Forty-five years ago last June, I returned to my native Washington. My father had been with the New Deal almost from the start but in 1947 my parents moved back to their hometown of Philadelphia.
In 1957, at the age of 19, I got summer job as a radio news reporter for WWDC, then the top rated station in town. Upon graduation, I returned to WWDC and its affiliated national radio news service. Among my assignments was Capitol Hill which was far less difficult for a neophyte than it might have been thanks to the portable tape recorder I carried - one of the few such devices in town. Politicians didn't know what to do with the little mike - some almost swallowed it - but they never spurned it. The machines were so new that somewhere on tape I have a small boy asking about the mike in true wonder: "what's that?" - probably one of the last boys in the world to ask such a question.
Washington was, on the surface, a quiet, rarely air-conditioned, southern town. When I first arrived, the Ontario Theater was playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still was. The radio stations were playing Pat Boone's Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still were. Only a handful of restaurants, such as Anna Maria's, the A.V. Ristorante, and spots along U Street stayed open after midnight. It was still illegal to drink standing up or to carry your drink from the bar to your table.
Despite the apparent somnolence, though, DC was undergoing a mass migration of blacks from further south. Almost from its beginning, DC had been the first stop in the promised land. Now the city had turned into a majority black town.
There was, however, nothing remotely approaching black power. Prejudice permeated every pore of the city. More than once, when calling the Metropolitan police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told - quote- "Nothin' but a few nigger stabbings." The local papers routinely listed the race of both victims and perpetrators in crime stories. At the annual Brotherhood Week luncheon at a local hotel, the only blacks present were the waiters. Many places were still segregated. Even ten years later I would discover that west of the park had more African-American books in its public libraries than the rest of DC combined.
After graduation, I quickly accepted the invitation of my friend Larry Smith – no relative - to move in with him on Capitol Hill.
Larry had grown up at 101 5th St. NE in a tall Victorian row structure that for many years doubled as a boarding house for congressional pages. It is now the Bull Moose Bed and Breakfast. Larry's mother, Olive Smith, a 1920 graduate of Smith College, ran the boarding house, raised three sons and, from the late fifties on, served as ad hoc den mother for a succession of Harvard men passing through the city. Larry's father, a native of Ireland, was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Mrs. Smith -- Olive behind her back -- had values, opinions, wisdom and specific knowledge in the manner of any good den mother. These she would offer on request or otherwise. Somewhere in my files is a note from her complaining about my use of the phrase "nearly unique" and another arguing that one can not have shades of black and especially in writing about it.
The Smiths also owned a boarding house at the other end of the block at 125 5th Street. Larry had the top floor. He was employed by the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, had the haircut and build of the Archbishop Carroll varsity basketball player he had formerly been, but the library of the Harvard English instructor and Ph.D. he would eventually become. His collection already comprised about 600 volumes, all carefully cataloged on 3 by 5 cards.
There was still, however, plenty of time for parties, which were frequent and flowing. 125 5th became a popular liberty port for friends stationed as far away as Fort Holabird in Baltimore and the naval base in Norfolk. With the draft blowing down my own neck, I would eventually apply for admission to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. I was accepted, but after leaving my job, was put off to a later class. Which is how I found myself looking for work in a basement office of a row house on New Jersey Avenue SE, a few blocks from the Capitol. Out of this long, sunken, slovenly space was published the weekly newspaper, Roll Call. In the center of the room, with its low lights, brick wall, overstuffed bookcases and casual furniture, were three desks. The first would be mine for the next several months. The second was assigned to an ad representative who might or might not be employed at any given moment and if employed might or (more probably) might not be in the office depending upon the current status of her not inconsiderable array of personal problems which, according to the frequent testimony of the man behind the third and rearmost desk, were due to alcohol, insanity, sexual dysfunction and various other character flaws which in aggregate left him to sell the frigging ads as well as having to edit the whole damn paper himself.
This aggrieved man was Sid Yudain, the editor. He was tall, of medium build with wavy swept back hair and heavy black horned rimmed glasses He smoked a pipe and talked out of the tiny space between the stem and the corner of his lips and generally affected the manner of a Catskills comedian engaged in contract negotiations.
Roll Call was largely supported by advertising. Some of the advertising was paid for, some was run and not paid for, and some was published and eaten. Sid was a bachelor whose sole interest in cooking consisted of making coffee when no one else was around to do it for him. Among the purposes of the paper, therefore, was to feed the editor. Sid traded restaurant ads for free meals. It was a shrewd business move. While plenty of advertisers failed to pay for their ads, none refused to serve him.
Sid regarded my arrival as a possible break in his ill-deserved fortune and set me to writing what would sometimes be as many as a half dozen stories a week on such topics as a new 300-car parking lot for the Senate, hiring prospects in the next House of Representatives, how the great iron dome of the Capitol gyrated several feet a day in the heat of the sun, and how, as I recall, 1600 people would be able to go to the bathroom at the same time in the new Rayburn House building. I was most proud, however, of a Christmas poem I wrote that filled a whole page and contained the names of all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Three years later, I returned from the Coast Guard to 125 5th Street and started an alternative journal called the Idler out of my apartment. I also received a green card from the Coast Guard that instructed me, in case of national emergency, to report for duty at the Navy Yard in seven days. So I carefully plotted my course, a last breakfast at the Stanton Grill, lunch at Jimmie T's, cocktails at Tune Inn and so forth. I roomed with Larry's brother David, who would become a longtime resident of 6th Street, and later with George Watson, a reporter for the Washington Post.
Although in a few years there were be hundreds of underground papers, at the time I had only a few models: the Realist, the Texas Observer, the Carolina Israelite and Roll Call. One of the stories I wrote was a defense of Adam Clayton Powell, called 'Keep the Seat, Baby,' which earned me an invitation to visit the man himself. I walked into his office at ten a.m. only to confront the largest bar I had ever seen on a private premise. Powell flung opened the bar and announced, "This, Sam, is what comes of serving the lord."
Along the way, I met another Smith - Bob Smith -- no relative but a Presbyterian minister and an Alinsky-trained organizer who was laying the foundation for a major community coalition. Bob and I had some long talks into which I would occasionally slip my dream of starting a neighborhood newspaper. Bob urged me to do so and promised to help and before long the paper was born.
In our neighborhood, the Age of Aquarius often looked more like a war zone. Many of the people there were not part of a counter-culture but of an abandoned one. Even the jukebox at the Stanton Grill -- purveyors of Greek and American food to white Appalachian boarding house residents -- played the Supremes and the Temptations, not Bob Dylan.
I bought a traditional Washington row house at 413 6th Street NE after becoming engaged, but before getting married. I had assured Kathy that the neighborhood was safe. It was, after all, only about four blocks away from where I was already living. The neighborhood kids who helped me move weren't so sure. Over lunch at my new abode, one observed that he "wouldn't come over here with the whole US Marines."
"But," replied another, "it's better than Death Alley"
I looked quizzical.
"You know, Sam, that alley behind your apartment." I had never thought about it from a kid's point of view, but he was right: the dead end of Death Alley would not be a pleasant place to be trapped.
When I returned to my new house the next morning, I found that one of my prized possessions was gone already, an eight-foot styrofoam sailing dinghy precisely named the One Iota. The window in the basement was broken and mast, oars, rudder, daggerboard, lifejackets and sails were all gone. Nothing else in the house had been touched. Clearly a ruthless gang of cheap sailing dinghy thieves had been at work.
I walked down to the 9th Precinct -- then claiming the city's worst crime rate -- and reported a stolen boat. The desk officer looked intently at the Polaroid I had brought along. "Would you like to keep it?" I asked. "No, I wouldn't know where to file it."
Later that same day, Thomas Glasgow Smith, no relative but attorney at law and about the foulest-mouthed, drunkenest, craziest paragon of decency I ever met, called to say that he had borrowed the One Iota and would soon be returning it. It seems he had been on the eastern shore and had decided at about two in the morning to go for a sail and thought I wouldn't mind.
Which is one of the reasons I was less than totally surprised by the subsequent forced entry by mantelpiece. One of the perps, after all, was Tom Smith. One afternoon I had come home and found my front door busted open. Through the void, Tom and another friend were pushing an ugly old mantle piece they thought would look nice around my fireplace.
Tom was beloved in the neighborhood until about the third drink after which almost anything was possible. He had, as chair of the local recreation council, once called a 6:30 am emergency meeting to deal with the just discovered gross misplacement of several pieces of park play equipment only a few feet from a freeway entrance ramp. We had sleepily gathered in a nearby home as Tom awakened the city's recreation director with a torrent of obscenities. The equipment was moved later that day.
I bought a building for the Gazette at 109 8th Street NE where, among other things, I enjoyed occasional conversations with a 9th Precinct police officer who would drop by. I had known the officer over the years, mainly as his sister's younger brother. He had first come around shortly after graduating from Harvard to discuss what he was going to do with his life. One of the options had been to join the police department. I attempted to discourage him but to no avail. He took the job and ended up in my own precinct and with my own office on his beat. Officer Don Graham would continue to ignore my advice in his later employment at the Washington Post.
The meat and potatoes of our coverage were the endless meetings taking place in the community. Not a few of the meetings were spurred by questions as to what to do and who should do it with the money coming from the war on poverty. Everyone knew Robert's Rules of Order and its locally sanctioned addendum: "Mr. Chairman, I have an unreadiness." Sometimes meetings broke up in pandemonium. One was literally turned around after the chair declared it illegal. The vice chair, a minister and cab driver who wore a clerical collar around his neck and a coin holder on his belt, stood up in the back of the room and announced that the meeting would go on and requested everyone to turn their chairs around. Most did, leaving the chairman speechless in what was now the rear.
On another occasion this same preacher-cabbie urged the audience to "Calm the tempest, bridle tongues, and govern our thoughts." It didn't work. The minutes of the group bring back the flavor, if not the purpose, of the dispute:
The meetings may have seemed chaotic but they were actually part of a community coming alive, of power being transferred to better places, and of the anarchistic results of discovering hope. And you met some wonderful people covering the story, people like the Reverend Imogene Stewart of the Revolutionary Church of What's Happening Now. And activist Lucille Goodwin, a long-time resident of Langston Terrace public housing who had plenty to talk about. A memo had come in the mail that she wanted to read, someone was putting something over on someone else, or perhaps she just had to report that at some local meeting "those folks messed themselves up good last night." She carried out her civic functions with an energy more typical of one half her age, and she did so despite an ill and old husband who had to be helped in and out of rooms and who would sit quietly in a corner fiddling with a little plastic soldier while his wife took on the accumulated offenses of the system. It was her intensity and concern more than her language that carried her through, and she would toss around transliterated multi-syllabic words like confetti. Everyone knew just what Lucille Goodwin meant even if they hadn't understood what she said. One day, though, she ended her call with a message that still hangs around. "You know how you got to treat them people downtown, Sam?" she asked, and then without waiting offered the solution: "You gotta technique 'em."
Leaders of a reform movement at the Edmunds-Peabody Elementary School were forced to technique 'em at a meeting so heated and controversial that the citywide PTA had sent its president and two vice presidents to serve as monitors. The organization's vice president, Bessie Turner, repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with instructions such as "Madame Chairman, the names of the nominated slate must be on the left had side of the board." During a break, I attempted to engage the formidable Turner in conversation. She told me, "I'm not interested in reporters. I defy you to write anything I don't want in."
In the end, Ted Jones won the heated election for president by a vote of 28 to 26. Mrs. Turner called the new officers forward. Ramrod straight, she instructed the audience to rise as she recited the "objects" of the organization,. Asked whether they intended to help the new officers attend to their duties, the parents obediently responded, "I do." Mrs. Turner then told the officers that "I sincerely hope you will follow your manual. If you follow its provisions you will not get into any difficulty." She handed Jones his gavel but said he couldn't have the official PTA president's pin because he wasn't a woman and that the pin would be held in escrow until the election of the next woman president. . .
While we're on the subject, the previous speaker has alluded to certain titular inadequacies on the masthead. I would say in my defense that had Kathy been called 'Assistant Editor' instead of "Editor's Wife,' it would have only been a matter of time before she would have started complaining about the glass ceiling at the Gazette, and then where would I have been? We eventually resolved the matter chronologically. She took care of everything before 1960, I handled everything thereafter. She didn't notice that her sphere of influence was rigidly fixed, while mine grew daily.
Instead she was much more usefully occupied, complaining about the lack of an arts section. I didn't want an arts section in part because I had flunked Fine Arts 13 - not realizing that you couldn't pass it like I passed other course, through last minute cram reading. I finally got tired of Kathy's pressure and said, "Look, if you want an arts section go out and find one." Within two weeks she had come back with Joel Siegel - later of City Paper - and Tom Shales. Shales continued writing for the Gazettes under the pseudonym Egbert Souse even after joining the Post, until his editor found out and put an stop to it. In one of his columns, he quoted someone saying of the Post's new Style section that what the Post needed now was a section called Substance.
Our arts section eventually included such Capitol Hill writers as Sallie Crowell, Clarissa Wittenberg, Jean and Val Lewton, Patricia Griffith, and Roland Freeman.
Roland had introduced himself by screaming at me over the phone. We had run the striking front page shot of two karate students you saw earlier that was sent us by the Southeast Enrichment Center., I quickly learned from Roland that the photo had been his, that we should have given him credit, that he was a poor black drop-out who was working at a car wash trying to break into photography and how could we have been so cruel and so forth. Normally, I would have felt chastened, but Roland's aggressiveness sparked an uncharacteristic response: I started yelling back at him.
"What you do is you go and get yourself a frigging rubber stamp that reads 'Credit Roland Freeman, Photographer, all rights reserved' and you stamp every photo you take with that stamp and then you'll be a real photographer and I won't print anymore of your frigging photos without giving you credit."
We both quieted down and the next thing I knew Roland was the Gazette's photo editor. Later he would win the first photographic grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and become a nationally known photographer and an expert on African-American quilting.
The Gazette would also introduce DC readers to such offbeat syndicated gems as Tony Auth, Tom Tomorrow and Bill Griffith's Zippy as well as a funny new columnist named Dave Barry, long before they fell into the journalistic mainstream.
The paper would also be a voice against the freeways, the Vietnam War, and the destruction of such buildings as the old Post Office and the Willard. Our article on why and how DC could become a state would a few months later inspired the creation of the DC statehood movement. We supported light rail and bikeways long before either were popular, published the first urban planning comic strip in America and published the only regular column at the time by a prison inmate for an outside publication. Our arts section would eventually become a separate publication, the Washington Review, and have a happy life of its own for a quarter of a century.
It could be funny, sad or just maddening. In 1967 I expressed my frustration in a piece for another paper. It was written as a letter to a friend moving into my neighborhood:
There was always something to save – such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park – and something to promote - such as Jane Hardin's new combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Avenue where - unfortunately - on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up all the pipes. And I wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, "There's trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing." Fulwood would eventually become the chief of police, but not until our children had been baptized together at St. Marks.
In the end, things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even on Capitol Hill.
In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:
In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:
On the evening of April 4, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of King's death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted cops.
The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away.
Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as the black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the city had run out of fire equipment. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.
We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and we laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.
At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn’t in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any fronts, I thought, so this is what war is like.
We drove past a gutted store on 14th Street that suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards us. That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were.
For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions that much of the other part had refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration, and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.
The strange ambivalences -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation, -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out.
Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photographic arts dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.
Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettess on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"
"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."
On the other hand, Helen and Lee, of Helen & Lee's Chinese carryout were totally indifferent to politics. They ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich -- the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee's Carryout.
Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront window filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There were Arab sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.
"Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack told our reporter. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"
The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street.
Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Marines with fixed bayonets protected the troops' clothing inside a laundry on 8th Street . The riots had created their own rules.
At the time of the riot, nearly 25% of the labor force in greater Capitol Hill was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had only 8 years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service outdoors on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.
But the riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street would remain depressed for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed, as was Friendship House. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael told the whites in the room that we were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived. The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. For me, hope had lost its virginity.
About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America.
Later I would explain it all by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn't really funny. And it still hurts.
COPYRIGHT SAM SMITH 2002
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This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck