- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Mo Rouse swears he can still feel the knot on his head even though it has been 40 years since the National Zoo’s assistant director of guest services last rolled down Lion/Tiger Hill on an Easter Monday.

“We got to roll, rumble and tumble down that hill,” says Mr. Rouse, who memorably bumped his head on one of those plunges.

“It was a high point of our day, when just about every family you knew would pack up a lunch and come to the zoo.”

A lot of rolling is still going on the Monday after Easter, and we’re not just talking Easter eggs at the White House.

At the National Zoo, the annual African American Family Celebration will have visitors rolling eggs (and maybe a few bodies down Lion/Tiger Hill); grooving to live jazz, drumming and gospel; interacting with storytellers; cheering on a champion double-Dutch team that feeds on audiences’ vocal support as members twirl, twist, hop and turn; and meeting with Smithsonian scientists in a daylong celebration of black American family life that features some of the best musicians, artists and artisans the Washington area has to offer.

This year, the zoo’s celebration has taken on an important new twist, a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was established in part to ensure that memories of the zoo’s Easter Monday celebrations of long ago won’t be overlooked.

Mr. Rouse doesn’t need that reminder. All he has to do is reach up and feel the memory of the knot on his head, and the past comes rushing back.

“This was our day to shine,” says Mr. Rouse, who remembers traveling to the zoo by streetcar from his childhood home on Ames Street Northeast.

“You got your new suit for Easter, and then you looked forward to Easter Monday at the National Zoo.”

A long tradition

The celebration is nearly as old as the zoo itself, which Congress established in 1889. The family event began more than a century ago — some say the early 1890s — as black families gathered to stroll the zoo’s winding paths or picnic on its rolling hills on Easter Monday.

“One of the things I learned when I came to Washington in 1971 was that Easter Monday was special for African Americans in particular,” says Bob Lamb, executive director of Friends of the National Zoo, the nonprofit membership organization that helps support zoo programs.

“It’s a wonderful part of the fabric of what makes Washington Washington.”

Blacks were not actively encouraged to participate in the White House Easter Egg Roll until the Eisenhower administration, when Mamie Eisenhower made a point of including black children in the festivities. During the first part of the 20th century, many black domestics had to work on Easter Sunday, so they couldn’t be with their own families.

“Black Washington was a separate entity from white Washington,” says Lisa Stevens, curator of pandas and primates, who has been with the zoo for 24 years and served on the planning committee when the zoo took over the family day in 1993.

“It was the place for the black community to go,” she says of the zoo’s celebration. “Communities need to find their own comfort zone.”

Before 1993, the day’s success had been due largely to the grass-roots efforts of the institution’s black employees, who took it upon themselves to make the day special for the thousands who made the zoo their Easter Monday destination, dyeing eggs and pooling candy reserves.

The story’s lessons

It’s a spirit that’s not unfamiliar to Baba-C, known as “the griot heard around the world,” who will be marking his 16th year with the family event.

“We have a history of making something positive from negative experiences,” says Baba-C, a native Washingtonian who spent more than a few Easter Mondays at the zoo as a youngster.

“You always hear about the negative things, but Easter Monday at the zoo is such a positive affair. And it’s very inclusive.”

Offstage, Baba — which means “father” in Swahili — is Lorenzo A. Calender. He has modeled his style of interactive storytelling on the bards of West Africa, the griots, the repository of history and storytelling traditions that stretch back centuries.

The griot persona is only one of three he has used in performances through the years; the others were Joshua Freeman, ageless elder from the antebellum period; and Les Spirit, a storyteller from the islands.

However, he says, Baba-C took over.

“When Baba-C came onstage, that was it,” he says. “Pretty soon, everyone started calling me Baba-C, even my mother. Now she only calls me Lorenzo when she’s angry.”

This year, Baba-C will appear with Tomorrow’s Voices, his troupe of young artists who drum, sing, chant, mime and move. The group’s core consists of nine performers between ages 7 and 18; some of them have been working with Baba-C for years.

It’s not enough just to do the moves and remember the stories, like the folk tale about the drumming turtle: Captured by a hunter who forces him to drum on command, the turtle finally stops drumming altogether.

“You have to understand the lesson of the story,” says Baba-C, who is griot-in-residence at the Columbia Heights Youth Club on Harvard Street Northwest. “In order to get respect, you have to give respect. Otherwise, you don’t deserve to hear the music.”

Respect is a key word for Tomorrow’s Voices, whose members early on internalize Baba-C’s mantra: “Respect for elders, respect for others, respect for self.”

“We are like a family,” says Julian “Simba” Hicks, 18, who started with Baba-C as a 12-year-old when the storytelling master pulled him from the audience and brought him up onstage. “It’s about respect and discipline and self-determination.”

Family wins out

How big is your family? Come to the zoo on Easter Monday, and you’ll find that the definition is, well, expandable.

For example, there’s the Smithsonian’s zoo family, including curators, conservators, exhibit builders and veterinary specialists, who turn out in force to explain their jobs to the next generation.

“Today, we try to incorporate the zoo into the experience,” Mr. Rouse says. “We bring the keepers and the shop people out.”

An unexpected hitch in the proceedings just seems to make things come together better. Last year’s celebration, for example, could have been a disaster, with drenching, steady rains; temperatures in the high 40s; and no sun in sight. In fact, the White House canceled its event.

Nevertheless, the African American Family Celebration at the National Zoo went on — with a vengeance. Loudspeakers were wrapped, tents were tightened, and more than a few zoo visitors donned ponchos.

Typical of the reaction last year was that of the District’s Jeanette Keyser, who brought her daughter, Dimone Doumbouya, then 2. “It’s a little wet,” Ms. Keyser said then, “but we’re going to try out all the activities anyway.”

Mere wetness didn’t seem to stop the District’s Nicole Pauls, who came with her sister-in-law and four preteens between them.

“I haven’t heard a lot about this history,” said Ms. Pauls, who learned about the event from the radio, “but now that I know this is part of our history, we’re going to come every year.”

Behavior is all

Over the years, the family celebration has had to face more challenges than just the weather. During the 1950s, neighborhood gangs would regularly take on rivals at the zoo on Easter Monday.

In those days, local groups rarely carried guns, and fights ran to little more than fisticuffs. In 2000, though, gunfire erupted on the family celebration as a 17-year-old gunman, who police said may have been involved in an argument earlier inside the zoo, opened fire on Connecticut Avenue just outside the gate as families were leaving. Seven children were wounded; the offender is serving a 25-year sentence.

In the years following, zoo police augmented by U.S. Park Police and Metropolitan Police were a visible presence for the family celebration. Today, plenty of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are around in addition, and they seem more than willing to step in as the situation warrants to deliver a few words about behavior.

Last year, one chastened teen was stopped on a paved path by a stranger and told to pick up a candy wrapper he had thoughtlessly dropped.

Another young man found himself stopped in his tracks — loaded up with an empty stroller, two bulging carryalls and a collection of plastic trash bags — while his younger siblings went off to hunt eggs and mom stood by with camera at the ready.

Passing it on

Memories of that day seven years ago have not been enough to keep people from toting strollers, picnic hampers and assorted youngsters along the zoo’s winding paths. Many longtime Washingtonians still retain a perspective on the celebration that is unfailingly positive.

“I love the animals,” says Tisa Dorsey, an administrative assistant at Water E. Doar Public Charter School in Northeast. “That’s why I always wanted to come. And the people are so friendly.”

Fifteen or so years ago, most Washingtonians knew of Ms. Dorsey and her sister, Lakeisha Simmons-Bradshaw, as the two girls from Northwest’s Seaton Elementary School who regularly won double-Dutch competitions and appeared at the zoo’s family celebrations.

Today, Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Simmons-Bradshaw are grown up, with their own children, but they’re still jumping double Dutch, and they still stop by the zoo every year.

Their yearly performance at the zoo gives everyone a chance to strut their best stuff — from the new jumpers, such as the third-graders who are in training nearly every day in the weeks leading up to the event, to the sisters themselves, who never stopped jumping double Dutch, even when they went to college.

“It’s such a great sport,” Ms. Dorsey says. “It really helps you focus.”

For the past several months, Ms. Simmons-Bradshaw, who teaches kindergarten at Doar, and her sister have been schooling an enthusiastic team of third-graders. Their sessions include a lot more than tips on turning and flipping.

“Academics come first,” says Ms. Simmons-Bradshaw, whose three-hour practice sessions include homework help and academic tutoring. “You can’t jump until you’ve done your homework.”

The hill once more

Like most of the performers and other artists, Ms. Dorsey and Ms. Simmons-Bradshaw plan to give their children plenty of time to take in the sights on Easter Monday. After all, it was part of what they anticipated when they were children back at Seaton.

“The hippos were my favorite,” Ms. Dorsey says, one memory sparking another. “And the elephants. And oooh — that hill, everyone just loved rolling down that hill.”

So, rewind to last year’s celebration. In midafternoon, with the skies still gray and the rain pouring down, two young boys, muddied and soaked to the skin, were making their way up a very large hill for — you guessed it — one last roll.

Then the sun came out.

WHAT: The African American Family Celebration

WHERE: National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Easter Monday, April 9

ACTIVITIES: Easter egg roll and hunt, crafts, food bazaar, entertainment

ADMISSION: Free

INFORMATION: See nationalzoo.si.edu, click on Activities and Events, then Special Events, and follow the link

Museum aids memory-making

When the festivities get under way at the National Zoo this Easter Monday, you may notice a new presence on the grounds. That would be the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is beginning a collaboration with the National Zoo for the Easter Monday event.

“What really struck me is the history and the power of the black community coming to the zoo year after year,” says Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director. “One of the things that is important for us is to help the Smithsonian stay connected to the local community, and this event helps us to do that.”

The Easter Monday celebration offers the museum a unique chance to showcase locally a trend that has gone on nationally for many years, albeit in other forms.

“The notion of the black community in this country finding ways to claim ownership of public space is a tradition,” Mr. Bunch says. “Events like this one, and parades like Los Angeles’ Festival Parade, which preceded the Rose Bowl parades, are examples of this.”

At the same time, the museum hopes to underline the differences between Washington as federal city and Washington as Southern town, which it certainly was back in the 1890s, when black Americans began to gather at the zoo as the walls of segregation closed in.

By the time of the Woodrow Wilson administration, the federal civil service had been rigidly resegregated, and the District, along with other cities, experienced waves of anti-black violence, including lynchings and riots, in the nation’s notorious “Red Summer” of 1919.

What often didn’t make the history books were the ways the black community sought to redress both national and local inequities.

“People worked the margins to effect change and protect their families and their communities,” Mr. Bunch says. “One of our goals is to recognize that one of the challenges of this nation is to get people to share their family stories of what happened in the past.”

To that end, Mr. Bunch and the museum have come up with a theme for this year’s celebration: Remembering.

To carry it out, the museum plans a three-pronged approach to the April 9 events, starting with a photo-scanning station. Bring your photographs of zoo outings gone by, and staffers will scan them and load them into the museum’s database.

If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re doing right by your great-grandmother’s things, you can put those worries to rest. As part of the museum’s Save Our African American Treasures program, museum experts will offer advice and basic information about conserving everything from old documents and photographs to your grandmother’s wedding dress.

Tip 1: Don’t leave them in plastic bags.

Finally, museum staffers will guide would-be curators and conservators in activities designed to give them hands-on experience with the kind of materials museum experts work with every day. So get ready to put on those white gloves and pick up something that looks really old.

Next year, the zoo and the museum hope to add an oral-history component and a special award for a leading black American in the field of conservation and science.

No stranger to Washington, Mr. Bunch — who previously served at the Smithsonian from 1989 to 2000, most of that time as associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History — has his own personal connection to Easter Monday at the zoo.

“When my kids were little, I used to take them,” he says. “It was a wonderful day of discovery, with people you didn’t even know nodding in recognition of what a special day it was.”


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