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Curator Rachel Seidman Preserves History of Women Environmental Activists in Greater D.C.

Professional photo of Rachel Seidman

Rachel Seidman, curator of women’s environmental history at the Anacostia Community Museum. Anacostia Community Museum.

Rachel Seidman works as curator of women's environmental history at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum. She is working on a future exhibition about women's leadership in the environmental justice movement in Washington, D.C. Seidman shared why local history matters.

Can you describe your work at the Anacostia Community Museum?

Environmental justice has been a key theme throughout most of the museum's history, which goes back to 1967. Growing out of our longstanding Urban Waterways project, recently our initiative has brought together younger women, newer to environmental activism, with women who have been involved for decades. The program focuses on mentorship, leadership development, building community, and networking among these fantastic activists.

I am building on that amazing baseline. I research in our archives and others around the city and the country, grow our collection of objects and archival material, and talk with women working in environmental justice. We will share these discoveries with audiences through a future exhibition (opening in 2023), public programming, and digital initiatives.

What's a typical workday like for you?

One of the things that curators love about our work is that our days are not all the same. Some days I work in the D.C. History Center. I listen to oral histories, examine maps, and talk to the archivist at the center. On one visit I found wonderful old photos documenting D.C. neighborhoods.

Some days I speak with current and past activists. This summer, I attended a celebration in Ivy City, D.C., where a community group has been working for years to get the Crummell School renovated into a recreation and community center. The Crummell School has been empty for decades. It used to be the heart of the Ivy City neighborhood.

The community has resisted efforts to turn it into condominiums or other uses that would not benefit the neighborhood. Just this year, they won. Mayor Muriel Bowser has put money into the budget to turn it into a community and recreation center.

At the event, I talked to some women who have lived in that neighborhood all their lives. They told me about the role the school played in the neighborhood. I'm working with them to identify objects that will help tell their story in the exhibition.

Environmental justice movement activists have always argued that the environment is not just the forests, oceans, and wilderness. The environment is around us every day: where we live, work, and play. We have to take the impact of the environment on people's lives seriously. We must make sure that we work to protect human life as well as the flora and fauna.

What's one Smithsonian women's history object you love?

We have this amazing display board of artificial nails. The board was an advertisement for a woman-owned nail salon in Anacostia. As I've been doing my research on environmental justice, I've learned that nail salons can be a site of high toxicity for the women who work there if the salon is not properly ventilated.  Women have organized to promote best practices for ventilation and other safety measures. That organizing has come mostly out of California, particularly Asian American activists there, but has also been local activity.

Black board with 35 colorful acrylic nails with abstract and representative designs plus two business cards for Rochelle and Carlese at Maya Salon
Mounted display of elaborately designed artificial nails for advertisement, 1993. Anacostia Community Museum Collection.

What's one women's history story that you wish more people knew?

Journalist Ethel Payne was known as the First Lady of the Black Press. She's well known in some circles, but she is certainly not a household name. I am excited that the Anacostia Community Museum has several objects of hers. The press badges and credentials show how she traveled all over the world on behalf of the Black press to cover important moments in history. In many cases, other American journalists were not covering these events.

Our collection includes a press pass from the historic 1955 Bandung Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. At the conference, delegates from 29 African and Asian countries met to strategize how to challenge colonialism and work cooperatively on economic and political issues. The United States was not invited. Very few other American reporters and very few other women covered that conference. Journalists record history in ways that historians and curators later rely on. Having Black women bringing their perspectives to that work makes a huge difference in the stories we can later share.

Art of Ethel Payne sitting in armchair. Behind her is fine china and a black and white portrait of a woman wearing a head scarf.
Portrait of Ethel Payne, 1991. Ink on paper. Ethel Lois Payne Collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Avis R. Johnson.

I'll add that we are surrounded every day by women who have incredible stories to tell. I think if anything, I want people to recognize that as they're walking down the street, they are likely passing people with powerful stories to tell.

Was there a moment that changed how you think of women's history?

When I was in middle school in the late 1970s, I had a young feminist social studies teacher who introduced our class to women's history. She shared historical documents and assigned us to research our town of Amherst, Massachusetts. She encouraged us to recognize the role that women played in the history of the town as well as the nation.

Ever since then, I have really been drawn to learn the history of where I live and love to learn about the women who have made that place what it is.

Another turning point in how I saw history came in college when I was studying the Civil War. I read a book that was basically a collection of historical arguments about the war. For example, it included ways that historians disagreed about what caused the Civil War.

When you're in school, you think of history as a collection of facts and dates you have to memorize. I found it exciting and new to recognize that people really disagreed about the past. When they argued about it, they had to defend their opinions using evidence. This involves storytelling as much as memorization. I think that's why I love history. I believe museums can help people understand that history is a collection of powerful stories with real people at their center.

What would you say to a student interested in learning more about women's history?

Ask questions! If your teacher isn't including women, ask "where are the women?" You can ask how a girl might have experienced something that you're reading about. Also, ask a librarian. Librarians are crucial to saving and sharing history. They're really your friend when you want to learn more about something. If you're curious about women's history (or literature, science, or art), a librarian can help you find what you're looking for.

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The Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story, has funded seven curators—including Rachel Seidman —to change the way the Smithsonian researches and shares American women's history across our museums and research centers in preparation for the future Smithsonian American Women's History Museum. To support more women's history research, you can  to stay in touch. You can also donate.

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