A few things I learned in DC

Sam Smith – On Thursday I take part in a zoom conference on the late DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson. If you don’t live in DC and haven’t heard of Julius Hobson don’t be surprised. What happens at the local level in America’s capital colony is of little interest to the media and, as a result, to the public in general.

In fact, Hobson should be considered one of the most admirable civil rights activists in modern America. He played a major role in desegregating the DC school system and hospitals, led 80 picket lines at retail stores resulting in 5,000 new black jobs, achieved the first hiring of black bus drivers and auto salesmen. And he launched the effort for DC statehood.. As he put it once, ““My experience leads me to the conclusion that discussion is not as effective as direct action.”

In preparing for the Hobson conference, I found my mind drifting off to questions such as how did I spend five decades as part of the white minority of Washington so comfortable with the ethnic character of the city given the current national angst about the topic? I  came up with no single answer that convinced me, but came up with some random notes that might be worth sharing:

Washington’s black history goes back to its beginning. And while it was part of the south, with slavery and later segregation, it was different than much of the south. For example, segregation did not apply in certain places such as libraries and public transit and, in fact, blacks had to move to the back of a streetcar when it crossed the river to the deeper southern state of Virginia. Black slaves in Washington were sometimes warned that if they misbehaved they could be sent further south.

Twenty percent of blacks in Washington were free as early as 1800. This percentage would grow with many free blacks getting government jobs. In the 1960s, working with Marion Barry, I became aware of the hostility of some older black residents towards young black activists who were threatening the status they had established with the white government. But if you studied this older subset you also found a remarkable heritage of cultural survival. 

As Frederick Gooding Jr argues in his book, American Dream Deferred, Washington blacks had not only gained a large number of jobs with the federal government, they were also involved in a long struggle for equity in pay and rights within that government. And he quotes Franklin Frazier as observing that due to the “large numbers of Negroes employed in the federal government, Negroes in the nation’s capital had incomes far above those in other parts of the country.” Yet it was still a struggle. Gooding reports that “The irony was that many blacks, after having migrated to the nation’s capital to escape abject poverty, constant social slights, and fear of instability, found themselves in curiously similar employment positions they would have occupied had they stayed in the South (e.g., janitorial service, lawn maintenance)—even though they had federal jobs.”

The 1960s DC activists – such as Hobson and Barry – were leaders of change, not just protesters. They had a clear agenda of what they wanted. Julius was a major example. The leaders organized by issues and were not unhappy to have whites in the effort. And whether it was statehood, an end to freeway construction, or some other cause, you knew what the goal was.. And the city was changing. By 1970 it was 71% black.

When DC finally got some home rule, nine of the first 13 city councilmembers were activists, a new establishment of former rebels. . Washington would have black mayors for the next 45 years.

I took part in Marion Barry’s  early boycott of the transit system because of a planned fare  raise. Tens of thousands stayed off trollies and buses that day. I was one of them, driving 75 folks, black and white, to their destinations.. After reading my article about the protest, Barry, head of the DC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, came to my apartment and asked me to help him on media issues. Which is how a young white guy who had never protested anything before started working with one of the town’s leading activists.

Even though the SNCC national head, Stokely Carmichael, came to town and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement, locally it didn’t happen like that. Admittedly, Barry and I eventually fell apart over his positions and activities as mayor. He told a friend, “Sam’s a cynical cat” but coming from Barry I considered that an honor not a slap..

DC had a black college – now Howard University – in 1867. During segregation many Howard graduates couldn’t get teaching jobs and some ended up teaching in DC public schools. America’s soon to be first black vice president went to Howard as did Julius Hobson.

Barry had master’s degree in chemistry. Hobson was working on a masters in economics Barry was completing his doctoral studies at the University of Tennessee when he decided to leave and help start SNCC, where one early meeting included 126 student delegates from 19 colleges, They had the skills but lacked the opportunities that should have come with them and decided to do someeting about it.

Multiculturalism was not strange to DC. Both Julius Hobson and Hilda Mason, another key activist leader, had white spouses. The classic DC civil rights activist – Frederick Douglass – not only had a white wife, it is said  by a number of historians that he also had a white father and some native American blood. Further, as Wikipedia notes:

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, be they white, black, female, Native American, or Chinese immigrants.  He was also a believer in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides… When radical abolitionists, under the motto “No Union with Slaveholders,” criticized Douglass’ willingness to engage in dialogue with slave owners, he replied: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

This spirit survived in DC, witness the big anti-freeway movement that was started by black and white middle class homeowners, unlikely sorts to become activists. During this effort I attended a rally that had only two speakers, a pin stripe suited white Grosvenor Chapman from Georgetown and Reginald Booker, who led a group called Niggers Incorporated. When I saw them, I said to myself, “We’re going to win” – and we did.

DC also has a large number of black Catholics. In 1949 – five years before Brown v. Board of Education – Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle integrated the city’s Catholic schools. One of my friends with Irish roots remembers that while he was there, his basketball team could only play Catholic schools or black public schools. According to one study, an “African-American eighth-grader in a D.C. Catholic school performs better in math than 72 percent of his or her public school peers.”

Part of the story of places like DC is that blacks and whites – even under segregation – lived close enough physically to learn each other’s sins and virtues. One example of this was Odessa Madre, the nearest DC ever had as a mob boss, a black woman who controlled drugs, prostitution and numbers. She also ran the Club Madre that featured performers like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  Part of her success was that she had grown up near Irish kids some of whom became the city’s cops. The Washington Post reported that “Madre had even bragged to a reporter a few years ago that at one time she had so many police officers on her payroll that she ‘practically ran that damn police department.’”  And the Post quoted a retired vice squad police officer who said, “”She loaned a lot of needy people money, as well as provided contacts for gambling and drugs… She knew practically every big-time gangster nationwide. She was what they call a counselor in the mob. She mediated disputes between blacks and whites, a referee. She kept a lot of people from getting hurt.”

There were so many blacks in DC that the term meant less. Were you talking about blacks in Anacostia, Adams Morgan, or upper 16th Street? A black lawyer, cab driver, or artist? Which brings to mind the story of the Washington Post black journalist who was mowing the lawn in front of his house. A white  guy drove by, stopped his car, and called out the window, ‘What do you get for mowing lawns?” Replied the journalist, “I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”

In DC there was no way to talk about ethnicity without someone saying, “Yes, but .” and telling you something different. I learned that over a half century ago when a black Howard University professor told me about integrating a bowling team. The problem was that now he felt he had to go bowling whether he wanted to or not. What he was really fighting for, he realized, was the right to be as bad a bowler as everyone else. He was seeking a decent normalcy.

These random notes suggest a place that has handled ethnic relations differently than many of the stories you read or hear today. There are other towns with similar tales, but together they don’t create enough of a crisis  to make the evening news. Still, in the end, good ethnic relations are not just about ending chokeholds but also about creating real communities…like DC.

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