The Georgetown University Press hosted a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the book and film documentary “Black Georgetown Remembered” as part of Black History Month celebrations in Gaston Hall on Wednesday night.
The book and film documentary, first published in 1991, narrates the abundant history of Georgetown’s black community, a history that the book cites as relatively unknown by members of the greater Georgetown community until the book’s publication.
The event was moderated by Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson, who teaches history, African American studies and performing arts, and included a performance by the Georgetown Chapel and Gospel Choir, a video clip of the film documentary and a panel discussion led by those who worked on publishing the first edition of the book. The panelists shared memories about their time working on the book as well as memories of the black community at Georgetown.
Professor of English and Director of the Institute for African American studies at the University of Georgia Valerie Babb said she came up with the idea for the Black Georgetown Remembered project during discussions about the Georgetown’s bicentennial celebrations in 1989.
“I remember sitting in a room with various university administrators and faculties and they were coming up with wonderful ideas on how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Georgetown University,” Babb said. “Nothing black came up! I thought to myself, ‘This is Washington, D.C. There must be a history somewhere.’”
According to Kathleen Menzie Lesko, who was Babb’s co-author and the head of the Bicentennial Program Committee at the time, Babb’s idea was well received and earned the praise of Rev. Charles Currie, S.J., and Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., Georgetown’s president at the time.
“Both Father Currie and Father Healy told me when I signed on to the bicentennial project that they very much wanted to honor the black community in Georgetown in some way, in some programming and make it part of the University’s bicentennial celebration, so that was a goal from the outset,” Lesko said.
At the beginning of the project, Lesko reached out to the black churches in the Georgetown area.
According to Lesko, the community happily responded to the idea, and members spoke about their experiences as Georgetown residents.
Dr. Monica Roache, Georgetown’s advisory neighborhood commissioner and fifth-generation Georgetown resident, emphasized how much this project means to black residents of the neighborhood.
“I remember 25 years ago how my mother was so excited to work with Kathleen and a few other members of the panel and the audience, and what it meant for her to finally have these stories told,” Roache said.
Babb spoke about her experience as co-author in “rediscovering” the difficult history that residents of Georgetown endured.
“One thing that I think is tricky about remembering is that we tend to think that the history we are seeing here, the history that we have come to celebrate is that: history,” Babb said. “But, these were people’s lives. People went through a process to the Georgetown we know today, and I don’t want us to forget that that process was not always easy.”
Lesko discussed the difficult memories community members had to address during the creation of the project. She specifically reflected on how certain individuals dealt with memories accumulated in the era of racial segregation.
“I remember some very emotionally charged moments when people would ask us to turn all the cameras and recorders off, and they’d share some very private memories of living in Georgetown during the decades of segregation,” Lesko said. “It was a very powerful and moving experience to be in the room, to share those moments with people.”
The panelists, which included descendants of the black residents who were part of the community throughout the 20th century, also discussed the history of black Georgetown and what the community meant to them. Vernon Ricks, Jr., a third-generation Washingtonian, reflected on his childhood in Georgetown.
“There is great truth in the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” Ricks said. “Georgetown was a family community. A community alive with the sound of children.”
Despite change and adversity, the black Georgetown community continues to serve an important role in the neighborhood’s past and present.
“What Georgetown means to me is a great deal of pride,” Neville Waters (MBA ’91), a fifth-generation Georgetown resident said.
Gwen Lockman (COL ’16), who attended the event, said she appreciated that many audience members were members of the black Georgetown community who came to reminisce on their past.
“I thought it was really lovely how they incorporated the folks who were able to attend tonight who actually had memories of black Georgetown and that it wasn’t just the panelists on the stage and the experts talking, but that they did give people an opportunity to share their own stories,” Lockman said. “I think it’s a really valuable history that is unfortunately so hidden, so I hope students hear more about it.”