Esther Yost
 
     
   
Interview with:   Alice Van Brakle, Part III
Interview Date:   December 3, 2001 and January 21, 2002
Interviewer:   Marie Mingo
Transcriber:   Rachel Mears, Betsy Barnett
    This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. Not to be reproduced without permission.
 
   
 
   

VAN BRAKLE: It was not. And, then, of course, when they went to high school then they developed friends from all over town because they went to Archbishop Carroll and there were kids there from all over the area. And they wanted to go to their birthday parties and whatever and, so, that was -- and at that particular time my husband was working nights at the post office, Main Post Office, Second and Mass, so it was up to me to pitch them in the car and drive them across town, because they weren't sixteen so they weren't driving themselves. And, so, that was my chore to cart them all over town for the various activities that I approved of for them to participate in.

MINGO: Would that be often? I mean, would the ...

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, no.

MINGO: ... like every weekend or ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. Not every weekend, but usually there was something going on, if it wasn't -- because my two older children are close. They're three years apart and they were eight and eleven when the last one was born. And, so, it was those two older ones that needed all this attention. And, you know, if it wasn't one going somewhere, it was the other one going somewhere. So, there was always something to take one or the other to. And, if it wasn't a birthday party, it was maybe a ball game or something. And you wanted them active in as many activities as possible. I recall one particular evening, I don't know what group -- this was my oldest son -- he was involved in, it was probably out of St. Peter's, a group that was doing something at the baseball game. And, at that time, the baseball park was at Seventh and Florida Avenue.

MINGO: A bit of a distance from here.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. Not the best neighborhood in the world.

MINGO: Oh, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: And they were to perform at a certain hour. So, you get so many things to do you can't always go and stay there, you have other things you ...

MINGO: Right.

VAN BRAKLE: So, I took him there and dropped him off along with a -- there was always a car full of kids. And took him there and dropped him off or he rode up there with somebody else or whatever, but I knew I was to pick him up at a certain time, which was, like, 10:30. Of course, it was safe to go out anytime then. And, so, I went up to the back of the baseball park and picked him up. Oh, whatever he was doing, he had his bicycle with him. And, so, I had to pick him and the bicycle up at 10:30 at night in the back of the baseball park. Fine, everything worked out beautiful. It was a two-day thing. The next night he went the same way, I'm scheduled to pick him up at the same spot, same time, but the -- I don't remember the reasoning -- but the performance was cut short and he was finished, like, an hour ...

MINGO: Oh, my goodness.

VAN BRAKLE: ... ahead of time.

MINGO: And everybody wasn't meeting.

VAN BRAKLE: Or the game, maybe the game got called because of rain or something. I don't remember what it was, but he's stuck out there in a very bad dark street by himself ...

MINGO: For an hour.

VAN BRAKLE: ... with his bicycle [laughs] ...

MINGO: Did he just wait?

VAN BRAKLE: ... waiting for me.

MINGO: He just waited?

VAN BRAKLE: He was scared, he was crying. He didn't know what to do. And I'm not the least bit concerned because I'm on time. I'm going up to pick him up at this time, so I'm busy doing whatever else I was doing. And his babysitter -- I had a babysitter that lived in that vicinity and he knew where she lived. And, so, he took his bicycle and pushed it four or five blocks to her house.

MINGO: Good thinking.

VAN BRAKLE: And he knocked on her door and, of course, it scared her to death because here's this child crying and she, at this hour of the night so far from home.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: What is wrong here? So, he told her what had happened. So, she called me and told me that he was at her house.

MINGO: Oh, good. So, she knew -- you were somewhere where you could be called.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. He went to her house and she called me up and said that whatever the reason was this night had come to an end an hour earlier than it did the night before. And that he was there, he was safe. And, so, I said, "Be right there," you know. Hop in the car and zipped up to her house and picked him and the bicycle up. It was a busy, busy time that you were busy with your children. Whatever they were involved in, that's what you were involved in. You really didn't have a whole lot of time for other social things.

MINGO: 'Tis ever thus, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: You know, I belonged to a few little clubs. My husband was a golfer, so he had his golf clubs that he belonged to. And he played, you know, whenever he had a chance to play. And, so, we had, you know, a few things, social events, to go to out of the neighborhood. Our social life was out of the neighborhood. And we would go to parties and whatnot and get a babysitter and attend a dinner or a dance or whatever. And then, of course, we didn't, as I say, we just didn't get involved in anything just for ourselves until the children were grown.

MINGO: It was all family activity, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, these same friends that we had developed through clubs that we belonged to or people you met at work or whatever we formed a little travel group. And my husband and I both loved to travel. So, when we finally got the children grown up, then we were free to get our little travel group going. And we put our trips together and that was what we enjoyed doing, which was certainly not anything, you know, that was neighborhood involved because we did our -- oh, we had beautiful trips all throughout Europe, many, many times, cruises down through the islands, to the Far East, to Japan, South America, Alaska, Hawaii.

MINGO: Wonderful, wonderful. Well, now, the social clubs that you were involved with with the children, did you have to be invited to join particular ones? I mean, you know, were they really organized club sort of activity or was it just groups getting together from time to time?

VAN BRAKLE: The clubs that were -- I can't say these clubs were really involved with children. They were more personal friends. Well, my sorority, for instance.

MINGO: Oh, from -- you went to Howard.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes.

MINGO: And you were in a sorority.

VAN BRAKLE: And they were scattered all over the country. And you had friends -- my husband belonged to a national group that I still to this day attend his club's convention which they have once each year. And it's in a different place each year. Last year we went on a cruise out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. This coming year we'll be in San Francisco. Year before last, we were in Memphis. So, every year we meet. And this is a group of guys that were -- my husband was an associate member, he was not an original member. But, the original members were put together during World War II and they were scattered throughout the country in college. And a program that the military put together called the Armed Services Training Program selected top students from various colleges throughout the country and brought them as a group, the ASTP, the Armed Services Training Program, here to Howard University. And, as a group, they were studying, they were engineers at Howard. And, as the war -- [coughs] Excuse me. As the war progressed, they had to break up that group, and they were all having a grand time going to Howard and living it up and everybody else was overseas. And, so, a lot of the mothers who were losing their sons and whatnot were complaining about this program. So, they broke the program up and sent the guys overseas.

MINGO: Now, were they all African American?

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-hmm. And my closest friend, who I did not know, I met his wife at work, that's how -- but, he was from my part of the country and went to the University of Kansas. And he was selected out of the University of Kansas as one of these guys. But, they came from colleges all over the county. And when the war was over and everybody came home, many of these guys came back to Howard to complete their study.

MINGO: At that time, then, they could use the G.I. Bill and they could come back and go to college.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. And they were in college to begin with so they came back to finish their college.

MINGO: Ah, they had to finish, right.

VAN BRAKLE: They were in college before the Army ...

MINGO: That's right.

VAN BRAKLE: ... took them out. And, so, they came back. Well, some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some of them stayed in the engineering field.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: But, it was whatever they were interested in in the first place. But, when they came back, some came back to Howard to finish. Others went back to where they were in the first place to finish. And, as a result, the chapter of that group -- well, I'm getting ahead of my story. When they came back, after a while, some came back to their girlfriends and got married and whatever. And down the road a few years, five or ten years down the road, some of these guys were getting together and they wanted to get everybody back together again. So, they made an effort to find as many of the ASTP members as they could and get in contact with them. And they formed this group and they called themselves The Prometheans, which is named after Prometheus.

MINGO: Oh, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, The Prometheans formed this group of, and the original members are all members of the ASTP group. So they'd search around. Every now and then they'd come up with a new person that they had lost contact with and fifty years later they're finding this person, you know. And, as a result, that, really, that nucleus was our social group. Of these guys, many of them are my husband's golfing buddies or whatever. And, eventually, as they met at first and just sort of had a social get together, glad to see everybody who's still alive after the war ...

MINGO: And that would be kind of at some sort of a public place perhaps?

VAN BRAKLE: Here we meet at the J. W. Marriott.

MINGO: I see. It wasn't in homes, right.

VAN BRAKLE: No. Well, I imagine when they first started it, it probably was at home because they probably didn't have more than four or five people. [laughs]

MINGO: It could be -- yes, when it was really small. Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: But, once it got organized and they are -- oh, they had beautiful grants from Labor Department and various things. Once they got established, they started doing service type things. And, at one point, they started -- oh, I guess that must have run around, it probably ran around ten years. Once a year they had a Career Awareness Fair at the Armory.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: And it was for tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders, with emphasis on eleventh and twelfth graders ...

MINGO: Who are beginning to think of college and career, right.

VAN BRAKLE: ... of the public schools. And they had either government agencies or big corporations -- you been in the Armory. And around the outer wall of the Armory there were booths and each booth was manned by either a corporation or by a government agency. And the center of the floor was set up segregated to types, a medical group, a group of airline pilots or airline employees, and maybe pharmacy and maybe -- any person who wanted to be a role model. And then they put those types together.

MINGO: And then the kids could come and talk to them, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And the kids came in and they ran as many as twenty thousand kids through there.

MINGO: My goodness.

VAN BRAKLE: The mayor always called it Promethean Day at the opening of the Career Awareness Fair and they had busses that -- I mean, these guys did all the planning and all the ...

MINGO: All the organization for a major effort.

VAN BRAKLE: Everything. And the busses would come in, and the children that were already in there, they would be on the floor visiting the booths or talking to the person. You know, many of these inner city kids had never sat down with a lawyer or a pilot.

MINGO: Or an architect or whatever.

VAN BRAKLE: And a one-on-one they could have with this person who was actually working in this field or visit the booths. And, of course, the booths gave them all kinds of literature to read and little goodies like ballpoint pens. And, so, all this stuff, you know, was there. And they were just on the floor. And, while this group was on the floor, the busses are coming in with a fresh group. And when the busses come in with a fresh group the kids would come in, sent upstairs in the seats upstairs for orientation. While they're up there for orientation, these on the floor get back on those busses and go back to their school.

MINGO: So, they're rotating. They're using the busses again.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, when they go out the door to get on the busses, then orientation is over up here and they come down the steps and they're on the floor a required period of time and the busses have gone taking those kids back to their schools, pick up some kids that come in. And they come in and go upstairs and these go out. So, this is an all day, work, work, work. And this is when the wives all took off from their jobs to go and ...

MINGO: To go help, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: ... work the information desk or whatever. We had a lounge for the teachers to come in. Some of the teachers were good teachers and stayed with their kids. And others came in and got a cup of coffee and faced the wall. And "Let me know when my bus is taking me back," you know. So, you could tell the quality of teachers by that.

MINGO: But this must have been very influential for their students.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, it was. It became compulsory in all the schools in the city. Then we had all kinds of problems because the Catholic schools and the private schools, they wanted to send their kids.

MINGO: Oh, so, at first they were not included. It was all public schools.

VAN BRAKLE: No, it was strictly for the downtown public schools. And, then, in the meantime, before Reagan came up with the idea, he took credit for it, but before Reagan came up with the idea of adopt a school, every city school had, the Prometheans had each high school and about fifty per cent of the junior highs adopted by a corporation. And the corporations that would adopt a school, they would come to the school for lectures. Sometimes they had programs where they could have the top students or whoever got the choice of going to the corporation for a day. It was a beautiful program, beautiful program.

MINGO: Does it continue?

VAN BRAKLE: No.

MINGO: No, it does not.

VAN BRAKLE: Now, that's when they needed additional people because this was just the Washington chapter doing this, because the people out in California and Texas and whatnot they -- there aren't as many Prometheans in the other cities as there are here because when the war was over more came back here because they had almost finished Howard.

MINGO: Well, yes, right. So, they already had the tie.

VAN BRAKLE: More -- there was a drawing card for them to come back and so there's more Prometheans here. And, then, after they got that program started, they needed help. So, they started taking in associate members.

MINGO: Oh, yes. Your husband was an associate member.

VAN BRAKLE: My husband was an associate member. And they needed all the help they could get to put on that program.

MINGO: I'm sure.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, you know, news leaks across the country and they -- other cities heard about it. So, then they started doing -- I forgotten what it's called now. But, they went to other cities and assisted those cities in getting a similar type program started. So -- San Francisco still has theirs going, I know. That's one. And they did one down in Eastern shore but I don't think it's still going. They also sent -- representatives of the Prometheans went to Memphis, they went to Raleigh, and did assistance in helping people in those cities establish a similar type program. So, this was what our social life was, was with ...

MINGO: With these people.

VAN BRAKLE: And you meet these people -- I met this person I was talking about who was from Kansas City who went to the University of Kansas. When I went to work, I wanted -- well, nobody had any money in those days. Everybody was broke and happy.

MINGO: Now, what -- this was when? This was also the '50s, around in the '50s?

VAN BRAKLE: When I first -- this was 1950. I started working August 1950. My husband had a daughter who lived with us and she was in high school. But, there was no job program for kids at that day, in that time. Especially black kids. So, as a result, I said to her "If you keep Bryant and Craig, [my boys] for the babysitter, I'll go back to work and then we'll both have money. I'll have some extra money and I'll pay you to babysit." So, this was the deal. But, I wasn't bright enough to start early. I thought I can just walk down and go to work one day. [interviewer laughs] How old was I then? In my twenties. But, anyway, I applied for this job but by the time I got it it was August.

MINGO: Prometheans led to other social involvement.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. And various Prometheans were fraternity guys. And the fraternity people had parties. There's the Kappas, the Alphas, the Omegas. And each one belonged to a different sorority and so they would have -- and to this day -- I went up to Holiday Inn in Silver Spring to a dinner dance not too long ago with one of the Prometheans who, it was his group and he had two tables of ten each. And, so, he invited me to come. And I found a high school buddy that had lost his wife that lives up in Silver Spring to come and escort me and so ...

MINGO: So, this connection has continued and been very wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. So, a lot of my activities are Prometheans.

MINGO: Now, that is just a fact. And that those people would now be up in years. And do they now have younger members also? Or has someone else taken over their kind of service?

VAN BRAKLE: When they had the Career Awareness Fair going, well, it's always been -- the progeny has always been invited to join.

MINGO: I see, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And when-and, you know, many of them have children eligible to participate. And, when the fair was going on, there were many of the children involved. They, also, the children brought their friends in. And they had a lot of young members.

MINGO: Oh, good.

VAN BRAKLE: But, young members want to do something. So, when the original members retired and were no longer -- well, they needed their secretaries and everybody else to help with this project, you know.

MINGO: Yes, yes all this took a lot of time.

VAN BRAKLE: But, when they retired and didn't have a secretary to do the typing and to do all these things for them, then the Career Awareness Fair tapered away.

MINGO: I see.

VAN BRAKLE: And the school systems were so pleased with it they said they would continue it.

MINGO: Oh, okay, took it over.

VAN BRAKLE: And they did for a year or two but it wasn't at the depth that it had been and it sort of tapered away. And, when they stopped having something to do, the young Prometheans stopped coming.

MINGO: Oh, I see.

VAN BRAKLE: They lost interest.

MINGO: Because that was the activity.

VAN BRAKLE: Because there really wasn't anything going on.

MINGO: It was their service.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, now, when we meet, it's like family reunion. And, so, we meet and we sit and we talk because some are not moving so fast. So, we aren't doing much and, so, the young people are really -- not too many young people attend.

MINGO: So, they, perhaps, are in some other service organization.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. Well, there are more things available because, at the time when this was starting, Washington 's a southern town and segregated.

MINGO: Yes, that's right.

VAN BRAKLE: There weren't that many things available to do. There weren't that many big time jobs available for blacks. Now, kids aren't interested in going down to J. W. Marriott. They're on their was to Europe, you know. [laughs]

MINGO: So some measures of improvement have come along.

VAN BRAKLE: So, it's not as fascinating. You know, they got other things to do that are, you know, when we were their age, we couldn't afford to do. And we have one member that, this guy from Kansas City, his son, he attends many of the Promethean conventions with his wife and daughter. But, I think they come because of their parents. They aren't really that interested in -- but, we have nice trips, we have nice trips. They aren't dull. Like the cruise last year. But, when we were their age, we couldn't afford to go on a cruise and take the daughter, or if you got two or three kids, you couldn't afford it.

MINGO: Couldn't do that, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: But, these kids today can afford anything they want and, so, he's really about the only young person. Once in a while my boys will go. But ...

MINGO: Well, now, these activities all took away, you know, more or less, were not Capitol Hill centered ...

VAN BRAKLE: No, they're not.

MINGO: Were there things that brought people on the Hill together? Or ...

VAN BRAKLE: Not a whole lot because the change came about, probably, in the '60s or '70s. Because Capitol Hill, other than being a good, good community and people helping one another, you still had a lot of rental type people that really, they moved in and out, that you really didn't care to be bothered with.

MINGO: So, there weren't that many people that you were ...

VAN BRAKLE: To socialize with.

MINGO: ... or associated over time.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, as the neighborhood changed, those people -- well, the prices started going up so the (excuse me) those people moved to where they could get something cheaper. And they left. And, then, the people who moved in were a complete different breed.

MINGO: Really. They were ...

VAN BRAKLE: Well, they're the ones who could afford to move in were young professionals and, as we see now, we don't have a whole lot of children.

MINGO: Well, no. But, there are -- the numbers are increasing.

VAN BRAKLE: Well, our block is coming back.

MINGO: Yes, I was just going to say, this block is doing its part, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: Because there was a time when we didn't have any children in our block.

MINGO: So, it was mostly adults.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, JoAnne and Bill Lanouette and their two daughters, they were the first couple of children there for -- they were there by themselves, so to speak. There weren't any other. Because Mike and Sharon's kids and my kids, they grown up and gone.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, there was a period when there weren't any children. And, then, JoAnne and Bill came and then they had Kate and Nicole. And they were about the only two kids. But, now, we got ...

MINGO: Lots of kids, lots of families.

VAN BRAKLE: Well, we got -- Bob and Diane have three ...

MINGO: Right.

VAN BRAKLE: ... a few doors up the street from me.

MINGO: Right.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, Fred and -- I can't think of his wife's name -- across the street, they have kids. And the girl in the little flat house, Nicole, she -- he's, well, he doesn't want to be called a kid anymore. I guess he's getting to be about fourteen or something. [laughs]

MINGO: Yes, but there are, there are more.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, the people across the street from me have a baby, come to think of it. A couple of doors from Bea.

MINGO: And there is, now, also, there's also more home ownership than there was usually.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

MINGO: Owner occupied, in that situation.

VAN BRAKLE: So, that has -- so, the neighborhood has taken a change from that degree and now I'm at the other end of the podium. So, I'm not interested in being this active. I'm interested in watching out the window and seeing what the kids are doing going up and down the street. [interviewer laughs] Because I reached that end of my life.

MINGO: Excuse me. We'll stop this one.

[TAPE 3/SIDE 2]

MINGO: Okay, this is Side 3 of Interview 2 with Mrs. Alice Van Brakle and this is January 21, 2002. Now, a topic we come around to is a community garden. You were going to tell me something about that and I'd like to hear it.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. The community garden was at 314 Fifth Street and it was brought about by the person that we lovingly call the Unofficial Mayor, Gene Arnold.

MINGO: Now, there's a house there. Was the house there at the time or was this a vacant lot?

VAN BRAKLE: Vacant lot.

MINGO: Just a vacant -- okay.

VAN BRAKLE: And the two people that we have referred to as the Unofficial Mayor was Gene Arnold and Rita Mendez. Rita lived in the house next to the church.

MINGO: Next to the Methodist Church on the corner?

VAN BRAKLE: Yes.

MINGO: Yes

VAN BRAKLE: The green house where Bob lives now.

MINGO: Oh, mm-hmm.

VAN BRAKLE: And Gene lived in the first two houses on my side of Fifth Street. What's that? About 308 and ...

MINGO: On the east side.

VAN BRAKLE: 306 and 308.

MINGO: Oh, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: He had both of those houses and he took out a wall and made them all one.

MINGO: Oh, I see.

VAN BRAKLE: And he was retired military. And Rita and her family moved up by St. John's High School to -- they wanted to be closer to better schools in the high school level. And Gene passed away suddenly with a heart attack. So, that's -- but they were always home and they helped everyone. No matter what went on, you called Gene or Rita and they provided the necessary help, night, day or in-between. [both laugh] And Gene was responsible for getting the rights to the vacant lot at 314 Fifth Street which was ugly with weeds and neglect.

MINGO: Now, did somebody actually own that property or was the city ...

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-hmm. And they did not take any care of it and the city would -- everybody called and complained because it was such an ugly eyesore. And they would say they were going to send somebody out and clean it up and charge it to the owner, but they never did. It's typical District. They never got around to doing it. So, Gene went somewhere and got the necessary work done, paperwork, where we could use it as a garden.

MINGO: Oh, very enterprising.

VAN BRAKLE: So, once he got that legally cleared, and it's typical of lots in that block. They're narrow but kind of long.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: So, it was divided into sections starting from the back, sections going up so each person had however wide the lot is, they had about eight feet in depth, enough to plant several rows of things. And my husband loved it because he loved to garden. So, we had zucchini for everybody in Washington one year when he decided to plant zucchini. [both laugh]

MINGO: Did most people grow vegetables in the space?

VAN BRAKLE: And one of the funny things that I was going to remember was that the kids loved it because -- these were the city kids who didn't know what dirt was for.

MINGO: This was their experience with agriculture, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And Mike Ambrose had all the children excited because he told them he planted pizza. [both laugh] So, they were all quite excited to see what was going to, when this pizza was supposed to pop up hot and ready, I guess. [both laugh] But, it was a wonderful learning experience for the city kids.

MINGO: Oh, I'm sure.

VAN BRAKLE: And Judge Rufus King was a participant.

MINGO: He lived on the opposite side of the street, I think, from you.

VAN BRAKLE: He lived next door to Bob. The house with the driveway [is next door to where he lived].

MINGO: Yes, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: Rufus lived on this side of the driveway. The driveway goes with Rita's house. And, at the time, Judge Richard Atkinson was living across the street from here.

MINGO: Yes. And this was one block down from your block.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. Just straight across the street at 422. And he was living then. And he called me one day and he said something about Rufus was a friend of his at court. And I said, "There's no judge in this block." And he said, "Yes, there is, too." And, so, he starts describing him. And, anyone who knows Rufus King, he's easily spotted because he's extremely tall with snow white hair and he's still quite young.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And I said, "Oh, I know him." I said, "I didn't know he was a judge." I said, "I know what kind of spinach he likes." [both laugh] I said, "I know all kinds of vegetables he likes, but I didn't know he was a judge." Rufus was an avid gardener.

MINGO: Is that kind of true in the neighborhood? You kind of get to know people, but you don't really know, maybe, what their jobs are until you get to know them quite well.

VAN BRAKLE: No. One of the things that we used to have, don't have them too much anymore, are -- Joanne and Bill have had several -- parties where everybody comes and brings a dish. And they sort of dwindled away now. Well, we got new people that we don't even know in the block. And, so, it's not like they -- some years back when everybody knew everybody, we'd often have a get-together at somebody's house and everybody brought a dish. The person who was giving the party would say "Well, we'll get the meat. You all bring the other stuff." So, sombody'd bring salad, somebody'd bring ...

MINGO: Okay, so, you had sort of like a block party.

VAN BRAKLE: Right.

MINGO: From time to time.

VAN BRAKLE: Just within the house. And, you know, you met the neighbors and you knew them by their first name but you really had no idea where they worked or if they worked.

MINGO: No, you knew each other as neighbors.

VAN BRAKLE: In fact, I was talking to a neighbor the other day and she was so surprised. She knew Bruce and Susan but she had no idea that Susan was the Curator down at Gunston Hall or that Bruce was a biochemist. And, then, I went on to tell about Bruce being on Jeopardy. He was a five time champion on Jeopardy.

MINGO: He was?

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. But, he's quiet. And, so, you know, so, I saw him at the block party and he said, "Hi" and "I live right there," and that's the way it is.

MINGO: Was that recent that he was on Jeopardy?

VAN BRAKLE: About a year and a half ago, something like that. He was on -- he won all five days and then he went back when, once you are an undefeated champion, you go back at the $100,000 thing. So, he went back to the $100,000 thing, but he lost on the very first day with the simplest question of all the questions he had. [both laugh]

MINGO: He just had bad luck.

VAN BRAKLE: Who was the author of "The Bridges of Madison County"?

MINGO: Oh, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And that was popular at this time.

MINGO: Oh, yes, very popular. But, perhaps he isn't into popular literature.

VAN BRAKLE: He knew it, he knew it. It just wouldn't come out.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: He knew it, he -- well, he and his wife have a -- they're never home. I tell them they ought to rent their house because they don't need it. [both laugh] They're always -- the weekend comes and they're off somewhere. And that's their pastime when they're driving. She reads the trivia book and he answers the questions.

MINGO: Oh, wonderful. It's a good preparation for that.

VAN BRAKLE: And Jeopardy was here one time, down in Constitution Hall. Constitution Hall? I think it was Constitution Hall. And they sent me a thing that I could have four tickets. No, I could have two tickets, I could have two tickets. Two or -- yes, two tickets. So, I sent for my two tickets because I love that show. I never miss it. So, I got my two tickets and Bruce said he was going to get his two tickets because he got a notice, too. So, when it was time for the thing, I said, "Did you get your two tickets?" He said he forgot. He didn't have them. So, I said, "Well, I got two. You can come with me or Susan can come with me, but I can't have both of you because I only got two tickets." So, Susan said, "Let him go. He loves to go." So, Bruce and I went. She took us down to Constitution Hall, dropped us off. And we got in the line and went to the show. And he was so interesting because, when the show was on he was sitting next to me, and as soon as they said the question he was going [interviewee apparently makes visible motion]. He was hitting that button because he knew it. [laughs]

MINGO: This was before he had been on it.

VAN BRAKLE: No, it was after.

MINGO: It was after he had gone on it. Oh, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, it was after.

MINGO: Oh, wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: But ...

MINGO: Well, that's an event. There were, there had been -- well, let's go back. We were talking about the garden. Now, eventually someone bought the lot and built on it.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. It was -- that was the end of the garden when they put it up for sale. The girl that owned it put it up for sale and it was for sale at the same time as the house next door to it. the big house where Bob and Diane live.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: In fact, my son attempted to buy those two pieces of property because he wanted to put, he wanted to turn Bob and Diane's house into, like, an apartment and the empty lot he would be able to use for, have a side entrance. And he thought a parking space. But, you can't break the curb and the prices got completely out of hand. At one time someone refused to pay twenty-five thousand for that lot.

MINGO: My goodness.

VAN BRAKLE: And he said that was too high and he wouldn't -- that was before it turned to weeds. That person lived in the little gingerbread house at that time. And he was going to buy that lot but he wouldn't pay twenty-five thousand for it. So, I think it went for over a hundred.

MINGO: I'm sure, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: For the lot. And, then, of course, the house -- the person who lived in the house was ill and the house had just really deteriorated because she could not -- she was a single lady and she was ill and she had some -- this was the kind of people that we had. Some old poor white guy came and she rented him a room. And he was angry with her. And when he left, he left the water running because he knew she couldn't get upstairs to do anything about it. That kind of thing.

MINGO: Oh, that did damage.

VAN BRAKLE: So, the house was in terrible condition. And, so, it should have gone for like $100,000. But, it didn't. It went for, I don't know, a couple of hundred thousand even in its state. And then the people went in there and spent endless money. And I think Bob and Diane paid five twenty for it. So, it got out of hand. So, this was my son that lives in Florida. And, as a single man, it got out of his reach moneywise. So, he had to give it up as a bad thought. But, that ended the garden. So, we had two or three years of wonderful gardens, wonderful gardens.

MINGO: Wonderful vegetables and also it was bringing the community together.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. Oh, yes, there was always someone in the garden, you know, doing something to their plants. Every evening the garden was busy with people doing something. And Rufus had been there tending his garden and everybody pushed him out of the way to get to theirs or whatever and didn't anybody know whether he was the judge or the street sweeper. Who cares? [both laugh]

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: But, that's the way life should be. That's the way life should be.

MINGO: Yes. That is a lovely atmosphere, a lovely atmosphere.

VAN BRAKLE: He's really a wonderful man. I bump into him occasionally. I saw him at a party. My cousin is married to a judge and they invited me to a -- I forgot what the party was now, but it was a party among the judges. And Rufus was there.

MINGO: Oh, great. Oh, another thing that I think you had mentioned before that you didn't like as much as the gardens perhaps. But that you said about the beginning of the brick sidewalk.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, yes. We didn't get to the sidewalk [during the interview].

MINGO: The brick sidewalk.

VAN BRAKLE: That was sort of a surprise. A surprise to me. It might not -- as I said, I'm not active anymore as I am older and I don't participate in what goes on anymore. But, so, it might have not been a surprise to everybody. But, it was to me. Because the sidewalk, especially the sidewalk on my side of the street, it was perfect.

MINGO: It was concrete and it was perfect.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. It was concrete and it was perfect. There were a couple of bad spots across the street. But, they came in and ripped up our beautiful sidewalk and threw this down to give it the Georgetown atmosphere.

MINGO: That was the reason.

VAN BRAKLE: And I wanted to say, "If I wanted to move to Georgetown, I would have." [both laugh] "I don't need a Georgetown atmosphere. It's Capitol Hill." But, as I lived around here long enough to see, in a few years those brick go astray and they're very difficult to walk on. When I have a choice, I pass up a brick street because it doesn't take -- I don't know what it is. Maybe they're not laid properly. But, it doesn't take but a few years for them to raise up one way or the other and you have to be ...

MINGO: Become uneven, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: In fact, since this one has been here, because they're still pretty smooth yet because it's reasonably new, but there's a spot on the other side of the street that has already raised up and Bea almost fell on that ...

MINGO: Oh, really.

VAN BRAKLE: ... one day. And, of course, she had the same feeling that I did, that it doesn't add anything to it for me. Perhaps the historians and the people know better than I. But, as far as I'm concerned, they took away from our property instead of adding to it.

MINGO: But, apparently there was no great protest about putting them in.

VAN BRAKLE: Well, no one knew that it was to be done until they were on their way.

MINGO: Who do you suppose decided ...

VAN BRAKLE: I don't really know. As I said, I really don't know the details of that. I'm sure Sharon probably knows the history of it, but I do not. They were there putting them in. You know. "What are you guys doing?" "Well, we're putting in these new brick side-." You know. It's a little late to complain. [both laugh]

MINGO: So, you have to bear with them. I mean, obviously, the move is to extend them because now more of Pennsylvania Avenue is ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes.

MINGO: ... is brick than used to be.

VAN BRAKLE: I had noticed, you know, different places where they had put them in but I had no idea they would get to our block. But, as I said, I don't keep up anymore. So, I don't know how that came about. If there was any -- there was nothing in the literature that I get from Restoration Society about its proposal. I didn't hear anything about its proposal. I didn't know anything about it 'til the trucks drove up taking out the brick. So, I said "Well, for my few years I have left, I guess I -- I can cope with it."

MINGO: Yes, I think they are permanent.

VAN BRAKLE: They are what?

MINGO: They are at least relatively permanent and it looks to just move and to expand, so ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, they're here to stay and, so, I won't say anything about it.

Well, one of my things that I was going to say was the difference in summarizing up things, differences from 1944 to 2002, was improvement of facilities such as the subway over the streetcar. However, the morning paper says the streetcars will be back.

MINGO: And you are not in favor of the return of the streetcar I guess.

VAN BRAKLE: Well, I don't think they -- I thought we had improved. In fact, that's what the newspaper said. We though we had improved above the streetcar. Now they're bringing it back. But, again, by the time they get that done, I won't be around to ride them anyway. [laughs] Because I'm not going to -- lots of things I don't even think about anymore. If that's what they want to do, go ahead and do it.

MINGO: Well, to some extent, the streetcar now would be to replace busses, I thought.

VAN BRAKLE: Well.

MINGO: Is that what they're talking about?

VAN BRAKLE: This is the way they made it sound. The busses do puff out an awful lot of fumes and whatnot, this is true. But, at the same time, I wonder what all these tracks and all would do to the traffic pattern. Because the streetcar certainly can't move over. So, ...

MINGO: So there's that difference, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: Well, you know, that's something that was interesting when I first moved on the Hill was the Car Barn.

MINGO: Oh, now, where was that? The Car Barn.

VAN BRAKLE: It's still there. It's an apartment complex right now.

MINGO: Oh, yes, I know where you're talking about, up on ...

VAN BRAKLE: 15th and East Capitol.

MINGO: Yes, up on East Capitol.

VAN BRAKLE: The streetcars went -- that's where the streetcars turned around. The streetcars went up there and went in the Car Barn and turned around and came back out and started over again. And that's also where the mechanical work was done on the streetcars, was inside the Car Barn.

MINGO: But, you didn't like the streetcars.

VAN BRAKLE: They're very slow and also they play havoc with the traffic pattern because they're there. You know, a bus does stop or move over or get out of the way but the streetcar's not going anywhere. Just down those tracks. [laughs] And, so, perhaps they will be improved over what used, what streetcars of yesteryear. We used to get on the streetcar and go to Glen Echo.

MINGO: Really. That's extensive.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, the streetcar went forever. It went all the way out to Friendship Heights and you could get -- that was an afternoon trip. You got on the streetcar for a nickel or whatever it was and took an hour to get there and an hour to get back. You'd had two hour afternoon rides. Most people didn't have cars and, so, there was not a problem. Because you didn't have a traffic problem, you didn't have enough cars to have traffic. So, the streetcars were fine. I just can't visualize a streetcar running through Georgetown. [both laugh] With the traffic pattern the way it is in Georgetown today. But, as I said, perhaps it will be different and faster or smaller or ...

MINGO: Somehow it will have to be thought out. Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: I didn't even read that section. I scanned through it this morning and kept right on going. I said, "Oh, my, I lived around the circle." [both laugh]

MINGO: True, true.

VAN BRAKLE: My mother used to say, "I lived too long." [laughs]

MINGO: Well, things just come back.

VAN BRAKLE: They come back in a circle.

MINGO: The more things change, the more they remain the same.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, there's a vicious circle. And the young people want something new. And you can only have so much new and pretty soon you're back to the old things. It's just new to them. so, it's sort of like my son, my younger son, who is now 45, but he just can't visualize that I'm talking about Washington being a Southern town because it was new to me, segregation was new to me.

MINGO: Because you came from the Middle West.

VAN BRAKLE: And it wasn't as much, and it was none [laughing] in my little town of Perry where I grew up. So, I was telling my son about not going into stores or not being welcome into -- and he said, "Well, what'd you do that for? Why didn't you just go on in and sit down." And I said, "No, that wasn't the thing to do. You could wind up being hurt very badly if you were brown and you walked in and sat down and didn't get up when they told you to." And, so, he just couldn't visualize this because -- well, number one, my son is -- no one would ever know that he was anything but white, 'cause he's got blonde hair and, [laughs] and my complexion. And, so, he had never faced it. And by the time, he wasn't born until '56, and so he ...

MINGO: Things had begun to change.

VAN BRAKLE: He couldn't visualize, you know, saying that you couldn't go in every restaurant, you know. "Just go on in and sit down." "What'd they stay out for? What's the matter with them?" No, no, no. It doesn't work like that. Couldn't visualize it. So, it's -- and, of course, now, he's 45 years old. Think of what the kids who are now 15 are thinking.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: Because -- and, so many, many are from mixed marriages and all different kinds of races. So, they're half black or half white or half Japanese and half -- so, where, you know -- it's impossible. How do you segregate today? I don't see how you can go back. There's nobody, well, there never was. There's no such thing. People say they are white. Hoooo. I think I told you the incident of someone in my office saying something and I said "Are" -- he was surprised I was black. And I said, "Well, are you white?" And he said, "Yes, I'm white." I said, "How do you know you" -- oh, he said how do I know I was black.

MINGO: Oh, oh.

VAN BRAKLE: And I said, "Are you white?" He said, "Yes." I said, "How do you know?" And he said, "Well, I know." And I said, "Well, you know, my mother's relatives all married into the white race. You and I might be cousins."

MINGO: Yes. It's such an arbitrary thing.

VAN BRAKLE: No way. My mother had six brothers. Her father was married twice. One time he had six girls and a boy. The next time he had six boys and a girl. All these brothers and sisters she had and only two of them, other than my mother, married into the black race. All the rest of them are out here somewhere. And, they changed their name. My mother's name was Escoe, E-S-C-O-E. She was Indian. And they dropped the "e". So, they were showing up E-S-C-O, or adding a few other letters or whatever. No, there's no such thing as a pure anything.

MINGO: Well, that's for sure, that's for sure.

VAN BRAKLE: So, you just -- and the little kids are all the same. Little kids all love each other. You go to the preschool and one as black as my shoes is hugging on the one that's snow white. And they just love each until somebody tells them, "Oh, you can't touch him." [laughs]

MINGO: Isn't that a sad commentary.

VAN BRAKLE: So, it's always the old folks who mess everything up.

MINGO: Yes, yes. It's a sad commentary.

VAN BRAKLE: They all love each other because everybody's born the same.

MINGO: Well, and in your talking about this neighborhood, I get that feeling, too. That people were very -- at least the home owners, not necessarily the renting people, but the home owners -- were [clears throat], excuse me, a very cohesive group and -- did they ever have any divisions? Was there, you know, anything that happened within the city or the, sort of, where there were problems in the neighborhood?

VAN BRAKLE: Not in our neighborhood. But, in my neighborhood when we moved there -- (no, it's not bothering me. I'm thinking.) When we moved in the 300 block of Fifth Street in September 1948, there were one, two, three-three black people in the block.

MINGO: Including yourselves. No?

VAN BRAKLE: No. When we moved there, there were already three black people in the block. And about six months after we moved there, another black family moved next door to us.

MINGO: And these people were homeowners?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. One -- four. There were four. The house as you're walking up Fifth Street, the first house you come to that's painted blue and white, that lady was black. Where Bruce and Susan are now those people were black. Next door to them was black. Next door to them, which is where Bob and Diane live, that lady was black. Those were the black people in the block.

MINGO: It isn't just by chance that they were all next door to each other.

VAN BRAKLE: I don't know how it got that way.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, next door to us was a German couple. And -- did they die or move? I think they moved. And, then, a black couple moved there. But, the ironical part of that is today the blue and white house, the daughter of that lady lives there.

MINGO: Oh, yes. This is the one you were telling me that there was some difficulty. And the house may be -- the woman died, right? And they are probably going to sell the house.

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-mm.

MINGO: No.

VAN BRAKLE: Not that house. The lady who lived there was Mrs. Singletary. When Mrs. Singletary -- before she died her daughter had lost her sight and the daughter came back to live with her mother because she lost her sight. And the mother, Mrs. Singletary, died and Jackie is still living there.

MINGO: It's apparent that you really enjoyed neighbors here ...

VAN BRAKLE: There're the best neighbors in the world.

MINGO: ... since, you know, since first coming here. And as we talk here I just wonder is there anything that you dislike about living on the Hill ?

VAN BRAKLE: That's the only thing I dislike is that I have no place to park.

MINGO: Oh, yes, this is a perennial problem I understand. Even before there were so many cars.

VAN BRAKLE: And that -- I'm not the only person. Anyone who lives on the Hill understands that.

MINGO: Yes, that's a real problem.

VAN BRAKLE: But, I have looked -- I been moving every year since my husband died, but I -- and I have looked. I haven't looked seriously but I have looked. I cannot find a place better.

MINGO: Well, certainly your neighbors feel that way, too. They like having you here, too, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: My neighbors -- if I put out too much trash, I get a phone call. "You aren't thinking about moving, are you?" "We'll go to the store for you." "Well, what do you want? What do you want?" [laughs] So, my neighbors don't want me to move. I can vouch for that.

MINGO: No, no. I can -- they certainly don't. Well, over time, I guess, home ownership has certainly increased, home ...

VAN BRAKLE: Ownership.

MINGO: Owners occupying their houses has increased. And, as you say, now, what's coming about now is the return of families with younger children. So, there's a little more diversity than there used to be. And the parks -- now they have playgrounds and things like that. Was that always true? These little -- Marion Park and, you know, over there ...

VAN BRAKLE: They were always better because they were safer.

MINGO: Ah.

VAN BRAKLE: And the park that's down here at -- where am I? That way.

MINGO: Marion ? Or Garfield ?

VAN BRAKLE: Garfield.

MINGO: Down by the freeway.

VAN BRAKLE: My kids used to go there and play.

MINGO: Right.

VAN BRAKLE: But, I won't let my grand, wouldn't let my grandchildren go there to play.

MINGO: Unless you went with them. I mean, there's this beautiful playground down there, yes. Parks are certainly an asset and some people think the brick sidewalks, the new brick sidewalks are an asset. Over the time that you lived here and the changes that you seen and, keeping in mind that there are problems, particularly with parking, would you have anything to kind of sum it up. What your situation here has been.

VAN BRAKLE: Any place in the Washington, D. C. area has problems. But -- and we know that. So, considering that, it's, Capitol Hill is still the best place in the city to live. And I have looked in other places since I have been a widow. I don't need to live in a four bedroom house by myself, so I have looked. But, I cannot find any place better than Capitol Hill. If I had a parking place, you couldn't get me away with a million dollars.

MINGO: [laughs] Well, I think -- I think it's a wonderful experience. And I'm very glad that you're willing to share your lifetime here and things with the people who are working on this history project. I think you knew Ruth Ann Overbeck, I believe.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, yes. I knew Ruth Ann very well. We were very good friends. I love Ruth Ann. She was a lovely, lovely person.

 
   
 
   

END OF INTERVIEW

 
   
This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck
Capitol Hill History Project. Not to be reproduced without permission.