01.20.09

The Washington I Once Knew

In an excerpt from his memoir, Loyalties, Carl Bernstein reflects on the Jim Crow town he grew up in—a world away from today's events.

In an excerpt from his memoir, Loyalties, Carl Bernstein reflects on the Jim Crow town he grew up inan era in which a black president taking the oath of office was unimaginable.

In his Inaugural Address today, President Obama noted with awe that "a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." 

In 1989, Carl Bernstein published a memoir about that earlier period--growing up in a segregated, McCarthy-era Washington. Part of the book, titled Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir, focuses on Washingtonians—including Bernstein’s parents and their black and white friends—who worked to desegregate lunch counters and other public places in the nation’s capital. The capital of the United States was a Jim Crow town, including its restaurants, hotels, and the segregated schools that Bernstein attended until he was in the sixth grade, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation of public education—in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

It is a little-remembered fact that the companion case to Brown was Bolling v. Sharpe, in which the justices held unanimously that “Racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial to black children of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.” The following excerpt from Loyalties describes the demonstrations Bernstein participated in—as a child–in 1951 and 1952.

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My most pervasive memory of those two summers is of the heat. That oppressive Washington heat. This was before air-conditioning, or at least before anyone I knew had air-conditioning at home, 1951, ’52. In her history of black Washington, The Secret City, Constance McLaughlin Green devotes a few lines to what happened those summers, but she doesn’t mention the heat. She wrote:

…The campaign [to desegregate] downtown restaurants began after the report of the National Committee on Segregation drew attention to the lost anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873…Members of the Citizens Committee for Enforcement assembled statistics on how many out of 99 restaurants in downtown Washington denied service to well-behaved colored or racially mixed groups, how many accepted them, and in either case what the proprietors’ reasons were and how white patrons reacted. Under the guidance of Annie Stein, an energetic young white woman, and further inspired by the nonagenarian Mary Church Terrell, the surveying groups, each composed of three or four people, were at pains never to argue with waitresses or managers and left quietly if they were rebuffed.

Actually it was only at the beginning of the campaign that we left quietly when we were rebuffed. “Negotiate, boycott, picket.” That was the strategy Annie Stein had devised. I hated the whole enterprise. I was seven years old. Thursdays and Saturdays I’d be ripped from the neighborhood, torn from the day’s game of stepball or running bases, and placed on a streetcar that took me and my mother to the little law office that Joe Forer and Dave Rein shared downtown across from the Trans-Lux Theatre on Fourteenth Street. There, Annie Stein would tap me on the head and say, “Now, honey, this is so-and-so,” and pair me with a black child. The black children usually wore church clothes, little girls in pink and white and lace and patent leather, boys with too-long clip-on neckties hanging from starched collars, jackets neatly buttoned.

Today, it is difficult to convey—much less comprehend—that slow, drawled, hazy small-town atmosphere of mid-century Washington. I went to a segregated public school; all the city’s playgrounds and swimming pools were segregated; the hotels were for whites only, except for the Dunbar, way up on Fifteenth Street across the city’s old Boundary Avenue; the wards of the municipal hospitals were segregated; the only integrated theater in town was the Gayety Burlesque house on Ninth Street.

There had always been black people in and out of our house, and from the outset I had been taught that for them life was defined by struggle and filled with injustice. The ones I knew best were the Richardson family. Tommy Richardson was vice president of my father’s union; his father, whom I knew only as Mr. Richardson, was a redcap at Union Station and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Sundays, usually after visiting the Richardsons, I would be hauled off to the Young People’s Jewish Center of Washington, a secular alternative to religious study, where a few hours of discussion about the Israelites, W.E.B DuBois, and Abraham Lincoln did little to clarify the prevailing order of things. We studied the report of the President’s Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital, a thin blue volume with a picture on the cover of the Great Emancipator sitting in his temple at the end of Memorial Bridge. Agonizing in its detail, the report enumerated the indignities and cruelties of Negro life in Washington.

By then people in Washington were becoming aroused by the demonstrations downtown. One Sunday, my sisters and I were packed in the dilapidated family Plymouth for another rally that Annie Stein had organized in the field behind Trenton Terrace, in Southeast D.C. But this time it was more than just my father’s union and the same familiar faces. A movement was building. A lot of white people there had read in the newspapers about what was happening downtown. People came from the Government Cafeteria Workers Union, the Sleeping Car Porters, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, the black churches and, according to the FBI files on my mother and father (which I obtained a generation later under the Freedom of Information Act), the Progressive Party; my father was chairman of its antidiscrimination committee, Annie was secretary—facts noted in the FBI reports. It is my recollection that Paul Robeson sang at the picnic, but that isn’t reflected in the files. Pete Seeger’s presence is noted, however. I remember he sang “Which Side Are You On,” and (before everybody joined hands for “Solidarity Forever”) he introduced a version of Leadbelly’s “Washington’s a Bourgeois Town,” with the words changed to “Washington’s a Jim Crow Town.”

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The only places downtown where Negroes knew they could sit down to eat were the railroad station and the government cafeterias; even there, my father says, the union—his union, the government workers’ union, of which he was director of negotiations—was constantly challenging food-service managers who took it upon themselves to designate separate seating areas for blacks.

Except for the government buildings, there were few places where black people were permitted to go to the bathroom. Usually, when one of the black children in the “sit-downs”—which is what we called the demonstrations of those summers—had to go to the bathroom, we would go running to the National Gallery of Art, which was about five blocks away. But more often that not it would be too late by the time we got there, and the children would cry, and sometimes their mothers and even their fathers would, too. Years later, when I was a reporter covering civil-rights marches in the South, I couldn’t get out of my head a picture of those little children holding their legs together and the pain the their faces. I think one of the reasons I hated going downtown those Saturdays and Thursdays, the big shopping days, was the knowledge that my friends were going to pee in their pants. There seemed to me two cruelties: the indignity of segregation, and the shame our demonstrations inflicted on my friends.

Once, before marching into the streets, Mary Church Terrell, a bent woman with a cane and white hair and a whispery voice, came to talk to the children about what we were doing. When she was a girl, right after the Civil war, she told us, she had been allowed to eat in the restaurants downtown. But that was 80 years earlier, during Reconstruction; it was the last time. If others were to join our cause, we had to be sturdy and be models of decorum—and here she looked at the black children—lest we “disgrace the race.” Those were her exact words, my mother remembers them, too. It seemed to me she was asking an awful lot. I have only vague recollections of encountering hostility from white patrons and restaurant workers and downtown shoppers who watched us those summers; occasionally someone would spit or call us “nigger lovers.” Much more the impression is of curiosity, especially in the earliest days.

Leaving the little law office of Forer and Rein, we would go usually in groups of four or five, black and white. While the grownups talked to the hostess or manager—a process that could take considerable time while matters of law, the Constitution, and custom were quietly discussed—we held each other’s hands, aware of the stares and the attention. A couple of times photographers from the newspapers, with big square cameras and popping flashbulbs, took our picture. I worried about what my friends in the neighborhood would think if they knew what I was doing. It was one thing to say I didn’t believe it was right when they used the word “nigger”; but this was something else again.

A lot of times the restaurant managers announced that they felt sad about not being able to serve us, but that it would be bad for business; some said they would welcome a decision in the courts requiring all restaurants to serve everybody. A few times we were taken to tables and seated. Usually not. That was in the restaurants—“lunchrooms,” as the local terminology had it. But the real focus of the campaign became the lunch counters, in the dime stores on F Street and in the big department stores. By the end of the first summer there were often more than a hundred of us testing and picketing and sitting down every Thursday and Saturday. My mother kept long lists of names, and on the days when we didn’t go downtown she’d be on the phone, lining people up.

“Everybody brought their children,” she remembers. “God, it was hot as hell.”

The dime stores had huge double doors on both sides of their display windows and, just inside, big rotating floor fans. Entering, I would try to delay the proceedings by lingering inside the doorway, savoring the breeze. The lunch counters extended from the front of each store to the back—first the stand-up portion near the entrance, then a long row of swivel seats that stretched to the back. The seats were for whites only. We would walk inside, six or eight or ten to a group, black and white, choosing a moment when there were empty seats because, Annie Stein had said, that meant if we weren’t served we would be hurting business by continuing to occupy them. I liked swiveling in the seats. They were made of wood with chrome on the back, the kind that gave a little when you leaned back. The women behind the counter wore hairnets and were very polite, even though they said they could not serve us. No matter how many times we sat down there was always present the element of astonishment, not so much from the whites as from the blacks who would be standing in the front, packed three and four deep while they ate. They stopped. Put down their hot dogs. Stared. Nobody had ever done this before. The only downtown lunch counter where black people had sat in this century was at Union Station. It was said that while the station was being built Teddy Roosevelt heard it was to have separate waiting rooms for whites and blacks, and a Jim Crow restaurant. Furious, he sent orders to the project managers from the White House saying if the station wasn’t built with facilities to be shared by all there would be no station. Every since, the concessionaries had honored TR’s dictum.

But nowhere else. Once, on a picket line at Kresge’s, Annie Stein handed me a sign to carry: “Is it right/If you’re not white/You can’t sit down/To eat a bite.” My black friend, Tommy Richardson’s son Earl, was given a sign saying: “Its our Ambition/To Eat at Kresge’s/In a Sitting Position.”

Eventually, we won—in the Supreme Court, a year before Brown v. Board of Education. Forer and Rein argued the case, and the Justices held that the District of Columbia’s 1872-1873 laws outlawing segregation in public places, specifically including restaurants, soda fountains, barber shops, and hotels, were still valid, though they had been dropped form the city code in 1901 to re-institute segregation in the nation’s capital.

Carl Bernstein shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward for his coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is the author, with Woodward, of All the President’s Men and The Final Days, and, with Marco Politi, of His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time. He is also the author of Loyalties, a memoir about his parents during McCarthy–era Washington.