ventured into his domain.

Page 89 of Images de Guinée, featuring postcard and text from story by Yvonne Condé, Colonies Françaises- Guinée - Le Niger à Kouroussa [French Colony – Guinea -- Niger river at Kouroussa],  EEPA 2001-001-1135, Postcard, Collotypes, Stephen H. Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

We would hang onto his back; we would dive with him ... My God, time stood still. By Grant‘s magic! For this emotion that you created by your photos, for these tears shed on the fled treasures of my childhood, for the happiness of seeing again in photos all the places that I knew and loved in my childhood, those places whose destruction has been an amputation in my soul, for all that and for the delicacy of the gesture, you are blessed." - Yvonne Condé - Key member of the Comité transitoire de redressement national (CTRN). She is also responsible for the writing of Loi fondamentale in 1990.

Un peu en aval, il y avait un crocodile familier, tuteur de tous les enfants de Kouroussa. Il chassait tout crocodile étranger, mais hélas! croquait aussi les enfants étrangers qui s’avanturaient dans son domaine. 

On s'accrochait à son dos, on plongeait avec lui... Mon dieu, le temps s'est arrêté; Par la magic de Grant! Pour cet émoi que tu as créé par tes photos, pour ces larmes versées sur les trésors enfuis de mon enfance, pour ce bonheur de revoir en photo tant de lieux que j'ai connus et aimés dans mon enfance, ces lieux dont la destruction a été une amputation dans mon âme, pour tout cela et pour la délicatesse du geste, sois béni. - Yvonne Condé

This entry is particularly interesting in the context of Guinean politics. Condé, a key member of the Comité transitoire de redressement national (CTRN), shares a story almost like a fairy tale--about a place that may not exist anymore, or perhaps she is far from home. As a member of the organization trying to establish democracy in Guinea, Condé describes this allegory of a territorial crocodile.

Into the Future, As We Look Towards the Past

Although these are just a few examples, each of these inscriptions marks a separate significance to the postcards. The work for improving education, steady livelihood through a stable career on the railroad, or the treasures of childhood and reflecting on change in Guinea. How many other countless memories of the past could be provoked by these images?

Advances in technology and digitizing collections provide more options for archives to connect with the communities they serve, to preserve history, and invite collaboration. Over the last few years, EEPA has worked to digitize and catalog postcards from Grant’s postcard donations in 2001 and 2019. In the future, the EEPA will provide access to the full collection of historic postcards from Guinea and other African countries for folks to inscribe. Soon, anyone with access to the Internet (and a device) can view the historic postcards.

If you are interested in sharing your own memories of Images de Guinée or sending a message to the EEPA about the postcards below, please send an email to with the subject line “Images of Guinea.”

Due to Covid-19, the EEPA is currently closed to the public. In accordance with Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, it will reopen to visitors and researchers projected January 2022. Please email the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives to set up a visit to view the physical Images de Guinee


 1. Shanahan, D.R. A living document: reincarnating the research article. Trials 16, 151 (2015).

  2. Marshall, Thurgood. "The Constitution: A living document." Howard LJ 30 (1987): 915. Kitchin, Heather A. "The Tri-Council Policy Statement and research in cyberspace: Research ethics, the Internet, and revising a ‘living document’." Journal of Academic Ethics 1, no. 4 (2003): 397-418.

  3. Phone call with Stephen Grant, October 2021. 

Haley Steinhilber, Photo Archivist

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art

Also visit Stephen’s website at

More from the Stephen Grant Postcard Collection

Collection de la Guinée - A. James, Conkary. 82 – Conakry (Guinée Française). Le Ramadam: Le Salam (4e phase). [Guinea Collection – A. James, Conakry. 82- Conakry (French Guinea) Ramadan: Salam (4th phase).] Photograph by A. James, c. 1932. Postcard, Collotype, EEPA 2001-001-0917. Stephen Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

549. Guinée Française - Konakry [French Guinea, Conakry], Collection Fortier Dakar, c. 1906, Postcard, Collotype, EEPA 2001-001-0972, Stephen Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

"Jeune négresse et petit Européen," French Guinea, unknown photographer, c. 1910, Postcard, Collotype, EEPA 2001-001-0981, Stephen Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Afrique occidentale - Guinée[,] 1042. Femme Foulah [West Africa, Guinea, 1042. Foulah Woman]

Collection Générale Fortier, Dakar, c. 1911, Postcard, Collotype, EEPA 2001-001-1176, Stephen Grant Postcard Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution



Friday, November 12, 2021

Hidden History: Lillian Evanti's Lobbying Contributes to the Creation of the Kennedy Center

 By Jennifer Sieck

This post is being published on November 12, the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the National Negro Opera Company in 1941.

At the same time, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. It opened twelve years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a national cultural center in 1958. However, the Evans-Tibbs Collection at the Anacostia Community Museum includes even earlier bills. House Resolutions (H.R.) 5397 and 8047 testify to the advocacy of Madam Lillian Evanti (1890-1967) in the early 1950s (see below). The international opera star lobbied for a national performing arts center in her native city of Washington, DC.

A graduate of Armstrong High School, Miner Teacher’s College, and Howard University, Evanti sang the role of Violetta in the National Negro Opera Company’s staging of La Traviata on the Water Gate barge, anchored just downstream from the Kennedy Center’s future location on the Potomac River. An August 28, 1943 performance drew an audience estimated at 12,000, and rave reviews inspired an encore show the following night. The Water Gate provided a rare, racially-integrated venue as segregation barred African Americans from many performance spaces, especially for large-scale productions like operas. This discrimination contributed to Evanti’s desire for a national arts center open to all.

Evanti’s handwriting on H.R. 5397 references H.R. 9111, the “most recent” bill as of May 1954. Stamps on the bills read “From Congressman Charles R. Howell,” who represented New Jersey’s 4th District and introduced H.R. 5397 on the House floor in May 1953. Representative John “Jack” Shelley of California introduced H.R. 8047 in February 1954. Both bills were referred to the Committee on Education and Labor. Groundbreaking for the Kennedy Center took place in 1964, three years before Evanti’s passing. 

Visit the Museum’s Collections page to see Madame Evanti’s custom-built piano, handheld fan, and opera glasses

Above: Reproduction of an article by Grace W. Tompkins and photos of La Traviata staged at the Water Gate in 1943 in A Pictorial History and Listing of Achievements of the National Negro Opera Company and National Negro Opera Company Foundation, 1959, p. 32-33. Co-stars William Coleman as Germont and Lillian Evanti as Violetta are pictured in the top right. All images from Evans-Tibbs collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr.

Jennifer Sieck

Collections Researcher

Anacostia Community Museum