CommunityHamil R. Harris

Cherry Blossom Festival Concludes with Stars on Made-for-TV Event

Even though COVID-19 stood in the way of a parade down Constitution Avenue, the National Cherry Blossom Festival captured a national television audience in a big way on ABC with plenty of stars and local events brought into living rooms all over.

Co-hosted by Drew Barrymore and ABC’s Alison Starling, there were appearances from Amy Grant, CeCe Winans, LeAnn Rimes, Norm Lewis, Lindsey Stirling, Samantha Diaz, and Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi.

Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, made sure that the 2021 Cherry Blossom Festival took place with events beginning on March 20 and ending Sunday, April 11.

“In keeping with the festival tradition, we will unite the city and the region, engaging local businesses and restaurants,” Mayhew said at the start of the virtual festival this year. “And, we will be in bloom with pink lighting and blossom decor, including neighborhood portraits this year.”

Japanese Ambassador Tomita Koji characterized the Cherry blossoms as “the symbol of the unshakeable friendship between Japan and the United States,” and he hailed District officials for “keeping the spirit (of the festival) alive despite the pandemic.”

But there might not be a Cherry Blossom festival without the tenacity of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a world-class photographer and travel writer who called the trees “the most beautiful thing in the world.”

At a time when the grounds around the Tidal Basin were a muddy swamp, Scidmore, the first female writer and photographer for National Geographic, developed a vision while visiting Japan to use that country’s cherry blossom trees to beautify land in Washington D.C. In 1890, she joined the National Geographic Society for even a higher platform.

She developed a relationship with First Lady Helen Taft, wife of President William Howard Taft.  In 1912 she attended the small private ceremony at which Mrs. Taft planted the first Japanese cherry tree in Potomac Park.

“It was only after my return from a first visit to Japan after seeing the old cherry trees, in their glory, that any idea moved me,” Scidmore wrote, and in another story, she said, “Except Fujiyama and the moon, no other object has been the theme and inspiration of so many millions of Japanese poems as the cherry blossoms.”

Jokichi Takamine, a chemist and a friend of Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, came to Washington to tell Mrs. Taft formally that a gift of 1,000 trees from the city of Tokyo were on their way.

The first 2,000 trees, shipped in 1910, were infested with scale, insects, larvae “and whatnot,” according to Scidmore, who added that the trees were burned.

On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Viscountess Chinda, planted the first trees between the drive and the Tidal Basin. Fairchild and Scidmore attended the ceremony.

Scidmore said she “got a word in for having a row of Yoshino, the earliest blooming variety, planted along the Tidal Basin where they might be reflected in the water, as becomes certain Sakuras. A whole 1,200 of the 1,800 Yoshino were put there.

A few cherry trees were planted on the White House grounds, one in Lafayette Square, and some given to Rock Creek Park. Some 1,500 trees were crowded in rows in sort of a nursery reserve at the corner of 17th and B Streets. Two hundred Legacy Cherry Blossom trees were planted in Oxon Run Park in Southeast in the early 2000s.

And around the Tidal Basin, the trees flourished, both in the ground and in the hearts of Washingtonians. They were so cherished that when, in 1938, Congress voted to remove some of the trees to build the Jefferson Memorial, men and women representing D.C. clubs marched on the White House in protest.

“Clubwomen who molest workmen transplanting Japanese cherry trees to make way for the Jefferson Memorial may be transplanted themselves,” wrote the New York Times, reporting the demonstration with a touch of levity.

According to the article, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in response to the protest, “the cherry trees, the women and their chains would be gently but firmly transplanted in some other part of Potomac Park.”

Scidmore died in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 3, 1928, at the age of 72. Her grave is at the Yokohama Foreign Cemetery, Yokohama, Japan next to the graves of her mother and brother.

While Scidmore is buried in Japan, the Cherry Blossom festivals are still going and remain in the hearts of District residents who cherish the blossoms as much as the Washington Monument.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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