August 28, 2009


Whether it is maudlin thoughts, an acknowledgment of my own mortality, or just an awed recollection of the march of time and history, the death of Sen. Kennedy this week, with the accompanying news footage, brought back vivid images of historical events which I have been blessed to see and experience. Some are monumental events, others local and only created a ripple in the pond. Walk with me.

My earliest recollection of seeing a television was the night my father brought home a set. I don't recall watching it, I was young, but the memory of the excitement my parents shared is burned into my brain. We lived in a room around 14th and Jackson St., N.E. My aunt and uncle lived a block away, over a church for which they were the caretakers. My uncle, Tim, had a big, black car and worked somewhere else during the week, as did my aunt. There are memories of Tim shoveling coal into the furnace, Sister dusting the church and preparing the communion glasses with white grape juice, of which I drank plenty. She'd fill them; I'd go behind and drain them.

They also had a boxer who was my best friend until she snapped at me when I tried to take her food. Maybe that is why I'm not a fan of large dogs to this day. Do you remember roll-away cots? Their home was where the folks from North and South Carolina came to stay until they got on their feet or the visit was over.

My mother and aunt worked for Allied Inn as maids. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected, I was fortunate enough to watch his inaugural parade from one of the rooms at the hotel. I remember being cautioned to stay quiet and hidden because I wasn't supposed to be there. All I know is that I was watching a parade from up high.

Hurricane Hazel, hit D.C., in 1954. I remember looking out of the babysitter's window and watching a huge tree fall in the yard. We'd moved to 2724 11th Street, N.W., by then. Uncle Arthur, my father's brother, and his family lived upstairs; my aunt Irma and her husband, Cleveland, lived across the street. My mother's mother, Cornelia, came to visit and died in Washington, D.C. I remember my mother and her sisters rushing out in the middle of the night. I remember well the train ride back to Cheraw, with packed meals, as the sisters took turns sitting beside the coffin in the baggage car. The wake was held in the front room of the lone sister still in Cheraw. The coffin was placed on, I assume, saw horses and cousin, Gloria, and I knocked it over while playing where we shouldn't have been. My uncle Mac was a frequent visitor. Career military, he'd been wounded in the Korean War. I had no idea of his injury, only that his leg shook and jumped uncontrollably and scared me to death. My brother was born in the mid-50's, and we eventually moved to Columbia Road, after a brief stay with my father's mother, Cornelia, in northeast Washington. Yes, both grandmothers were named Cornelia. There ends the similarity. So my entire life was spent in northwest D.C., with Howard University always within blocks of where we lived.

Streetcars gave way to buses; tree-lined streets were denuded; friendly street lighting gave way to the sterile posts we now know. Neighborhoods were havens for the residents. Everyone knew everyone else and every mother had the right to discipline you, if necessary. Parents knew segregation very well because, while D.C., may have been more enlightened than towns right across the city line, they dealt with it every day. Black attornies worked in the Post Office throwing mail; women were maids to the powerful and proud of it; schools remained segregated even after Brown vs. Board of Education; obtaining a job in the federal government was, then and now, a great achievement. Major department stores such as Garfinkle and Woodward and Lothrop, long gone, didn't allow black shoppers. But they did allow black elevator and telephone operators, stockers, maids. Later, they were hired as salesman.

The Sixties saw the inaugural of President Kennedy. We were glued to the television set. The snow was so deep and piled so high. And his assassination saw me huddled with a group of friends on the Capitol steps trying to get in to view the coffin. Naturally, we hadn't told our parents where we were going and as we neared the steps, after standing in line forever, we had to pull out to go home. Glued to the television, again, as we watched the funeral procession and the caisson make its way to Arlington. The Sixties saw the integration movement come to D.C. Participated in sit-ins, ran from the police. Many Washingtonians deemed it too hot to attend the March on Washington and/or thought that there would be trouble. We watched the speech on television. The death of Martin Luther King was met with rioting and the burning of 14th Street, N.W., and H Street, N.W., the shopping avenues for African-Americans. Those areas are only now being rebuilt and, of course, the demographics of the area has changed drastically. Then the assassination of Robert Kennedy brought more pain and searing images.

The Howard Theater hosted all of the black acts which went on to become famous and those that did not. The movie theaters included the Booker T; the Lincoln, the Republic. My mother and her sisters went to the Booker T Hotel to visit with their cousin, Dizzy Gillespie; to my knowledge the only time during my lifetime. The college years bring memories of Marion Berry when he led Pride, Inc., and demonstrations on Howard's campus. Pledging AKA. Walking to Rock Creek Park, the zoo, downtown, learning tennis and how to swim at Banneker.

The first summer job at the Internal Revenue Service; the second at the Public Housing Administration, later folded into HUD. This turned into the first full time job but I left there to go to school full-time and found myself at the Post Office along with other family members. I'm sure that one of the best decisions I've made was to leave the Post Office even though the money was, oh so, good. I know that my life would have turned out very differently. I've knocked around quite a bit since then, grunt jobs, and important ones. Who would have ever thought that I would work for DAR or Walmart?

Watching the first man walk on the moon. The capture of Gary Powers and the U-2 spy plane. The Vietnam War, watching friends leave, going to USO dances, meeting Lady Bird Johnson, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, attending a Clinton gala, meeting Ron Brown before he became a member of Clinton's cabinet, working in Annapolis meeting past and present U.S. legislators, Kwame Mfume, Al Wynn, and others. Seeing the firsts: Black news commentators; Senator Brooks; Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Justice; Colin Powell, Secretary of State, Condoleza Rice, and others, coming full circle with the election of Pres. Obama, something I never thought I'd live to see. The assassination attempt on Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan, the murder of Anwar Sadat. And more.

So I'm blessed. I've been allowed to live during a great time and see great things. I can only imagine how my ancestors felt as they experienced the many changes in their lifetime. I'm looking toward the future. What about you?

No comments: