Judith Hamer’s great-great-grandparents were slaves.
She earned a Ph.D., then served as director of education for the Rockefeller Foundation and was a professor at Columbia and NYU. She’s lived in Westport for 37 years, and raised 3 daughters here.
Those 2 worlds — slavery and professional achievement — intersected recently. Judith was a special guest at a preview before the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Judith and her sister, Carolyn Thompson Brown, donated several artifacts to the 5-story museum, a proud and important new addition to the Smithsonian just 3 blocks from the White House.
One of the items was a photograph of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. Born in Virginia, he spent 50 years a a slave. But after the Civil War — and freedom — the couple bought a small farm in Virginia.
Around 1880, they posed for a photo. The Washington Post described them as “wearing heavy clothes, faint smiles and the mantle of freedom.”
Smithsonian curators turned that image into a wall-sized poster. It hangs as an introduction to the museum’s section on Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
Judith’s sister — who also earned a Ph.D. — knows the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch III. When he asked for artifacts, she thought of films their father had taken in the 1940s. What was much more compelling, though, were the sisters’ older photos — and their father’s Cornell University banner.
Another image they donated shows their grandmother Laura Johnson Thompson holding their father Frank on her knee. He was born in 1903.
Laura married a Pullman porter, and moved to New York City. They owned a house, and some rental property. Their son Frank — Judith’s father — graduated from Cornell in 1924. His slightly tattered banner introduces the museum’s section on education.
Judith says that her and her sister’s donations — along with the entire museum — show “what black people could achieve when they were freed.” They demonstrate too what their descendants achieved, as they moved up into America’s middle class.
The museum’s exterior is as impressive as what’s inside, Judith says. It stands adjacent — and in contrast to — the tall, white marble Washington Monument.
The Museum of African American History and Culture features lacy grillwork — an art form mastered by New Orleans slaves. It evokes, Judith says, “the dark shadow of slavery that haunted George Washington, the Founding Fathers. It still haunts us today.”
Judith says the museum “is the first representation of the singular contributions of black folks in America.” Her contributions are “important pieces of the whole story.”
But the new museum does not contain all of Judith’s artifacts.
Her great-grandparents David and Arnetta were born into slavery. They were freed in 1863. Three years later, they got married in Wake County, North Carolina. The certificate calls them “lately slaves, but now free.”
But the certificate lists David’s last name as Mordechai.
That had been his slave name. As soon as he was emancipated, he changed it to Thompson.
For the nearly 4 decades she’s lived in Westport, that framed marriage certificate has hung on her wall.
“It’s a nice counterbalance to my degrees, in case I ever forget where I came from,” Judith Thompson Hamer says.
I doubt she ever will.
And now — thanks to the contributions of her, her sister and many others — millions of Americans will never forget too.
(Hat tip: Harold Bailey)