Racism was my introduction to Washington, D.C., my nation’s capital. Arriving by train at the cavernous Union Station in early September 1949, I had all my worldly belongings in a single suitcase. It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day outside and I easily found my way to the taxicab stand to begin the newest chapter of my life at the Mecca for Black college students, Howard University.
There were two lines at the cab stand and, of course, I chose the shorter one – only to be told by the white dispatcher that, “your line” (AKA the line for Black people) was the longer line off to the side. He said it as casually as if he was directing me to the local post office. I was shocked and humiliated by this overtly discriminatory statement. He was so matter-of-fact. Racial segregation, I quickly realized, was an integral part of life in my nation’s capital.
That white dispatcher’s hurtful words ripped the wind out of my sails. Sadly, my encounter with racism at that taxi line wouldn’t be the last.
Yes, I’d been told that D.C. was a deeply segregated Southern city, but that didn’t lessen the casual racism’s impact upon my psyche. It had taken all of five minutes for me to learn what it’s like to be treated like a second–class citizen. Previously, I’d experienced the products of America’s institutional racism in employment, health, education. But now it was up front and personal – take the Black taxi line. I had just turned 17 years old.
I meekly stood in the “Black” line and, once in my cab, the Black cab driver, perhaps sensing my discomfort and upon learning that my destination was Howard University, cheerfully extolled the beauty of the university, asked about my hometown, and generally lifted my spirits.
I was in a somewhat better frame of mind when I passed through the gates of Howard’s spacious campus. I checked in at the decrepit wood-frame administration building, Miner Hall, and was directed to the freshman dormitory, Cook Hall.
I shyly approached Cook Hall, walked past a few guys who were just hanging around, went to the front desk and was given my room key –– 429. It was a large corner room, overlooking the football field. There I met my randomly-assigned roommates: Larry Johnson from Detroit, Michigan and Lucien C. McDonald from Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Our relationship was one of convenience. We got along all right, but there was never any closeness among us. Larry was loud, brash, and a kind of know-it-all guy. I didn’t like him. Lou was a cheerful, small town kid and music major; he played the organ. But Lou was effeminate and, recalling my bad experience with Mr. S. in my Roxbury theater group, I kept him at a distance. Like almost everyone else in our freshman class, we three were each first–generation college students.
In an interesting twist of fate, guess who was on the fourth floor of that freshman dormitory? None other than J. Timothy “Tim” Boddie, my childhood friend from Camp Atwater. It was like a family reunion; we were so excited to unexpectedly renew our friendship.
That Sunday night, my first at Howard, was a buzz of activity. Guys were from all over the country – Chicago; Muskogee, Oklahoma; Evanston, Illinois, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Everyone was different and eager to share their personal stories – somewhat embellished, of course. (I romanticized English High School.) Our collective excitement was palpable.
To my surprise, three other students from Boston – each from my Hill neighborhood of Roxbury –– were in that freshman class: Joe Johnson, Eddie Hall, and Janet Murphy. We had a friendly relationship, teased one another about being “homies,” but for the most part we each went our separate ways.
In a gesture to meet my parents’ misguided, though well-intentioned, expectation that I would be a physician, I’d enrolled in Howard’s College of Pharmacy. I was the only resident of Cook Hall to do so, and when classes got underway later, my enrollment in pharmacy would prove to be a huge mistake.
But first, during the next week, there was freshman orientation; it was a maze of activity with a plethora of social and other sessions – for example, testing to determine whether students would be placed in remedial or regular college-level English classes.
Orientation was culture shock for me. I was overwhelmed. I’d never seen so many Black people at one time. Our freshman class, numbering well over 1,000 students, was entirely Black. Also, I hadn’t been in a classroom with young females — Black or white — since the ninth grade. The faculty and staff were entirely Black.
Many freshman students were residents of D.C. A few male students from out of town lived off campus. Among that group was Robert “Boobie” Shaw, from Brooklyn, New York. We became fast friends, eventually married sisters, and remain close over the 70 years since our first meeting.
There were no limitations on the comings of goings of young men. Not so with freshman women, however. The University took an “in loco parentis” — in place of the parents – approach toward them. They were subject to a strict curfew that first semester: in the dormitory by 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Male visitors were not permitted beyond the lobby of the womens’ dormitories. Co-ed dormitories? Forget it. You gotta’ be crazy to even think about it.
Orientation testing introduced me to the educational disparities between Northern schools and Southern, segregated schools. Many entering freshman from Southern schools proudly proclaimed their academic credentials – valedictorian, etc. – yet most of them failed the English placement test and had to take a remedial course. Despite my poor grades in Boston, I easily aced the placement test.
I was no smarter, maybe even less so, than those students who had to take remedial English. I was simply the beneficiary of a better educational system than theirs, I was outraged by their second-rate education.
I was even more outraged to learn that one of my fellow freshman pharmacy students had been barred from studying pharmacy in her home state of Texas solely because she was Black. The “great” state of Texas, to preserve its segregated all-white college(s) of pharmacy, had used taxpayers’ monies to send her across country to study pharmacy at Howard. Sure she’d get a good education at Howard, but she was deprived of the support of family and friends that she would have had in a Texas university near home.
Racial segregation hit me a second time the following Sunday. I had been invited to dinner by distant family friends, but became confused about which of several buses to take to reach them at a major transfer point. Needing change to phone my hosts for clarification, I entered a nearby drugstore and sat down at the lunch counter, intending to ask for change to make my call. But before I could get the words out of my mouth, the white server peremptorily scolded me, “You know we can’t serve you.” Again humiliated, I mumbled something about simply wanting change, got it, and got out of that drugstore as fast as I could.
I now understand why the owners of enslaved Black workers didn’t want them to meet in groups of three or more. It could mean only one thing – trouble, “good trouble,” as the late Congressman John Lewis said.
College dormitories, on a quiet non-football Saturday afternoon, are breeding grounds for “good trouble.” A case in point is what took place in mid-October 1949 on the fourth floor of Cook Hall, Howard University’s freshman dormitory. Nine students from all parts of the world — Desmond Segre (Jamaica), Ted Lowe (New Orleans), Emory Mazique, (Pine Bluff, Arkansas), and five others whose names I can’t recall — and I were bemoaning our new reality. It was that every facet of public life in D.C., our nation’s capital, except public transportation, was segregated by race. We decided to do something about it.
We decided to act. With no prior planning. No arrangements for legal assistance should we need it. No arrangements for possible bail money. No campus or community support. With nothing but a determination to act, we decided that we would attempt to desegregate one of D.C.’s all-white, downtown, first-run movie theaters, the RKO Keith. A forgettable film, starring Dana Andrews was playing.
We fearlessly – at least initially — rode the Georgia Avenue/7th Street trolley downtown and strode up to the theater’s ticket booth. By now we were terrified, but strengthened by the group. We pressed on. What would happen? Arrest? Beating? We had no Plan B. No exit plan. What do we do if we were refused admission? Fuss? Sit? Meekly return to our campus refuge? We were clueless, but determined to finish our protest. Two of us – I don’t remember their names — demurred at the last moment and stood back as we approached the ticket line.
We quietly stood in line while white folks lined up behind us. They seemed to pay no attention whatsoever to these seven Black students from Howard University. When we reached the window, the ticket clerk, a white girl about our age, was flummoxed and could only say, “I can’t do it.” She seemed as frightened as we felt inwardly and called her manager for assistance.
We knew we had gained the upper hand when the manager almost pleadingly and apologetically said that, while he wasn’t prejudiced (of course!), he simply couldn’t let us in. The movie’s starting time was fast approaching, the line behind us was growing longer. White patrons were becoming more impatient, not because of our making “good trouble,“ but by the delay in their own admission to the theater. Seizing the initiative, we loudly insisted that we just wanted to see the flick. We fearfully stood our ground.
Finally, frustrated and at loggerheads — and perhaps not wanting to create a public spectacle in front of an impatient line of white patrons – the manager waived his hand dismissively (remember, “Oh, Lloyd,” at the Dudley School?) and said, “Let them in.”
We won! Victory was ours! At 17 years old, we had desegregated a major D.C. movie theater. Once seated, especially when the lights were dimmed, we feared the arrival of police who might arrest or physically remove us from the theatre. Nothing happened.
We were campus celebrities for several hours after our return to campus late that Saturday afternoon, but as in life, sometimes good things don’t last forever.
And true to form, the significance of our historic act of nonviolent protest, “good trouble,” didn’t last. Why? Saturday night at Howard was fun night. Time for music and dancing. Before long our “good trouble” was a distant memory to all but us, lost in the frivolity of college music and dancing on a Saturday night.
Still that movie-theatre experience had a profound effect on the trajectory of my life. Dad was right. Stand up for what’s right. Speak truth to power. Hold on to your core beliefs. On a more personal note, I learned that to be afraid is to be expected, but that the protestor in me is empowering and redemptive.
This was 1949. Lynchings were common in the South. No Emmett Till as yet. No Martin Luther King, Jr. No Malcom X. No matter. I knew in that fall of 1949 that I lived in two countries — one that would go to extreme measures to marginalize me and other Black people. I determined that I could help change that situation. I began to believe that maybe, as Frenchie had told me just a couple of months earlier, I would indeed be somebody, someday.
ALL THAT JAZZ
I’ve always loved music. Growing up in Roxbury and during the summer, my exposure to music had been limited to listening to vinyl records and the radio. I’d never seen or heard a live artistic performance of any kind. That changed almost immediately upon my arrival on Howard’s campus; live performances were a revelation.
Unlike the Men & Boys choir at St. Cyp’s, membership in the Howard University Choir was not a “rite of passage.” To the contrary, it was an honor. Students auditioned for choir membership and with many students majoring in voice in the School of Music, the University Choir was one of the top choruses in the region. Many students and visitors attended Sunday morning chapel services, primarily to enjoy the renowned University Choir.
The quality of music at the weekly Saturday night dances at the student union, featuring student ensembles, was also superb. They were so popular that, rather than dancing, we’d often crowd around the bandstand, simply to enjoy their performances. Several, such as my classmate, Billy Hughes, who would eventually play the trombone with Count Basie, went on to highly successful musical careers.
The annual Jabberwock Talent Show, named after Lewis Carroll’s whimsical, playful nonsense word, featured some of the best singing, dancing, and drama that you could imagine. Student groups rehearsed for months in preparation for the show and each year the quality seemed to improve. Roxie Roker, who went on to a featured role in The Jeffersons, a popular television sitcom that ran 11 seasons in the 1970s and ‘80s, gave memorable dramatic performances.
Not all artistic talent on campus was found in the School of Music. Some was found in totally unexpected places. Take Joe Farrar, for example. One night a bunch of us went to a local jazz club. During a break and totally out the blue, Joe, who was part of our fourth floor Cook Hall “fraternity,” asked if he could play “a few notes” on the piano. We were stunned by Joe’s outstanding performance. So was the leader of the jazz group on stage. He invited Joe to sit in and play a few sets as their guest. Joe was delighted. We were flabbergasted and good naturedly teased Joe (who later become an attorney) about that night until his passing in about 2005.
My first-ever live concert came my freshman year at Howard. One night a bunch of guys talked about going to a midnight concert at the nearby Howard Theatre; it featured the then little-known jazz pianist, Dave Brubeck. I’d never heard of this guy but having nothing better to do that evening, I went along with the crowd.
OMG! I’d never heard and enjoyed such wonderful jazz. It was my introduction to modern jazz and I was hooked forever. Brubeck and his group, featuring Paul Desmond on trumpet, played until almost 3 a.m. For years afterward, I bought every one of his recordings. Even today Dave Brubeck’s music dominates my digital playlists.
That night, I was affected by more than the music. I was angered by the presence of more than a few white people in the audience. Segregation apparently was a one–way street, designed to keep Black people out, period. It was not designed to separate Blacks and whites; it was to exclude Black people. We were denied admission to white theaters, but whites could share the joys of Black facilities with impunity. It wasn’t right.
Griffith Stadium, where both the all-white Washington Senators baseball team and the then-named Washington “Redskins” National Football League team played, was adjacent to Howard’s campus. On Sunday football game days, neighborhood kids profited by the scarcity of on–street parking spaces. They offered to, “Watch your car, sir?” for twenty-five cents. It was my introduction to minority entrepreneurship. A few of us wondered whether the offer, always accepted by the white drivers, was an innocent request for money or a more sinister, thinly-veiled auto body protection scam. No matter. We were pleased to see these kids take advantage of these people who symbolized D.C.’s racist caste system.
I came to D.C. and The Mecca relatively naive about the depth and breadth of racism in my country. On the one hand I was excited to be among so many talented Black people –– faculty, students, and staff. On the other hand, my taxicab, drug store, student testing, movie-theater desegregation, and Howard Theatre experiences, showed me, up close and personal, the extent to which Southern states would go to deny equal educational and other opportunities to Black people. I was radicalized — in less than three months. I’d just turned 17 years old.
Alas, if only my focus on academics had even begun to match my growing preoccupation with racial inequality and social injustice. Sadly, it didn’t.
Tags: Dave Brubeck, good trouble, Howard University, injustice
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