photo by Barry Margeson

Eleanor Drabo

Since 1991, artist and college history professor Eleanor Drabo has sold jewelry under the name Drabo Gallery at Eastern Market's weekend outdoor operation.

Market Manager Barry Margeson interviewed her as part of the larger celebration of the Market's 150th anniversary year. She tells how she and her husband Ibrahim Drabo originally came to Eastern Market after having first worked at Georgetown Market. She enthusiastically describes the camaraderie that exists among the highly diverse group of outdoor vendors, especially after the disastrous 2007 fire. Her life story includes her work teaching in study abroad programs and what she experienced in the World Trade Center's first tower on September 11, 2001.

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Interview Date
May 24, 2023
Barry Margeson
Barry Margeson
Bernadette McMahon

Full Directory

Interview with Eleanor Drabo
Interview Date: May 24, 2023
Interviewer: Barry Margeson
Transcriber: Barry Margeson
Editor: Bernadette McMahon

photo by Barry Margeson

[Interview contributed as part of 2023’s Eastern Market 150th birthday celebrations.]

This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

This interview of an Eastern Market vendor was done by the Market Manager during the 2023 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Market’s founding. The transcript was entrusted to the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project to contribute to the project’s mission of “[giving] our neighborhood a better knowledge of its past and a deeper understanding of the everyday lives of its citizens.”
Eleanor Drabo of Drabo Gallery has been selling her jewelry on the North Hall Plaza of Eastern Market since 1991.

MARGESON: How did you get started in art?
DRABO: I originally went to Hunter College for Art in New York City and was an acrylic painter and a collagist. Then I switched over to history. I’ve continued to work in both art and history to this day.
Just out of school, I worked for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Education Department, and then at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In 1975, during the United Nations international year of the woman, I had several exhibitions of my work in New York City. There are people, in New York City especially, who only know me as a painter.
Then I began on the faculty of City University of New York specializing in Ancient African Civilizations, African History to the Present and African-American History. Just like the people who only know me as a painter, there are others who only know me only as a professor of history.
Even outside of my work at CUNY, I do regular presentations on these subjects. Last year, I spoke three times for the National Park Service on the subject of the African-American burial grounds in New York City. On Juneteenth, for example, I will speak at Federal Hall on Wall Street.
MARGESON: You’ve spent a lot of time in West Africa and your husband [Ibrahim Drabo] is from Senegal. Is there a connection?
DRABO: I came to DC as a graduate student and my first time going to West Africa was in 1972. I took six credits as a study abroad student in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Benin.
I met my husband in the United States, actually, after I had just came back from teaching on a study abroad program in Senegal in 1981. A friend of mine from the Caribbean introduced me to him on a blind date and we got married a month or two later. We’ve been married for 41 years now.
We got married at City Hall before the time of direct deposit. It was a Friday and right after we got married, I said, “Well, I gotta go because it’s payday and I need to get my check so I can pay bills.”
We have three sons who are 40, 36 and 33 years old. All three were born on Roosevelt Island in New York City. When we relocated to DC, they were age one, four, and eight.
(Smiles) Essentially, I’m a tale of two cities in the United States, New York and Washington DC.
MARGESON: When did you first come to Eastern Market?
DRABO: It was 1991, and my husband and I and the boys were at the Georgetown Market for a couple of months. And a customer told us about the Eastern Market. So we checked it out and found it to be very interesting. At the time I wasn’t selling any jewelry. My husband was selling paintings and sculpture directly from artists in West Africa.
MARGESON: Can you tell me about the fire?
DRABO: The fire in 2007 was a really difficult period for all of us. But what I discovered was just how resilient all of the vendors are. I remember that the morning after, vendors showed up at five or six in the morning. Here was the market in full blaze and the vendors showed up in support and stood strong while we dealt with the firemen and the whole idea of what’s next and what’s going to happen to the market. There was a huge sense of camaraderie. The vendors were very steadfast in their commitment to keep the market going against all odds. There was this feeling that the market simply cannot be destroyed. A desire to take action with determination, in order to ensure that there was continuity. There was a lot of communication, so much shock that we all were trying to put our heads together to determine what we could do in a more unified manner. I don’t recall tears in peoples’ eyes or emotional breakdowns. It was an immediate sense that we needed to figure out what was to be done next.
MARGESON: I saw you with Gail from Clothes Encounters the other day. It’s always so interesting to learn about the connections that people have with others at the market.
DRABO: Gail and I call each other sisters from another mother and father. (Laughs)
I love diversity and Eastern Market is one of the purest examples of social, economic, and cultural diversity. If someone wanted to take a course in ethnicity or ethnic studies, they should come to Eastern Market. Not only because of the different vendors coming from all over the world, but the ability for people to see what all of those vendors bring to the table and how we interact and how we interconnect. And I think that all of this is very key to the success of the market.
Sometimes, when I meet with customers, I realize that this may be the first time that they’ve ever interacted with different people from different cultures in the world.
Just by picking up a piece of art from someone’s table and asking about it you learn so much about the culture and the origins of the vendor you’re connecting with. Each time a customer comes to the market, if they spend time with the vendors, they can end up feeling as though they have traveled around the world and back. I certainly often feel that way.
And it’s not the cliché of “Can’t we all just get along,” … we actually function this way. This is how we work together at the market, which is great. I think it’s one of the most beautiful aspects of the market. And it’s the same as when I first began at the market.
It’s a wonderful example of people from all over the world receiving people from all over the world.
Back when I began, Saturdays were only artist and crafters and Sundays were arts and crafts plus anything goes. Which meant arts and crafts and, antiques, vintage, plus this and that.
And even with that, it was culturally diverse. The infrastructure of the market has always been that way.
And I continue to go to New York City twice a week, but there were times when I would go three times a week. That was when I was the head of the ethnic studies department at Manhattan Community College. I stepped down from that position right after 9/11. Then I came back because they needed someone to teach some courses.
MARGESON: I remember you telling me once that you were in New York City when the twin towers collapsed.
DRABO: I was in the first tower when the first tower was on fire. It was a Tuesday and I had to go to a chairpersons’ meeting. I pulled right up into the tower on a train. So I was in the basement when the first plane hit the first tower. When I came out of the World Trade Center, I could hear the bells ringing like it was a fire drill. I was on the ground so I didn’t have all the information like someone who is watching CNN. And once I got out into the street, I kept on walking away from it. It was like there was a fire, but you didn’t know for sure. The college was only a block and a half away from the trade center and I called the Dean and I said something strange is going on. and he said, don’t come in, keep on walking, everything’s canceled. So I started walking further north away from it, and by the time I walked from that area to Canal [Street], the second plane was getting ready to hit the second tower, and the first tower was crumbling down. It was unbelievable and your brain doesn’t necessarily allow you to absorb all of this at one time. New York City people are pretty numb to craziness, so people were saying this is made for TV or this is part of the movie. And then there was another extreme of people asking whether this is World War III. And it started to sink in when people came covered in dust and smoke and crazy things started happening. Like city buses driving on sidewalks.
It was my first son‘s first year in college, and he was down in North Carolina and didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. I contracted that firemen’s cough and had it for a year and a half or two years after. In fact, when I first started back at school, I had to get an assistant because I didn’t have a voice. It was frustrating too, because I went to different hospitals and there was a certain amount of cynicism. People said, for example, you should feel lucky to be alive, it’ll come back, and it’ll be all right. I never really got coverage for it, and now I am filling out tons of forms in New York. Now! How late is that? Other professors are also getting contacted and compensation will probably come 15 years from now (Laughs). You know how that goes. It’s very draining.
But I kept coming to Eastern Market. In fact, the only time that I took a break from Eastern Market, other than the fire and Covid, was the summer, the many months that I spent abroad in West Africa. For about 10 years in a row, I taught study abroad programs in West Africa. I’ve taught study abroad in Egypt as well as about 10 years in Senegal. And come back around and I would always leave in about June and come back about the last week in August.
That was from about 1992 to 2001. After the World Trade Center fiasco, I stopped teaching study abroad. It was hard for me to convince the parents of college students that it was OK to travel. People were paranoid about traveling anywhere; for years after that they didn’t want to go anywhere.
For the study abroad courses, I taught anywhere from 15 to 20 students who spent six weeks abroad. The students did research papers and exams, and it fulfilled their social science requirements.
MARGESON: Are there any people whom you miss, especially who have moved or died over the past many years that you’ve been at the market?
DRABO: Thigpen really got me when he passed on. That was really a blow. I loved his personality. [Chris Thigpen was a vendor at Eastern Market and owner of Pure Shea Store. He passed away May 1, 2023.]
Over the years, there’ve always been wonderful customers who’ll come by and ask me if I’m cold, or would like a tea or a coffee. Or they buy something from the farmers and say oh this is so good don’t you want a bite of this? And I would think oh yeah, let’s share this moment.
I remember when there was the Friendship House festival with one stage at one end of the street and the other stage at the other. That was always fun.
I always enjoyed it when Bill Alfred used to play his music indoors and children would dance, and he let them bang on his keyboard.
Senator Mark Kelly, who was an astronaut, and is a senator in Arizona. He bought earrings for his wife from me. That was touching. They both were there and she walked away with some people, and he came back and said I really want to get some earrings for my wife. And I said, really???
And I was commissioned to create a pair of earrings for Michelle Obama. It was on the occasion where the first lady came to Children’s Hospital and read to the children. The first ladies are always given a gift on that day. That year, she was given my earrings.
My husband used to go to the market at midnight to get a spot. He’s the one who put me out on the street in the first place. He put me out on the corner. (Laughs)
I give him a lot of credit. He has always been the backbone of my ability to progress in any way that I have. He adds richness to what I’m doing. We go places and look at art together. For every time that I’ve had to run up to New York and believe me, I’ve been on the 3 AMs and the 4 AMs, it’s been my husband is taking care of the boys. He’s helped me line up speakers, and the study abroad program in Senegal. I remember one time I went to Brazil to conduct research on a historical analysis of racism in Brazil at the Federal University of Bahia. And my husband stayed here and took care of my sons while I was in Brazil for two months. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for Ibrahim. If it weren’t for him, everything that I’ve told you I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish.