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July 24th, 2008
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Growing up segregated

Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET


We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.

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Editor’s Note: In 1989, Carl Bernstein published a memoir about growing up in a segregated, McCarthy-era Washington, titled Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir. Part of the book focuses on Washingtonians –including Bernstein’s parents and their black and white friends – who worked to desegregate public places in the nation’s capital. It was a Jim Crow town, including its restaurants, hotels, and the segregated schools that Carl attended until he was in the sixth grade, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation of public education– in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It is a little remembered fact that the companion case to Brown was Bolling v. Sharpe, in which the justices held unanimously that “Racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia is a denial to Negro children of the due process of law guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.”

The following excerpt from Loyalties describes the demonstrations Bernstein participated in—as a child–in 1951 and 1952.

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Carl Bernstein
CNN Political Analyst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A follow up by Bernstein, from today:

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


Filed under: Black in America • Carl Bernstein
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Jackie

    No one talks about how the blacks were captured by their own people and sold into slavery. Why? When you ask a Black how they came to be here, they don't know about this part. They only know about the white man, not their own people who sold them.

    White in America? Many whites were denied jobs by white personnel because Blacks had to be given a chance. Too bad the white personnel didn't give up their jobs.

    July 24, 2008 at 11:58 pm |
  2. Cliff

    Rosie, you have a rare quality. Most things are what they are. They get better or worse from time to time.
    Abe Lincoln once said, and I paraphrase, " People are generally about as happy as they want to be."
    In all candor I believe Obama to be just another politician who will say anything to get elected. I hope, for your sake, if he's elected he doesn't disappoint you.

    July 24, 2008 at 9:50 pm |
  3. Rosie

    I grew up in, what is called, the Jim Crow era. I drank from the water fountains marked colored -white; entered the doors marked colored and white; sit in the back of the bus; sit in the back seats of the theater; attended all black schools, but I never viewed White's as being any different than any other people.
    I never allowed the past nor the Jim Crow era, in which I grew up, to dictate the type of person I would become. When I became old enough to understand why such signs existed, and how my ancestor's had been treated; sorry, of heart, not only came because of my own people, but for White's also.
    I cried out to God, asking that he forgive those who had behaved, toward my people, in an unchristian way. Then I cried, great and painful tears, for the pain and anguish of spirit, endured by my ancestor's. When I had finished, my heart felt nothing but love for White's, and great pride in the strength shown by my ancestor's.
    We cannot undo the past, nor can we erase it from America's history. But what we can do, is learn from the past unchristian behavior, and join Obama, who is trying to cut the umbilical cord so that the generations, to come, will not spend their lives as we have; divided by ghost from the past. Which is to say, we did not see it, but it happen. But we do see one another today, therefore it is up to us to change course, while we can yet see one another; rather than leave our history to become the ghost of the generations to come.

    July 24, 2008 at 7:28 pm |
  4. Eddie

    A very interesting insight into what was going on from a white youngster's perspective. I wasn't born then but it still is a bit painful to hear of the way the black segment of society was treated and mistreated. It still strikes me to read in the writings here a reference 'Negros' and Jim Crow. It doesn' t raise my pulse as much as it once did but it is a helpful and frustrating reminder of what my parents must have had to go through as children, young adults and parents.

    The stories of children peeing on themselves because they couldn't us a nearby restroom stings. My wife an I have children and it is all I can do to make sure we are near restrooms (especially for those being potty trained) while we are out to keep from having to find a bathroom quickly to avoid an accident. I'm usually more concerned about having to clean the car or taking out the spare outfits if there are accidents than my children suffering from any shame of peeing on themselves. The notion of running for blocks while my child tries to hold her (or his) bladder would bring me to tears too. The society I was raised in has afforded me the luxury of being enraged by injustice (imagine luxury in rage...) because I don't have the experience of having my voice pummelled out of me. We are standing on the shoulders of those who sacraficed, waged war, and endangered themselves for our sakes. Because I am learning what previous generations endured and how they faught to provide the rights we have today, I can't take the rights for granted.

    Thanks again for the glimpse through your looking glass.

    July 24, 2008 at 2:04 pm |
  5. JC- Los Angeles

    Very well written and a poignant reminder of the times; an apt follow up for today's America might be "Growing Up Integrated or at Least Trying To."

    Yesterday I wrote a few comments where I metaphorically tried to articulate that today's America is a diverse tapestry that is getting brighter and more colorful each day.

    The response to my comments was vast and flattering; whether you agree with my positions or staunchly disagree, I respect everyone equally and welcome an open dialogue leading to advancement for all.

    My thoughts and ideals come from how I was raised and my life experiences; although they may differ from others, they help define who I am and provide me with an ample understanding and an open mind.

    Los Angeles and it's 140 nationalities may be at the high end of the diversity spectrum but it also helps shed light on the important issues of race, diversity, opportunity, culture, integration and advancement.

    How is it that an asian immigrant can land on our shores, often times having been persecuted at home and within one generation marry, start a family, become a business owner and send his/her children to our nation's finest schools?

    The answer may be opportunity; hard work; sacrifice; commitment; a culture of success or an unyielding desire to provide children with an education and opportunities that were not afforded him or her.

    Similar examples could easily be found within any race, however, it's the people that take advantage of the myriad of opportunities afforded all Americans that rise up and set the bar for all other citizens.

    Having endless amounts of friends of all races, religions and creeds that I embrace equally, it's unfortunate sometimes to think that we can't change the past and the unjust treatment of good people.

    I can not change the past and most certainly have no understanding of our future, I can merely hope that we all embrace our opportunities and become truly integrated one day.

    July 24, 2008 at 1:45 pm |
  6. Cindy

    Great excerpt from Carl's book! Thanks for sharing. I didn't even know about it or his past working for equality with his family.

    He is a great writer BTW...he really paints a great picture so that you feel like you are almost there. I may have to get this book to read!

    Cindy...Ga.

    July 24, 2008 at 1:25 pm |