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“What And Why We Celebrate Today”: In Washington, D.C., Reminders Of America’s Dark History Of Segregation

We are in the waning hours of African American History month — the time set aside each year to reflect on black struggles and sacrifices to achieve America’s promise.

My recognition of African American contributions began in the 1940s with annual celebrations of Negro History Week at Stevens Elementary School in my West End/Foggy Bottom community. Our nation’s capital is also where I experienced first-hand America’s shame.

Liberty Baptist Sunday school taught me the Ten Commandments. Civil authority in the city taught me the others.

Among them: Thou shalt not attend Grant Elementary School on G Street NW, which was for white children only. Thou shalt not attempt to enter the Circle Theater at 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where only whites were allowed. Thou shalt never think about dining downtown.

Thou can purchase sodas and sandwiches at the drugstore at the corner of 25th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But thou shalt not sit and eat. Thou must stand at the end of the counter and wait patiently to be recognized.

Ah, Washington of my youth — a place and time when skin color determined where you lived, attended school, worshiped and worked, and how much you got paid.

I learned that lesson as a teenager looking for part-time work. Pick up the Jan. 3, 1960, edition of The Post and what do you see?:

“BOYS-WHITE Age 14 to 18. To assist Route manager full or part-time. Must be neat in appearance. Apply 1346 Conn. Ave. NW.”

“DRIVERS (TRUCK) Colored, for trash routes, over 25 years of age; paid vacation, year-around work; must have excellent driving record. Apply . . . 1601 W St., N.E.”

“STUDENTS Boys, white, 14 yrs. and over, jobs immediately available. Apply . . . 724 9th St., N.W.”

Simply stated: If you’re black, git back.

In our anger and humiliation we turned to Negro History Week to celebrate black achievers such as Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Charles R. Drew, Matthew Henson, Ralph Bunche and Joe Louis.

Even as we annually paid homage to our black champions and their victories, we remained in the vise grip of segregation.

From a 1948 “Segregation in Washington” report: “Only 30 percent of the residents of the District of Columbia are Negroes,” the report said. “But Negroes have 70 per cent of the slum residents.”

It was no accident, said Wendell E. Pritchett of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who explained in a 2005 paper how the system functioned.

“This system of segregation was imposed by powerful interests, particularly those in the real estate sector,” he wrote. “The 1948 Washington Real Estate Board Code of Ethics stated that ‘no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised or offered to colored people.’ ”

“Segregation was maintained by residents’ associations, which had organized into the powerful Federation of Citizens’ Associations that policed the city’s racial borders,” Pritchett noted, adding: “The result was that blacks were forced to pay higher rents in the limited areas to which they had access, and in these areas housing was significantly inferior.”

Pritchett continued: “The damage caused by segregation was exacerbated, the [1948] report concluded, by the on-going urban renewal program that was clearing many formerly poor black areas for middle-class housing restricted to whites. Of the 30,000 new units built during the 1940s, just 200 were available to blacks.”

Today’s millennials are not pioneers. Gentrification of the District got underway decades ago.

Why do some of us celebrate African American History Month with moist eyes?

Return in time to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street NW in the 1830s. See that brick federal building with its hipped roof, dormer windows and stone keystones? It’s called the St. Charles Hotel.

It has a special feature.

In the basement are six 30-foot-long arched cells, with heavy iron doors and iron rings embedded on the walls. It’s a slave pen.

Look down at the sidewalk. See the recessed grills to provide light and ventilation for the confined slaves.

St. Charles is where the Southern planters stayed when they came to Washington to sell their slave property.

A few blocks away, at the southwestern corner of 4th and G streets NW, stands the Washington jail. That’s where runaway slaves were confined. Until emancipation, all slaves were required to obey the curfew law. Getting found on the streets of Washington after sundown without written permission from the master was a one-way ticket to jail. The owner had to be notified to appear before the warden to identify their slaves and pay a fine to reclaim them.

From being chained in the basement to abolition, marches, legal assaults against injustice, the White House, the mayor’s suite, the halls of Congress, the faculty lounge, the judge’s chambers, the corporate boardroom, the pulpit, the Officers Club and the editor’s desk.

That’s what and why we celebrate today.

 

By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 26, 2016

February 28, 2016 - Posted by | Black History Month, Segregation, Slavery, Ten Commandments | , , , , , , ,

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