Historian’s Trail Leads Back to GW

Alumna Jane Freundel Levey will “create community” as consulting curator of Washingtoniana Collection.

Jane Fruendel Levey
Jane Freundel Levey, M.A. '91, will be curating exhibitions for GW's new museum.
August 18, 2014
Follow the H Street Heritage Trail and you’ll get to a pale yellow sign on Maryland Avenue. It’s covered with old photos, one of which shows a young woman rushing out of her house in a gauzy wedding dress, her grin lighting up the black-and-white image.
When the 3.2-mile historical trail opened to the public in 2012, an 86-year-old woman named Evelyn Kogok Hier spent the day greeting visitors in front of the sign, telling them that she was the beaming bride from the picture. She shared memories of growing up and buying produce from huckster wagons and seeing neighbors share hookahs in the long-forgotten “Little Lebanon” community that existed on H Street.
Stories about Little Lebanon and Ms. Hier’s upbringing are just some of the details you’ll find along Cultural Tourism DC’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails, 16 paths that connect the Washington of the past to the Washington of today. At the center of each trail is historian and George Washington University alumna Jane Freundel Levey, M.A. ’91, who spent more than two years talking to community members like Ms. Hier to learn about each neighborhood’s complex history.
This fall, Ms. Levey is bringing her knowledge of D.C. to GW as a consulting curator for the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, which will be permanently housed in the new George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum. 
Albert H. Small, a 2009 recipient of the Presidential Humanities Medal, donated his unparalleled collection of rare Washington maps, documents and other artifacts to the university in 2011, along with a $5 million gift to support the renovation of the new museum’s Woodhull House, where the collection will be displayed. Ms. Levey has used the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection as a resource throughout her career, and in her new position, she will plan future exhibitions and educational programming based on Mr. Small’s historic trove of D.C. treasures.
The homecoming takes Ms. Levey’s career full circle: Before writing several books on D.C., editing countless issues of the scholarly journal Washington History and putting together the Heritage Trails, Ms. Levey was a graduate student on the Foggy Bottom Campus, trying to figure out how the city she loved had come to be.
Ms. Levey has her own footnote in the pages of D.C. history: She was born at GW Hospital to Bernice W. and Milton Freundel, B.A. ’49, and grew up in the city. Although her father’s foreign service career took her to Taiwan, Pakistan and India, D.C. was always home base.
She began working as a reporter in Washington after college. Her byline appeared on the pages of the Washington Post, Washingtonian magazine and Regardie’s magazine. She loved assignments that required untangling historical narratives and explaining how the city’s current issues had stemmed from the past.
“It finally occurred to me that I was much more of a historian, and I wanted to go deeper into the backstory of Washington,” she said.
The epiphany led her to GW’s doorstep. Using her journalism skills, Ms. Levey interviewed professors and did research on history programs at various colleges in D.C., eventually winding up in GW’s American studies department. There, she came face-to-face with professor Howard Gillette.
“He was teaching D.C. history the way I wanted to learn it: You start with today and look at yesterday,” Ms. Levey said. “Because Howard was an urban historian, his approach was wonderfully neighborhood-based, and the way he was using the city as a classroom was something I really admired.”  
She earned her master’s degree, marking another generation of GW alumni in her family—her daughter, Emily S. Levey, also graduated from the university in 2013. The lessons from GW professors like Dr. Gillette and professor emeritus James O. Horton still influence Ms. Levey today. Dr. Gillette introduced her to the Historical Society of Washington, where Ms. Levey met Kathryn Schneider Smith, M.A. ’86, the society’s president and a historian who later launched Washington History. Ms. Levey eventually edited the publication herself for eight years.
During her tenure at Washington History, Ms. Levey often published articles that revealed lesser-known stories of Washington.  There was the account that historian Elizabeth Clark-Lewis wrote about her relatives, African American women who served as domestic workers at the turn of the 20th century. David K. Johnson penned a feature on Frank Kameny, a leading LGBT activist whose fight against job discrimination in the federal government is a cornerstone of civil rights today. 
“Those were stories the mainstream didn’t know about—and they needed to know,” Ms. Levey said.
At a time when the city was grappling with the effects of rapid urbanization, Ms. Levey took a job at Cultural Tourism DC and started working on the Heritage Trails project. Ms. Levey made it a point to work directly with the community where each trail was based. Her team would facilitate meetings and ask residents, “What are the stories you want to tell visitors about your neighborhood?” After hearing responses, historians would research the topics, collect photos and carefully scribe the text that appears on the trails’ historical markers. 
The Heritage Trails ultimately bridged a gap between longtime D.C. residents and newcomers, giving seniors like Little Lebanon’s Ms. Hier a chance to build relationships with younger denizens in the community. Ms. Hier herself had a razor-sharp memory and enchanted neighbors with vivid recollections of the chocolate-covered nuts her father sold at his confectionary shop in Southwest and the nickel hamburgers grilled hot at an 8th Street greasy spoon called Little Tavern.
“At the end of the process, we had helped to create new community and that’s very gratifying,” Ms. Levey said.
Uniting people through history is something Ms. Levey sees herself continuing to do at GW. As consulting curator, she will work on bringing the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection to the public. She’ll also brainstorm ways GW can teach D.C. history to the broader community—she’s looking at projects like Professor Chris Klemek’s web-based DigitalDC, an online exhibition that showcases select areas in Foggy Bottom. With the Washingtoniana Collection and GW’s new museum, Ms. Levey believes the university has the chance to become a principal center for scholarship on Washington.
“The museum is a place to gather—the minute you have that, you create community, and that’s what I’m all about,” Ms. Levey said. “You get two students in there looking at D.C. history, and they’re going to start talking to each other. Just think about what can happen.”