Washington's Black History in Miniature: Norma Adkins' Dioramas

While interviewing Petworth resident Karen Abbott for the 2021 “Celebrate Petworth” Festival, the Humanities Truck filmed a series of videos featuring dioramas made by her mother, Norma Adkins, in the early 1970s following her retirement. Born in Washington DC and raised in Georgetown, Norma attended Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, Armstrong High School, and D.C. Teachers College. Karen is also a native Washingtonian who has lived in Petworth on Hamilton Ave. for 50 years. 

The basement of this Petworth house functioned as Norma’s diorama studio, and where her dioramas are kept today. Her workshop consisted of a card table, a kiln, a sewing machine, and a cabinet of supplies. The diorama figurines were molded from sculpey clay, and Norma used a toothpick to give each figure distinctive facial features to resemble her friends, family members, or—as Karen described— “people that you might know.” She also acquired accoutrements, like pieces of furniture and props, from collaborating with her miniature club. In addition to making clothing for dioramas and furnishing doll houses, Karen noted that Norma was a skilled seamstress who made all of Karen’s clothes and robes for church choirs. 

In this brief interview, Karen Abbott describes how her mother, Norma Adkins, who was raised in Georgetown, made dioramas in the basement of their house in Petworth in the early 1970s following her retirement.

The Dioramas

The eleven dioramas filmed here depict a variety of scenes from Norma’s life as a native Washingtonian, including a church choir singing at Brentwood AME Zion Church, her grandmother’s house in Georgetown on 27th and N St., Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, and a park in Petworth on the corner of Hamilton St. and Illinois Ave. The clothing store, jazz club, pool hall, and wedding celebration reflect other spaces of community and social interaction. Other scenes, like the slave auction and freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad—may have been inspired by stories Norma heard as a child.

 In the videos below, Karen narrates each scene and offers insight into her mother’s craft and their family’s history. In the past, Norma exhibited her dioramas at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library as part of Black History Week.

Georgetown Kitchen

Karen’s mother captured her grandmother’s kitchen in her house in Georgetown at 27 and N St. Karen believes the two children may be her mother and her brother, making the woman standing by the stove her grandmother, and the man in the chair her grandfather. Karen shares her own memories of this kitchen, where she was bathed in the old washtub. “Georgetown was home,” Karen states, and her mother was devastated when her grandmother sold the house in the 1950s, one sale of many prompted by and part of the neighborhood’s gentrification.

Church Choir

Karen Abbott describes this diorama depicting a church choir, likely worshipping in the Brentwood AME Zion Church. The minister stands at the pulpit while the choir and piano player— Norma’s friend and Karen’s godmother—lead the congregation in song. According to Karen, this diorama was one of her mother’s favorites.

Nia's Birthday

Karen Abbott describes this scene, titled “Nia’s Birthday,” adding that birthdays were a special holiday for her mother. A little girl, Nia, receives presents from her mother and father in their kitchen, where a cake has been prepared for the celebration.


Karen Abbott describes this diorama of an outdoor wedding featuring the bride, her parents, and an elaborate wedding cake. The bride is preparing to throw her bouquet as her parents rejoice.

Slave Auction

Karen Abbott discusses this diorama scene depicting a slave auction, where three enslaved persons in chains are being sold to white buyers while another enslaved man begs for their freedom. Each figure in the diorama is made from stockings and sculpey clay.

Underground Railroad

Karen Abbott surmises that her mother may have rendered this scene of enslaved persons escaping on the Underground Railroad by drawing from a story she was told as a child. Men, women, and children are bundled in clothes to prepare for their journey, and Karen sees prayer, joy, and fear etched on their faces and evident through their figures.


Karen Abbott describes this classroom scene as inspired by her mother’s attendance at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Georgetown. Her teacher, Mrs. Day is featured here, as is one male classmate who she remembered as frequently disruptive: he is captured turning around in his seat.

Jazz Club, "Our Haven" Park, Pool Hall, and Clothing Store

A performance in a jazz club. The singer—who Karen believes may resemble Roberta Flack—is accompanied by a trio of musicians.

 “Our Haven” park, located on the corner of Illinois and Hamilton St. in Petworth, where unhoused persons slept in the 1960s and 70s. A woman with her belongings in a shopping cart and an inebriated man under a tree occupy the park in this scene.

A pool hall in Georgetown where men gathered to play pool, gamble, and drink together. The cards and broken chairs on the floor are evidence of the arguments and brawls that broke out regularly in the pool hall.

A clothing store during Christmastime. Karen calls attention to the cashier, the husband waiting while his wife shops, and details like the hat rack, purse, and gloves on the counter.

Thanks to Karen Abbott, Angie Whitehurst, Dan Kerr, Katy Shenk, and Caroline Morales for their contributions to this project.

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