By Kai Walther, Program & Operations Manager
Somehow, 2023 was the first time I actually attended sessions at the DC History Conference at MLK Library. In years prior I’ve volunteered, presented a (virtual) poster, and did programming with the Humanities Truck. This year was different, because in the program I saw a panel called “Swann Queen: Remembering DC’s First Black Queer Icon, William Dorsey Swann.” Ever since stumbling across a one-person show about Swann last spring, I’ve wanted to know more about him. Swann, born into slavery in 1858, was the first documented, self-described drag queen. While politicians threaten LGBTQ rights and try to ban drag performances, Swann, who continued hosting drag balls after being arrested multiple times, is a crucial reminder of Black queer joy and resistance.
Not only the name of the panel, “Swann Queen” is also the name and subject of an upcoming historical fiction film by presenters L Cedeño Miller, Lee Levingston Perine, and Pussy Noir. Their dynamic session focused on Swann’s background and adapting his* history into a film. We started with trivia about the history of drag in the District, then Pussy Noir led a guided meditation into Swann’s mind, and high-heeled shoes.
It was so exciting to be in a room where the typical barriers between presenters and audience were broken down, history and performance art blended together, and we all learned more about the historical precedence for, and current application of, Black queer groundbreaking in DC.
After the presentation on Swann, I attended a panel titled “Turning Points,” which examined three different moments of change in DC. Carmen Bolt spoke about how historic and current government flood control measures fail many of DC’s residents, while Angelina Ribeiro Jones gave a history of the founding of the Washington Canoe Club. I was unsure what to expect from Nikki Grigg’s study of glass beer bottles. However, I soon found that her research, which used the circulation of those bottles to analyze conceptions and conflicts over citizenship, connected very closely to the tour I developed as an Education Fellow for the Heurich House Museum.
On that tour, I talk about Christian Heurich’s perception of Prohibition as an anti-German measure. Grigg’s presentation prompted me to think beyond the effects of anti-German sentiment on beer distribution and branding into larger questions about how Germans in DC built their white American identity at the expense of Black citizens and other immigrant groups. Jamaal Lemon makes a similar argument about German-Americans, beer production and drinking, and whiteness in “Tek Cyear uh de Root, Part One - The Schuetzenfest, Black Endurance, and Beer Culture in Old South Charleston.”
Following the “Turning Points” panel, I made my rounds through the History Network. There I said hello to Crystal Hurd from the Sumner School Museum, where I once interned, and ran into Jenna, our Education Director, and Kim, our Collections Manager, at the Heurich House Museum table. They were displaying an exhibit on historic revival Senate Beer, which connected perfectly to the panel I attended earlier!
*I follow conventions of most other scholars and historical documents labeling Swann as a man. However, it is important to recognize that he may have identified otherwise if different language was available.