Louise Daniel Hutchinson

Eminent scholar leaves lasting legacy

Louise Daniel Hutchinson in front of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, when it was located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, in the early 1970s. Courtesy of DC Public Library, Special Collections. 

In the early 1970s the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, under the direction of community historian Louise Daniel Hutchinson and museum founder John Kinard, undertook an ambitious effort to collect hundreds of oral histories from residents whose memories and experiences stretched to the start of the 20th century. After the successful staging of an exhibit based on these community interviews, Hutchinson and Kinard turned their attention to the area’s largely unknown pre-20th century history. Excavating archives, school records, photographs, personal diaries, census data, land deeds, maps, government reports and antiquarian books, Hutchinson and her team of researchers compiled an unprecedented collection of materials that resulted in the groundbreaking publication of The Anacostia Story: 1608 - 1930 by the Smithsonian Press in 1977. A complimentary exhibit toured the city and gained national recognition. 

“Ms. Hutchinson was always in the community,” says William Alston-El, an exhibit specialist trainee with the museum from 1977 to 1980. “Before the work of John Kinard, Zora Martin Felton and Mrs. Hutchinson, the history of peoples of African descent in Anacostia, Barry Farm and other communities wasn’t known.” 

With the desegregation of Washington’s school system, displacement of residents of Southwest Washington and the riots following the assassination of Dr. King, within a period of two decades the demographic composition of communities east of the river drastically changed from nearly 90% white in the 1950s to nearly 90% black by the early 1970s. Forty years after its publication, The Anacostia Story: 1608 - 1930 remains the foundational text for any scholar endeavoring to research the history of communities east of the river.

Her Life

Hutchinson was born on June 3, 1928 in Southern Maryland, in St. Mary's County, on the campus of the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, a Catholic boarding school for black students where her parents served as principal and vice principal. 

The impact of the Great Depression subsequently closed the school and her parents moved to Westminster Street in the Shaw neighborhood. Her mother, Constance Daniel, eventually began working for the Washington Afro-American newspaper, where she was paid a penny a word. Through this work she became acquainted with Mary McLeod Bethune of the National Council of Negro Women. 

“My first job, at 12, was scrubbing Mrs. Bethune’s kitchen and bathroom, for which I was paid 25 cents a week,” Hutchinson told the Evening Star in the fall of 1977, “On Sunday mornings, we vied to see who could get to the newsstand at 7th Street and Florida Avenue to get her paper. She just had to have the New York papers. For that, we got an extra dime.”

After attending DC’s colored public school system, Hutchinson attended Howard University in the late 1940s and early 1950s where she studied under famed sociologist E. Franklin Frazier and historians John Hope Franklin and Rayford Logan. 

Museum staff reacts to Hutchinson's death

Current staff of the Anacostia Community Museum, now located by Fort Stanton, are still impacted by Hutchinson through their personal memories and contemporary researchers seeking to review her research records. 

Through a chance referral after speaking with Hutchinson’s husband, Gail Lowe interviewed for a position as a research assistant and began working under “Mama Lou” in March 1980. 

“What is sometimes forgotten is how she was a leader and mentor in the historic preservation movement,” said Lowe, today the Anacostia Community Museum’s senior historian, alluding to the creation of the Anacostia Historic District in 1978. 

“Louise focused on not just the architectural work and physical place but the historic culture and social impact of community institutions,” says Lowe. 

Along with a critical eye for research, Hutchinson was known for being open and friendly to people from all walks of life. “She was warm, meticulous, and demanded excellence in the work and at the same time she was willing to take in young, raw folks and introduce them around while doing oral history. She introduced these young people to those with influence.”

“Mrs. Hutchinson contributed to the scholarship of the African American experience in Washington, DC and beyond by producing The Anacostia Story, 1608-1930 research collection, the most consulted collection in our Archives,” says archivist Jennifer Morris. “Historians, developers, scholars, and interns have used these records for various projects due to the rich resources gathered by Mrs. Hutchinson.” 

Civil War Exhibit 

In preparation for the launch of a new exhibit, How the Civil War Changed Washington, which will be on view from February 2, 2015 to November 15, 2015, the museum is seeking sponsorship partners to assist in promoting the exhibit. For more information contact Tykia Warden at wardent@si.edu or call (202) 633-4834.