Protest Preserved: Signs from D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Memorial Fence

 

Colorful signs on a head-high chain-link fence on a sunny day., with upper branches of tress in the background

Some of the 78 sections of the protest fence on June 19, 2020. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division.

It was a year ago this week that the Black Lives Matter signs came down from the Lafayette Park fence where they had garnered national attention as a rallying point for protests for nearly a year. The park, across the street from the White House, had been fenced off to keep protesters at a distance. Protestors, in turn, made artwork of the fence.

“I Can’t Breathe.” “Matter is the Minimum.” “Say Their Names.” “Fight the Power.”

There were hundreds of signs, protesting the police killings of George Floyd and others, as well as the nation’s long history of racial injustice. Some signs lasted days. Some lasted months. Some were torn down by counter-protestors and replaced. When volunteers removed the signs  on Jan. 30, 2021, there were some 800 of them. A number of those have since been collected by the Library and Howard University. A small selection was exhibited in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last year as part of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. A digitization project is underway at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore and the D.C. Public Library that will ultimately make them all available online.

You can see 33 of them now on the Library’s website.

A close-up, color drawing of a pair of brown eyes, looking at the viewer

“The World is Watching.” Creator unknown.

The Library’s Prints and Photographs Division has a long history of collecting protest art, both from the steady stream of protests along the National Mall and from across the world. The largest single example is the Yanker Collection of Political and Propaganda Posters, which features thousands of examples, mostly between the 1920s and 1970s. The Library preserves material from nationally significant protests, the most famous of which may be 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Black and white picture of people preparing for the March on Washington, holding sings

Protestors used mass-produced signs during the 1963 March on Washington. Photo: Stanley Tretick. LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

In this case, the Library’s collection effort was spearheaded by Aliza Leventhal, head of the technical services section in the Prints and Photographs Division, who visited the Lafayette Park site daily for eight months. She became entranced by what she saw as an evolving work of art, with signs being moved and rearranged to speak to one another.

“The signs ranged from crafted works of art either brought from home or created on the site, as well as scrap pieces of paper with hastily written messages,” she said. “Every day new signs were showing up, another person sharing their story and adding valuable layers to the ongoing conversation on the fence.”

Close up of a brown sign with writing in various colored inks

“Matter is the Minimum.” Creator unknown.

The fence’s de facto curator was Nadine Seiler, an activist who took on care and maintenance of the site. She was joined by Karen Irwin, another activist. The pair went so far as to sleep at the site to prevent vandalism overnight. They eventually donated a group of posters to the Library to ensure broad public access.

“I was more drawn to the humorous protest signs,” Seiler said. “I guess it’s the vein of, ‘If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.’ For me, it’s taking tragedy of our dehumanization and lightening it so it’s not so heavy on my psyche.”

Protests ebbed after Joe Biden was elected president, and protestors decided to remove the signs a year ago this week. Before it was removed, however, activists photographed each panel to capture the final positions of signs. Volunteers then took 800 signs off the fence, preserving nearly all of them.

They were gone from their spot in the national limelight, but headed for preservation and public access in the national library.

A closed fist, painted in curved storkes of blue, orange, and yellow

 Untitled by Luther Wright. Prints and Photographs Division.

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