A few years back I wrote about a ghost sign exposed in Atlanta by a tornado. It was a “Gold Dust Twins” sign that had been painted on a building facade that had subsequently been concealed by the construction of an adjacent building. Atlanta historian Velma Maia Thomas dug deeper into the Gold Dust Twins advertising in a 2015 article published in the online journal, Atlanta Studies.
This post recounts another unexpected meeting with the Gold Dust Twins.
I was reviewing photos in the Library of Congress collections to use in slides for an upcoming program. The photos depict African Americans in Washington neighborhoods near or where Civil War contraband camps had been located. One of the photos I was considering using was one I had seen before. It was taken c. 1916 and it depicts an African American entrepreneur in front of a roadside restaurant — a stand, actually —that he whimsically called the “Fair View Hotel.”
Keith Sutherland was the Fair View Hotel’s proprietor. The formerly enslaved Maryland native had become a fixture in Black Washington during the last decades of the nineteenth century. He was known for freely sharing his thoughts on a wide array of subjects. In 1916, the Washington Evening Star wrote that the establishment was “Keith Sutherland’s famous little eatery …. the unique eating place made famous by the philosophizings of its aged negro proprietor.”
District officials had wanted to close and demolish Sutherland’s eatery. Located in an area stigmatized as crime-ridden and a health nuisance by white Washingtonians, Sutherland’s place nearly became “a victim to the sanitary crusade being waged by the health department,” the Star reported in August 1916.
Sutherland rallied substantial support to save his business among Black Washingtonians. A petition signed by about 500 people swayed the District commissioners to rule that “they did not consider the ‘hotel’ a menace or an eyesore.”
Sutherland’s efforts to save his business were covered by local newspapers and the photographers whose print ended up in the Library of Congress. What’s easy to miss in a quick examination of the photo is the small shield-shaped sign affixed to a pole at the corner of Sutherland’s stand. It includes an annotated rough rendering of the Gold Dust Twins. The sign reads:
Gold Dust Twins/
United States We Stand/
I will agree with you sister why do they want to break Fair View up for”
This is a remarkable example of folk art because it appropriates a racialized portrayal of African Americans by white industry (the Gold Dust Twins) and it does so as an act of resistance to displacement. This 1916 photo may be the earliest illustration of displacement resistance art in the nation’s capital.
In addition to the sign, the post on which it is mounted also is notable. Capping the pole is a rotating sign that reads “Pepecual Motion.” This “perpetual motion” spinner is a whirligig, an African American vernacular art form with deep roots in the American South.
Keith Sutherland’s battle for his right to remain is a notable early example of resistance to displacement in Washington, a city with a long history of displacing African Americans from their homes, businesses, and places of worship. I wonder what other gems historians might find by a closer reading of historical photographs like the one showing Sutherland and his Fair View Hotel?
© 2018 D.S. Rotenstein