Judith Hamer Helps Tell America’s Horrible, Inspiring History

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 Hamer (left), her sister Carolyn Thompson Brown, and brother-in-law Tim Eastman take photos at the National Museum of African American History and Culture preview. (Photo/Marvin Joseph for the Washington Post)

Judith Hamer (left), her sister Carolyn Thompson Brown, and brother-in-law Tim Eastman at the National Museum of African American History and Culture preview. (Photo/Marvin Joseph for the Washington Post)

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 Hamer and her sister donated this photographer of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. The white spot in the center is the glare from Judith's camera.

Judith Hamer and her sister donated this photographer of their great-great-grandparents, Philip and Maria Johnson. The white spot in the center is the glare from Judith’s camera.

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 Johnson Thompson -- Judith's grandmother -- holds Judith's father Frank. Judith says it was probably traditional for young boys to wear dresses for formal photographs.

Laura Johnson Thompson — Judith’s grandmother — holds Judith’s father Frank. Judith says it was probably traditional for young boys to wear dresses for formal photographs.

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.

Judith Hamer and her sister also donated their father's Cornell banner to the museum.

Judith Hamer and her sister also donated their father’s Cornell banner to the museum.

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.”

The haunting facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo/Judith Hamer)

The haunting facade of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo/Judith Hamer)

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)

9 responses to “Judith Hamer Helps Tell America’s Horrible, Inspiring History

  1. Very impressive family and museum – great Westport story. Thanks Dan!

  2. A.David Wunsch

    Interesting that her father went to Cornell . When I entered Cornell in the fall of 1956 I don’t believe there was a single American born black in my class of 2000 students. This is shameful, especially when you consider that you could take a train from New York City to Ithaca NY and arrive in less than a day. And there were buses that made the same run. The school made no effort to recruit African Americans. Of course that has all changed. There is such a thing as progress even though this election season might cause one to doubt it.
    ADW Staples 1956

  3. Wow, talking about living history – for worse and better. Fantastic piece, Dan!

  4. Obviously the Hamer family has taken the optimal road to success. We
    collectively should work to make all minorities our equals.

    • Rozanne Gates

      Yes, Marty, you are 100% right. Judith Hamer and Bill Buckley have been friends for a long time. Suzanne and I have always appreciated their love of music and all things jazz. Now I know a lot more about her. Thank you for this piece, Dan.

  5. Any relation to Fannie Lou Hamer who was Tracy Sugarman’s friend and a Civil Rights Movement icon?

  6. Ramin Ganeshram

    Judith Hamer is an awe-inspiring woman. I have the honor of attending Team Westport meetings with her and I’m always eager to learn from what she has to say. I would also like to say to Mr. Bell, with all respect that we are approaching a multicultural majority in America. We who were once “minorities” are no longer and, in fact, if we weren’t buying into a system that would categorize us by labels, then we already ARE a collective majority. And I would further make the argument that we have ALWAYS been equal–despite what the law may have said. The (hard-won) success of Johnson-Thompson family make them best example of what America should have always been–except without so many obstacles..

  7. Roberta Tager

    I have always seen and remembered Judith Hamer as an ‘ icon of a fine, fine, lady’.
    Kudos to her again!

  8. I love these family photos. Beautiful. This building is an astonishing work of stellar architecture/art & I hope to someday experience this profoundly important museum.