Lecture to Celebrate Contributions to D.C. History

Letitia Woods Brown lecture will honor trailblazing GW professor with remarks from President Knapp and more.

letitia lecture
November 13, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

The George Washington University will remember the contributions of Letitia Woods Brown, a professor and scholar dedicated to studying D.C.’s history, during the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Lecture and Reception on Thursday in the Jack Morton Auditorium. The event will highlight ways the university is committed to Washington historical studies, and it will serve as the opener for the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference, which will be held Nov. 14 through 17.

Dr. Brown is remembered as a pioneer in higher education. Among the first African American women to receive a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1966, she blazed trails in an era of segregation. When the George Washington University recruited her to teach in 1971, she became the only African American faculty member in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, signaling a new era of the university and higher education institutes supporting African American scholars.

Dr. Brown was dedicated to the study of D.C.’s history, focusing on scholarship that preserved the experiences of Washington’s African American community. She wrote the landmark study, “Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846,” and curated several Smithsonian historical exhibitions. She also served on a number of boards and historical commissions in the city.

“Through her teaching, writing and public service, Dr. Brown helped Washingtonians appreciate their history, their heritage and particularly the contributions of African Americans,” said Christopher Klemek, history professor and D.C. Historical Studies Conference committee member.

GW faculty created the annual memorial lecture after Dr. Brown died battling cancer in 1976. Speakers at this year’s lecture will include President Steven Knapp; Dean of the Columbian College Ben Vinson III; Director of the new George Washington Museum and The Textile Museum John Wetenhall; and University Librarian Geneva Henry.

Kate Masur, a history professor at Northwestern University, will provide the keynote lecture, “Black Politics in Civil War Washington: What Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ Didn’t Tell You.” The lecture will be followed by an audience question-and-answer session moderated by Dr. Klemek.

Dr. Klemek explained that the event will shed light on ways GW has continued Dr. Brown’s tradition of historical D.C. studies and positioned itself as a major center for the understanding, preservation and dissemination of D.C. heritage.

The evening will open with a reception catered by Ben’s Chili Bowl, which donated historic papers and artifacts to the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library in 2011. Dr. Wetenhall will discuss Albert H. Small’s donation of the historic Washingtoniana Collection, which includes maps, artifacts and rare papers from the 18th to the 20th century that will be permanently housed in the new university museum. Ms. Henry will highlight innovative uses of the Gelman Library’s special collections, including a collaboration between D.C. high school students and GW undergraduates to build DigitalDC, an online community history project using oral history interviews and documents from the university’s archives. Dr. Vinson will talk about the legacy Dr. Brown left at the Columbian College, and how future research and teaching initiatives will build on that legacy.

Dr. Klemek, Chair of the D.C. Historical Studies Conference committee Matthew Gilmore and Jane Freundel Levey, M.A. ’91, will also provide remarks at the lecture. Ms. Levey is a longtime member of the conference organizing committee and the director of heritage and community programs for Cultural Tourism DC, a co-sponsor for the conference. A full list of conference partners can be found here.

This year’s D.C. Historical Studies Conference will examine a range of Washington marches, including the 1963 March on Washington. It will also cover other D.C. anniversaries, such as the 1973 initiation of modern home rule, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the centennial of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession.

Ms. Levey said with its wide range of topics, the conference embraces many levels of appreciation for history.

“The conference offers the public the opportunity to hear the newest scholarship, to help researchers shape their work by joining in on the discussions and to understand historical methods used inside and outside of academic settings,” she said.

Dr. Klemek looks forward to tomorrow’s kick-off event, explaining that the Letitia Woods Brown lecture allows GW to demonstrate what it can offer the local community.

“I’m really looking forward to welcoming the broader D.C. community to campus for this event and showcasing some great resources and initiatives that we are undertaking at GW that will interest folks who want to learn more about the city’s history,” he said.

The lecture is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. The reception starts at 6 p.m. at the Jack Morton Auditorium.