from first controller to feet of puppet: 57 7/8 in. (147 cm)
This eight-string marionette was made by William N. Buckner, Jr. (1888-1984), a 1907 graduate of M Street High School, the renowned public school for African Americans in Washington, DC’s segregated system later renamed for poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dressed as a dancer, the marionette serves as an example of M Street’s innovative instruction, which produced prominent leaders in the District and beyond, from educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs to civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston. Integrated into the school’s academic and vocational offerings was an arts curriculum developed by visionary art educator Thomas W. Hunster (1851-1929) and supported by Principal Anna J. Cooper (1858-1964). Students learned not only to observe and draw their surroundings—from classrooms supplied with live plants and animals to buildings in the nation’s capital, but also to plan and then realize projects, such as laying a wooden floor or producing a puppet show.
Buckner continued to use skills honed at M Street throughout his life as an artist and educator. After graduating, he attended Minor Normal School, which trained teachers for the city’s Black public schools, and later earned degrees at Howard and Columbia universities. He served for forty-seven years as an educator, primarily in District schools, though also at Howard, before retiring as principal of Armstrong Vocational High School in 1957. His colleagues were also his artistic peers, including painters Kenn Simpson, a Dunbar graduate who taught at Kelly Miller Junior High as well as Roosevelt and Woodson High Schools (2014.0027.0001), and Alma W. Thomas, an Armstrong alum who taught art at Shaw Junior High School for thirty-five years before becoming the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art (1990.0063.0002). Like them, Buckner participated continuously in the city’s art community, for example, by serving as an art show juror, or judge, alongside artists like Thomas, James A. Porter (2001.0003.0009), and James Lesesne Wells (2014.0018.0001).
Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution