Scores of people recently gathered in a noted theater in the District to honor a man who, by way of artistic expression, supported African-American museums, cultural organizations and stressed their intrinsic value to both the community and the country.
Steven Cameron Newsome, the former director of the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast, died on Sept. 27. To honor his many accomplishments over the years, a fitting tribute, "A Celebration of Life" program was held at the Arena Stage's The Mead Center for American Theater in Southwest on Sunday, Dec. 2 and his friends and family feted him with a display of dancing, singing and acting as well as personal reflections.
"Steven always engaged his staff in a personal way," said Louis Hicks, who worked with Newsome at the Anacostia Museum. "We were like a family to him. He challenged us to do the best that we could and be the best that we could be."
Newsome, 60, was the second director of the Anacostia Museum, starting in 1991. He had worked as the director of the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture and the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Md., and at libraries at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., the University of Illinois at Chicago and was the curator of the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of African American Literature and History at the Chicago Public Library.
In later years, he served as executive director of the Prince George's County Arts and Humanities Council in Hyattsville, Md., and was the founding director of the Prince George's African American Museum and Cultural Center in North Brentwood, Md.
However, it was at the Anacostia Museum where he made a name for himself.
"He was the museum's second full-time director," Gail Sylvia Lowe, senior historian at the museum, said. "He solidified the museum's role as a cutting edge leader in museology. Through his 13-plus years of leadership at the museum, he enlarged our mission. He sponsored 72 exhibitions and he was a leader in the American museum movement."
Well-known exhibitions included, "To Achieve These Rights: The Struggle for Equality and Self-Determination in the District of Columbia, 1791-1978" from January 1992-July 1992;
"Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater" from March 1993-June 1993; "From Soweto to Anacostia: Art Prints from Fonda Arts Centre" from November 1995-March 1996; and Crowns: Portrait of Black Women in Hats" from December 2003-February 2004. Lowe, 62, said that Newsome always strived for excellence and encouraged his staff to do so, too.
"He wanted the Anacostia Museum to be the guiding light and if that meant that we should seek further professional training, then we should do that," she said. In a series of stories, she said that Newsome pushed his staff to aim high, tell the story of African Americans through art, music, dance and in-depth historical detective work, and have fun, be creative and be a part of the family."
Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage, worked with Newsome over the years on various projects, and called him "a student of the world and he was a gentleman."
Rachelle Brown, an attorney who works with the Smithsonian, talked about the time Newsome used his value system to keep the museum out of legal trouble.
"There was a copyright infringement issue," said Brown, 60. "We used an artist's work without their approval. We hoped that the matter would be ignored and that the artist would never find out."
Brown said that Newsome took a direct approach. He contacted the artist and paid for him to come to the museum, Brown said.
"The artist decided to give the museum the art work," she said.
Newsome's lifetime embrace of the arts was reflected in parts of the program. Psalmayene 24, an actor, performed Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask."
Tenor Duawne Starling sang "The Man Behind the Mask." Singer Nolan Williams Jr. and the Voices of Inspiration performed musical tributes "Done Made My Vow" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" with soprano Frances Brooks.
The crowd was delighted by tap dancer Leo Manzari, a 17-year-old student who attends The Field School in Northwest, and his rendition of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies."
Former D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz and Ralph Everett, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest, counted among the many friends of Newsome who attended the event.
Newsome's daughter, Sanya Newsome, 39, was touched by the tribute.
"For me, he was just pop," she said. "He was super supportive, never judgmental and always just a phone call away. He always encouraged me to be my best self and never be afraid to show that."
Hicks said that Newsome often talked about building an arts retirement community with him and members of the Anacostia Museum.
"Unfortunately, we could not share his dream of that in this life but we will in the next life," he said.