The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The first time a U.S. President took the oath of office in Washington, D.C., it was March 4, 1801. Thomas Jefferson stood in the Senate chamber of the Capitol before elected officials and invited guests. In 1829, Andrew Jackson raised his hand outside on the Capitol’s East Portico, as a crowd of over 20,000 people watched. From then on, an outdoor ceremony accessible to the public became the norm, a tradition broken only by the most extreme weather or emergency. Every four years, inauguration plans have included larger stands, more extravagant festivities, and, with the advent of radio, television, and social media, an expansion of potential audiences.
The first inauguration of the 30th President of the United States, John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (1872-1933), had taken place under unusual circumstances and in one of the most private of settings, his father’s living room. When President Warren G. Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923, Vice-President Coolidge was in Vermont visiting his family. A simple oath of office was administered by his father, a notary public, and everyone went back to bed. The next day, upon return to Washington, Coolidge was sworn in a second time by a local judge. Given Harding’s death, Coolidge’s accession to the highest office in the land was understandably low-key, with no celebrations.
When Coolidge was elected to a second term, many people assumed that the 1925 inauguration ceremonies would follow tradition, with plenty of pomp, parades, and parties. Coolidge, though, was a modest man, with little taste for frivolity. He refused to have an inaugural ball and limited the size of the official parade, regarding such things as needless expenditures of public funds. The President’s rejection of extravagance enabled the joint Congressional Inaugural Committee to return over $16,000 to the U.S. Treasury, out of $40,000 that had been appropriated for extra security, more viewing stands, and elaborate decorations.
Inauguration Day, March 4, 1925, turned out to be relatively fair and warm. While many visitors and residents were sleeping late, Coolidge took a stroll out of the White House grounds at 7:30 a.m. “To the Secret Service men who were his sole companions during the walk,” the Boston Globe reported, the President remarked “that on every one of the other eight days when he took an oath of office the weather had been at its best ... he hoped it would not break a precedent today.” Coolidge, who had held various elected offices since 1898, then went in to consume his usual breakfast of buckwheat cakes, maple syrup, and sausage, and took care of correspondence at his desk before departing for the Capitol with first lady Grace Coolidge.
Coolidge may have shied away from attention but, thanks to new communications technologies, the “attendance” at his 1925 inauguration turned out to be far larger than for any previous ceremony. As former President William Howard Taft (by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) administered the oath of office, tens of millions of Americans listened via radio. It was the first time that stations had attempted such ambitious coverage of a live event, transmitting the signal over AT&T telephone wires. Color commentary was provided by Graham McNamee of local station WEAF. Schoolchildren in California listened in their classrooms.
Arrangements were also made to transmit photographs of the ceremony via wire. Images sent simultaneously from Washington took seven minutes to arrive in New York and Chicago and “about an hour” to reach the Los Angles Times, marking what that paper trumpeted as a “great step forward” in visual news coverage. The Bell Laboratory engineers who had been working on the process declared it a success.
Still, there is nothing like being present at an event and preserving your own record. Science Service journalist Watson Davis had been born and raised in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, so he knew just where to stand in order to snap two photographs of the Coolidge ceremony. The clouds broke, the sun came out, the crowds cheered, and then Watson, like the conscientious Coolidge, undoubtedly went back to work.
The Oval Office meets the Castle: Presidents at the Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Why the Chicken Really Crossed the Road: An Inaugural Tale, Smithsonian Collections Blog
With its home on the National Mall, the Smithsonian has had a front-row seat to some of the largest and most important protests and demonstrations in the nation’s history. Many of these events last only a few hours or a few days at most. The Poor People’s Campaign, also known as the Poor People’s March on Washington, was unique in that it lasted almost six weeks.
The Poor People’s Campaign was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was intended, in part, as a non-violent response to the perceived failure of the War on Poverty. Unlike most previous demonstrations, it defined poverty as an issue that cut across race and gender lines. After King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, there was some debate about the future of the Campaign, but it was ultimately held as planned under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy.
Coretta Scott King began a two-week protest to demand an Economic Bill of Rights on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968. Over the next few weeks, caravans of protestors began arriving on the National Mall. On May 21, they began constructing shelters on the Mall. A loosely organized community of thousands of poor people, known as “Resurrection City,” took root. Although demoralized by the weather, political events, and personal conflicts, many demonstrators remained on the Mall until they were evicted on June 20.
The length of the demonstrations provided the Smithsonian with a unique opportunity to serve as a neighbor. Initially, staff wanted to bar the protesters from the Smithsonian museums due to concerns about civil unrest and possible damage to the collections. Secretary S. Dillon Ripley overrode those concerns, however, and not only welcomed the protesters into the museums, but ordered the bathrooms to be amply supplied to provide sanitary facilities for the residents of Resurrection City.
Particular efforts were made by the Smithsonian to assist families living in Resurrection City. Ralph Rinzler, Director of the Division of Performing Arts, secured a grant to provide childcare so that parents could participate in protest and lobbying efforts. The Smithsonian Education Volunteers Advisory Board asked local political activist (and future docent and Regent) Jeannine Smith Clark to coordinate a tour for the children of Resurrection City. Unfortunately, an agreement could not be reached between the docents and the mothers, but Clark took the opportunity to arrange a program for inner-city schoolchildren instead.
Evidence of the Poor People's Campaign can still be found throughout the Smithsonian. From December 2015 through October 2016, it was featured in the exhibition "Twelve Years That Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963-1975" at the Anacostia Community Museum. In the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there is a plywood mural from Resurrection City as well as several related smaller items. And the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, part of the Center for Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, holds many images of the Poor People's Campaign as part of the Diana Davies Photograph Collection.
- Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Grounds for Solidarity: Mural from Resurrection City, USA, National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Diana Davies and the Poor People's Campaign, Smithsonian Collection's Blog, Smithsonian Institution
- A Place for the Poor: Resurrection City, Boundary Stones: WETA's Local History Blog, WETA Public Television and Classical Music for Greater Washington
- A collections move of epic proportions; the history of New York City is getting a new home. [via NY Times]
- The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers tours for blind and visually impaired visitors to experience art. [via NPR]
- The Internet Archive has launched an online news archive for PEOTUS Donald Trump. [via Internet Archive]
- The Digital Public Library of America launched an online portal to Illinois history, Illinois Digital Heritage Hub. [via DPLA]
- Happy 10th birthday, iPhone, and a look at Apple patents with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- How open source software is helping England save historic sites. [via Getty Iris]
- Europeana Radio lets you listen to historic music archives from 12 countries. [via Info Docket]
- David Bowie reflects on what inspired him. [via Open Culture]
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