Historic Downtown Call Boxes Are Now Mini-Museums To Famous Women Eight of the structures now house the stories of women who made history in the city.
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Historic Downtown Call Boxes Are Now Mini-Museums To Famous Women

Mary Church Terrell was a suffragist and civil rights activist who was part of a Supreme Court Case that outlawed discrimination in D.C. businesses. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU

Eight call boxes in downtown D.C. now house the stories of women who made history in the city.

Local artist Charles Bergen retrofitted each call box with a cast-iron sculpture of a notable woman and a plaque that tells her story, then repainted the structures in bright colors. Some of the call boxes also have metal sculptures on top that symbolize the subject's accomplishments.

Suffragist Alice Stokes Paul co-founded the National Woman's Party in 1916. Her call box stands at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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"In D.C., while there are lots of sculptures of men and allegorical sculptures of women, there are not many sculptures of actual, real women that you can put a name to," Bergen told WAMU when he received the commission last year. The $177,000 project was organized and funded by the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities and the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.

Josephine Dorothy Butler co-founded the D.C. Statehood Party in 1971 and helped desegregate the city's schools. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Bergen worked with urban historian Mara Cherkasky of Prologue DC to select women to profile. They landed on eight women from a variety of fields including music, education, journalism and community activism. Interns from the city's Marion Barry summer youth employment program helped out with the designs.

The call box for Katherine Graham at 15th and L Streets NW highlights her leadership at The Washington Post. She was the paper's longtime publisher. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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The cast-iron call boxes were part of an early emergency alert system that dates back to the 19th century, before telephones and two-way radios. They're still all over the city, but they haven't been in use since the 1970s.

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," is memorialized inside a call box at 14th and F Streets NW. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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The D.C. fire department began installing red call boxes around the time of the Civil War. If a person saw a fire, he or she would break the closest call box's glass, open a door, a pull a fire alarm lever that would trigger a series of underground wires to transmit the alarm to a central office. From there, a telegraph system would tap out the box number for an operator, who would then dispatch fire trucks to its location. Easy!

The police department followed suite in the 1880s. Police officers used blue call boxes to check in with their precincts.

Flora Rollins Molton was a a gospel singer who played slide guitar on the streets of D.C. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU

In recent years a number of neighborhood associations and business improvement districts have transformed the call boxes into public art or historical markers. Bergen refashioned six call boxes on Rhode Island Avenue in 2017 with art themed to the neighborhood, and 145 call boxes got makeovers between 2000 and 2009 as part of a Cultural Tourism DC project called Art on Call.

Born into slavery in Virginia, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley bought her freedom and became a seamstress in Washington, where she had clients like First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Unlike the new call boxes, most of D.C.'s statues are of white men and people who are not from this region. Of the more than 100 statues in the District, about a half-dozen are of American women. Of those, only one depicts a woman of color — Mary McLeod Bethune in Capitol Hill's Lincoln Park.

Alma Woodsey Thomas began painting in earnest in 1960, when she retired from her four-decade career as a D.C. public school art teacher. She would go on to become a major painter of the Washington Color Field School. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU

The women featured in the project are: Alice Stokes Paul (14th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW), Alma Woodsey Thomas (13th and G St. NW), Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (Vermont and K St. NW), Josephine Butler (14th and K St. NW), Katherine Graham (15th and L St. NW), Flora Rollins Molton (13th and G St. NW), Mary Church Terrell (14th and G St. NW), and Julia Ward Howe (14th and F St. NW).

The sculpture atop Alice Paul's call box shows a women's march, like the Woman Suffrage Parade Paul helped organize in 1913. Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU hide caption

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Mikaela Lefrak/WAMU

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