Thank you, Tom [Sherwood]. Sam and I have been very fortunate to count you as a friend for so many years. The city is truly lucky to have someone in our press corps so committed to the well being of this city—someone who does not shy away from asking the hard questions.
Giving a talk in a lecture series created in honor of Ruth Ann Overbeck has very special meaning for me. For years there was only a small band of people who recognized how much research needed to be done to save the local history of Washington, DC., and did something about it! Ruth Ann was a pioneer, and a model for us all. I had the privilege to work with her on the neighborhood book I edited-- Washington at Home--for which she wrote two chapters—one on Capitol and one on Deanwood in Ward 7 in Far Northeast. She was among the first to see the need to go beyond the traditional approaches of architectural history usually applied to urban neighborhoods and fully delve into the social and cultural history of such places, and then show how the two were intricately entwined. I miss her as a colleague and a friend.
Now I have to say that this is the first time Sam and I have ever shared the same podium, and we don’t know quite how it is going to turn out! While we have been great partners for more than 35 years, we have also been seen standing next to one another a polling places handing out literature for opposing candidates. So we’ll see if we agree with one another tonight!
It is a pleasure, however, for both of us to be invited here—and honored by this amazing turn out. But then, I’ve been to other similarly sold out lectures in this series, and it seems that the success is a tribute more to this community than to the speakers. I’d say this kind of event is evidence of one of the reasons Sam and I found a move back to Capitol Hill so appealing. There is a commitment to this place, and real interaction amongst the people.
I’ve been a student of neighborhoods in Washington for some time. And one of the things that is clear to me is that a neighborhood is not always a community. A neighborhood is a physical place with a name. But to be a community—or more accurately a set of interrelated communities—takes networks of social relationships of all kinds. Capitol Hill to my mind has always been not only a neighborhood but a community. I was delighted that almost the first thing Steve Cymrot said to me after we moved back here was that he remembered a phrase from Sam’s book Captive Capital, published almost 30 years ago, writing about Capitol Hill. “You don’t move to Capitol Hill,” Sam wrote, “you join it.”
That kind of involvement--even if not civic action, but just commitment to the place as having a strong and beloved character of its own--is most interesting to me as a historian of Washington and its neighborhoods. What makes places unique. Why do some function as strong communities and others not? How many neighborhoods in Washington, for example, other than Capitol Hill, have two neighborhood newspapers!
One of the amazing things about getting older, if you’re lucky, is to look back and find some patterns in what you’ve been doing all your life. For me, and I have been lucky to do this work, it has been to try to connect the people of Washington with the rich history of their local city as hometown as well as national capital. Getting ready to invite some of our tourists to see the real city of Washington beyond the monuments, is a way to do that. I just have to show you two projects of the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition that will be coming to your neighborhood soon!
We are creating a citywide system of marked heritage trails. You may have seen the first two—downtown and in the Shaw/U Street neighborhood. Thanks to the energy and community spirit typical of Capitol Hill, you will be next, with a trail centered on 8th Street SE. It’s all because of Linda Gallagher, and Jill Dowling of the Barracks Row Main Street Program, with lots of help from many others, including Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society
Nancy and others are also out front in our project to turn our abandoned police and fire call boxes into pieces of local art and history—icons for the neighborhood. To get involved, see Nancy.
But now let me get to the topic—the 1960s on the Hill. How many in the audience were here in the 1960s ? I hope you will correct me if I’ve got things wrong, and that you will add you memories to ours in the question period.
Add memory poem here?
My memories start with this photograph, and I have to admit were it is lost in the mists. But it is a block party somewhere on the Hill. If Sam and I are not in this picture, we should be because this was our scene.
Sam got here before I did, moving to 5th ST. NE in 1959. I moved here when we got married in 1966. We were joined by many other people of our age—late twenties and early 30s, who were looking for the stimulation and diversity that an inner city neighborhood had to offer. And, like many others at the time, we were committed to helping to create a new model for city life that was built upon not only equal rights for all, but social interaction between people of different races and different classes.
And it was a cauldron. 1966 was the height of the Poverty Program, and at the heart of the civil rights movement. There was agitation for home rule for Washington—beginning to make some headway for the first time—for integrated and better schools, child care for women beginning to go into the workforce in great numbers, better play places for our children, and better housing. And there was the fight against the freeways, their proposed routes designed to cut through the fabric of our communities. Many Capitol Hill residents were in the middle of it all. There were meetings and meetings and meetings, night after night, in church basements, school auditoriums, and living rooms.
What was so interesting about all of this on Capitol Hill, it seems to me, was that we were living in almost a village-like atmosphere, both in terms of the architectural feel of the place—the intimate streetscapes and small gardens--and its church and school-based civic and social activity. AND we were cheek by jowl with the bastion of national power—the Capitol of the United States, where national legislation was setting the national agenda for revolutionary change in our society. Many of us had contact with this world, while at the same time we were trying make these new national ideals of equality and justice and healthier cities a reality in our community and our day-to-day lives.
Sam started a neighborhood newspaper in 1966, the year we were married—the Capitol East Gazette-- and for the first few years of our marriage I worked with him on it. It was a baptism of fire for me. This was no ordinary local newspaper. Sam waded into all of the intense controversy of the time. The paper was called the Capitol East Gazette, with racially inclusive boundaries that went from H Street NE on the North and the Anacostia River on the East and South—at a time when many residents preferred to speak of a much smaller neighborhood called Capitol Hill. And at a time when tensions between black and white were high even as progress was being made, Sam’s paper spoke to both.
I was similarly committed, but having come from a conservative family in Wisconsin where talk of politics was avoided, this was a new scene for me.
It wasn’t but months after we were married that I found myself in the basement of the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church with about 40 assorted neighbors who maintained that they were going to stop the freeways! At the time, the East Leg of the Inner Loop of the freeway system was scheduled to cut through the National Arboretum and Anacostia Park to Barney Circle and to the 11th Street bridge and then connect to the soon to be extended Southeast Expressway. It was one of many multi-lane freeways aimed at the heart of such neighborhoods as Brookland and Cleveland Park. The very idea that this modest crowd, not a power player among them, thought it could stop the freeways was amazing to me. But they and others like them did. It was a big lesson for me. Margaret Mead said it best when she wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.”
About the same time, a few neighbors, including Marguerite Kelly and Janie Boyd (and perhaps others whose names should be mentioned here) decided to take on the Safeway chain for providing poorer food selections in lower income neighborhoods, and raising prices when welfare checks came out. Suddenly there I was, thanks to persuasive friends, picketing my local Safeway. Their initiative actually led to hearings in the House of Representatives, and a huge embarrassment to Safeway when Rep. Henry Reuss decided to do some comparison grocery shopping himself during the lunch time break.
He found green peppers with holes and scrawny lettuce at Capitol hill stores that didn’t compare to those at the International Safeway not far away in downtown. And he was charged more than the posted price for the cans of tuna fish and Hawaiian Punch he put in his shopping cart. When confronted with the evidence, the flustered Capitol Hill store manager said it was all due to human error. Reuss said later from the dais in the hearing room, “In an hour and a half, I found quite a bit of human error.”
Another national figure took an interest in Capitol Hill—Mrs. Lyndon Johnson—Ladybird. The waves of daffodils along Rock Creek Parkway and the George Washington Parkway today are reminders of her creative caring for the District of Columbia. Her beautification program extended special interest to Capitol Hill, where her planner Lawrence Halprin laid out plans for vest pocket parks, improved school playgrounds, community recreation centers, and major improvements to Anacostia Park.
Her interest was a boon for a Capitol Hill organization in which I was heavily involved—the Emergency Recreation Council, which had been working toward the same ends. (Everything, by the way, was an emergency in those days.) The Council represented about 70 Capitol Hill organizations in lobbying for better recreational facilities for the Hill. We put out a major report listing all the public property and abandoned buildings that could be put to better use. The tot lots you still see around the Hill date to this initiative. And so does the Natatorium on N. Carolina Avenue next to Eastern Market—a structure that replaced an empty firehouse. To get the federal funds needed for this required testimony before Congressman William Natcher—then considered the enemy because he was blocking funds for a subway system until the freeways were built. I still remember my quivery testimony on behalf of a neighborhood swimming pool, looking up at the august presence peering down on me from his elevated dais. “Thank you very much,” is all he said, to my mixed disappointment and relief. But we got the swimming pool.
The racially integrated Emergency Recreation Council, by the way, was headed by a gentleman who inspired us all, a retired African American resident of the Hill who had been a coal miner, John Anthony. I’m repeating this slide so you can see his picture at the top—taken on a sunrise walk the ERC sponsored along the Anacostia River. We had monthly meetings where we did business, but we also had social events, including an annual New Year’s Eve party that did truly look and feel like the ideal integrated community of great diversity that we were trying to create.
In looking back at this period, it brings me up short to remember how much we were on the cutting edge of the equal rights movement. How could it be only 35 years ago that a white, first year teacher at Hine Junior High School—Sue Ruff-- could be told by her principal that she could only teach with approved teaching materials. During what was then called Negro History Month, she had played a documentary record on the freedom movement in Georgia, and by some accounts even had her students reading Raison in the Sun. Things were made uncomfortable for her, and she shortly resigned in frustration.
The riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968 and their aftermath on Capitol Hill and throughout the city were front and center in the Gazette. Sam was putting difficult material in front of his readers. Assisted by Roland Freeman’s excellent photographs, the Gazette did not shy away from looking at the root causes of the disturbances—poverty, injustice, poor housing, and joblessness.
To deal with it, citizens on Capitol Hill created organizations for everything. And there were voices to be heard on all sides of the issues; there was always disagreement. There was the School Action Council of Capital East, the Public Interest Citizens’ Association, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the Southeast Citizens Association, the Near Southeast Advisory Council, the Edmonds Peabody Community Action Group, the Capitol East Community Organization, The Capitol Hill Community Council and the Circle on the Hill for Friendship House and on and on.
For me and for many of us, Friendship House was a focal point—a social service center conceived in the settlement house mode that was now the recipient of the neighborhood’s Poverty Program funds. While tensions rooted in this change caused serious problems—including a fire bombing of the House—what stands out for me as I reread the accounts in the Gazette is how hard we were all working to make things work. This was hard work. We were in the belly of the beast.
A lot of my energy went into the Circle on the Hill for Friendship House, an organization of women created to support the work of the House, but who were also activists who used this platform to tackle all the hard issues of the day, including the needs of our local schools. Marty Swaim wrote such excellent Congressional testimony on the DC Public School budget on behalf of the Circle that she became recognized as an expert on the school budget and ended up the Ward 6 Representative on the School Board.
The Circle raised money for Friendship House with the annual Market Day event. as it continues to do. Almost all of us at that time were full time mothers, with some such as myself working part time jobs. We got together to learn to make sour cream coffee cake for the bake sale and sew items for the bazaar. When I look at the columns I wrote and edited for the Gazette, I am amazed to see that I was dealing with quick family recipes and household and child rearing hints. I am reminded that when a friend came to visit from New York in 1967 and told about something called the Women’s Movement, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what in the world she was talking about. Going back over all this reminds me what amazing changes our generation has gone through—for people of color and for women.
I was enormously embarrassed to see, in looking back at the old issues of the Gazette, that I dubbed myself “The Editor’s Wife” on the masthead and at the head of my column. I’m so embarrassed to show you this, but at this point we might need a laugh, even if is at my own expense. I thought it was funny and apt because I, in fact, acted like the paper’s wife in doing whatever needed to be done, from writing and editing to making the coffee. However, a younger and wiser woman who worked with us was outraged and even encouraged letters of protest to the editor to stop this insult! My eyes were opened and the title went.
I had another lesson from a another woman in the neighborhood about this time—the great feminist Alice Paul, who had led the fight for the woman’s vote and was now in her 80s a champion of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1968, I went to the headquarters of the World Woman’s Party on 2nd and Maryland Avenue for a story for the Gazette. Part of the historic structure was in danger of demolition because of the imminent construction of the Hart Office Building. Alice Paul herself opened the door—with a McCarthy for president button on her suit. She said she would be happy to take me on a tour of the house, but only after I got on the phone to my Congressman on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment—she led me to the phone on her desk. When I protested I didn’t have a Congressman, but that I used to work for Senator Gaylord Nelson, she said, well then call him! So I did. It was a lesson in persistence.
There was quite a bit of interaction between our village-like neighborhood and the major figures and issues of the day—because of who we where and where we were right on Capitol Hill. When the Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy following the death of Martin Luther King, settled into Resurrection City on the Mall, and then sank into the mud due to endless rain, many of us opened our homes and church facilities to take people in. Abernathy at one point addressed a gathering at Ebenezer Methodist Church at 4th and D, SE, before he led the group to the Capitol. You see him here at the center, with his hand to his head. Rev. Richard Johnson of Ebenezer is at the left.
So what else do I remember? I remember a good friend who went with me to the anti-Anti Ballistic Missile rally at the District building in 1969, taking along her two-year old son. We chanted “No ABM, No ABM, No ABM” as we marched through the halls. Her son considered the whole thing an anti-toilet training demonstration and dutifully withheld the need to use the facilities until he could be convinced otherwise. Another friend confided that, since she always took her children and a lunch along on with her to demonstrations, they came to think there was no difference between picnic and picket.
Here is one example—a hurried gathering of women and their children and lunch to take on the National Park Service in Lincoln Park. Hazel Kreinhider, seen here with her son, who lived near the park, as I recall, saw men in National Park Service gear getting ready to take down four giant trees in the park. She got on the phone and within minutes a staunch and determined group of women, young children in tow, were on hand to see what was going on. It turned out the trees had the misfortune of standing where new cement walks were to be. “The only reason they aren’t gone,” they were told, “was I forgot to bring the big saw.” In the end, the women convinced the establishment that three of the four trees could be put in tree boxes and saved. I’m not sure they are still there, but they survived that day due to some fast action by the women of the Hill.
I also spent a lot of time with the women who decided to start the Capitol East Children’s Center. Its home would be a church basement; its goals were visionary. We would have a pre-school program in the morning and day care in the afternoon. We would provide infant care all day. We would be totally integrated racially and economically. It was one of the most rewarding activities I was ever engaged in. Once again we came up against eye-opening issues. While our middle-class parents had the luxury of favoring creative playtime, our colleagues from lower income families wanted their children to learn to read as soon as possible. We worked at it, and the center went on to serve many families in a number of different locations until its recent demise.
So what do I take away from all of this? Well to return to a lighter note, going back over these issues reminded me we looked pretty funny in those days. This was taken in front of The Emporium run by Len Kirsten, a regular advertiser in the Gazette.
But it also amazes me is that—while all this seems in a way long ago—the monumental changes we were living through are actually very recent. Was it really just about 40 years ago that legislation passed to finally enfranchise people of color? Is it really only about 40 years ago that women began to gain a voice in the workplace and in the government? My generation has been involved in a revolutionary period in American history, and this neighborhood I would dare say was more involved than most in actually working out the details. I’m glad I was here then, and I’m glad I’m back.
Now you are going to hear some really good stories. Lord knows what they are! He didn’t tell me because I might have said, You can’t say that! So, like you, I’m going to listen and hear how this all looked to Sam.
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This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck