Sam Smith, 2002 – In the early 1990s, Ernest White asked me to be a regular guest on his TV show otherwise comprised of African-American journalists. During a time in which that I was being isolated from my own culture, another had welcomed me. It would have been an unblemished pleasure had not the black city served by the program been under severe attack. A combination of a fiscal embargo by Congress and fiscal mismanagement by the local government would soon lead to a federal takeover of DC and the largest de facto disenfranchisement of American voters since the days of Jim Crow.
The show really had viewers. One day, a DHL guy delivering a package to my office gave me a second look and said, “Didn’t you used to be on TV talking about DC?” It led to a long discussion about the sad state of the city and how hard it was to find any discussion of it on the airwaves. On other days people would stop me on the street and just start talking about the city as though we had always known each other.
The television station was owned by the University of DC, the land grant campus that served as an educational underground railroad for the neglected and forgotten young of the city. The fiscal problems of the Washington had already hit UDC. The elevators could no longer be relied upon; it was wiser to walk the four flights up to the studio. The air-conditioning in the studio became unreliable and finally one night the station manager told us they could no longer afford to continue the show. In our place, the station began running stock footage from NASA.
The faculty protested the budget cuts and the students tried to rebel and even blocked busy Connecticut Avenue one day. But the city and its politicians failed to respond and the president of the university, a weak man of colonial sensibility, went to the White House and sat silently as other heads of black colleges futilely made what should have been his case.
After the TV show was canceled, Ernest asked me to appear weekly on his radio program, Cross Talk, an outlet for those seldom heard in this capital of power and pretense. Ernest and I got along well. One day we were discussing Marion Barry’s revival as a mayoral candidate. “I’m all for redemption,” I told him, “but I don’t see why it has to be carried out in the mayor’s office.” I then described an Irish bishop who had resigned when a long-ago affair with a woman had been revealed. He had gone off to tend the Indians in the Guatemalan mountains. That, I suggested with a straight face, was a good model for Marion. The thought of Marion Barry taking care of Guatemalan Indians was too much for Ernest who broke up completely.
A couple of years later, after the university’s faculty had been slashed still more and the public relations and alumni affairs offices had been closed and the water cooler was no longer being stocked, the station manager came in one day and told us to make the show a good one because it was to be our last. The university was preparing to sell the station in order to help cover its deficit. Just one mile to the west was Radio Free Ward 3 — WAMU, the public radio station of affluent Washington with its pristine studios and prissy paradigms. Somewhere in that mile crossed the city’s fault line.
At first it appeared that a Christian sect would buy WDCU, but the deal fell through. Eventually the station was purchased by the Shrine of the Immaculate Center, C-Span, allowing the city’s establishment to hear still more affirmation of its pet paradigms.
I wrote later, “Cross Talk on WDCU has gone off the air after fifteen years. The show’s demise had been run by guest hosts since the recent serious illness of longtime host and maximum Washington spirit, Ernest White. Ernest called in the last day, and I told him the truth, which was that in the forty years I had been around broadcasting, I had never had a finer time then when working with him.
“Before Cross Talk, when I was one of the commentators on Channel 19’s Ernest White Show, I used to call myself the “real earnest white on the Ernest White Show.” Towards the end, Adrienne Washington and Jerry Phillips and I started to mix it up. One viewer wrote: “After the rather lively discussion on crime . . . it suddenly dawned on me that Sam Smith and Adrienne are married and Jerry is Sam Smith’s dad. Just listening to the interactions between the three of you reminded me of a few discussions I had with my ex-wife and my own dad. Those were heady days, but I’m sure glad they’re over though. So Ms. Washington, tell that wonderful husband of yours that you both have to nip these strong emotional responses toward one another in the bud. Don’t’ be afraid of marital counseling, either.'”
As the station disintegrated so did White – with AIDS, drugs and alcohol. A man who had been one of the few true links in a fractured city was spotted begging for change outside the annual dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy wrote:
“White had been one of black Washington’s most treasured resources . . . For White to end up unemployed, homeless and begging on the street gave the phrase ‘disposable society’ a painful new face. White had helped hundreds of people. During one of his many on-air Thanksgiving fund-raisers for the homeless, he received a telephone call from a woman who said she had been on the verge of committing suicide but had changed her mind after hearing him play a song of salvation. After the show, White took the woman several bags of food and clothes, then talked her into surrendering her life to God.
“Now, at age 52, White himself is in trouble. A viral infection in one leg left him in a wheelchair, and his descent into alcohol and drugs was so stunningly swift that nobody really knew how to help him. Efforts to provide him with temporary shelter, food and clothes did not amount to much, for none of those things could ultimately address the spiritual crisis in which he was embroiled. A month ago, after being kicked out of a local motel for having undesirable guests, he moved into the Randolph Shelter in Southwest Washington, where he now wages nightly battles with lice, rats and crack addicts.”
As White was falling apart, the city he had loved was being bullied, squeezed, and demoralized by the federal takeover. Schools would be closed, health clinics eliminated, inmates sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to privatized gulags. A form of socio-economic cleansing was underway, only with budget cutbacks and tax policy rather than with land mines and rifles. The corporatist technocrats of both parties wanted Washington rich and free of human reminders of the failure of their inhuman policies. They wanted a Singapore on the Potomac.
In Ernest’s obituary in the Post, Claudia Levy wrote:
“Mr. White’s friends, including a number of journalists whose careers he helped, said they tried to help him in turn but were frustrated at his inability to cope. He stayed at homeless shelters and motels but mainly lived on the streets.”
A few days ago, Ernest Percell White Jr passed. He had given so much life to the city but died a lonely metaphor for its own slow disintegration.