Washingtonians Remember The Subtle Signs Of Segregation (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Washingtonians Remember The Subtle Signs Of Segregation

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
First, though, let's talk about 1939. Maurice Jackson teaches history and African-American studies at Georgetown. And, as he points out, 1939 was a pivotal year for race relations in America.

PROF. MAURICE JACKSON

00:00:15
There's so much going on because that's the same year, of course, Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit."

SHEIR

00:00:19
Which, of course, is the haunting tune that shook the jazz world and stoked support for the country's anti-lynching measures.

JACKSON

00:00:25
It's also the same year that, uh, in Washington, D.C., that Ahmet Ertegun and his brother have this big concert.

SHEIR

00:00:31
Big, as in the District's first integrated concert, performed by an interracial jazz orchestra at the Jewish Community Center.

JACKSON

00:00:38
And so you have a Muslim man bringing black music to a Jewish center, so it's quite amazing.

SHEIR

00:00:44
But the amazement of 1939 doesn't end there because, on Easter Sunday, here on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, more than 75,000 people witnessed this.

SHEIR

00:01:15
Performance by the great African-American contralto, Marian Anderson, who had been barred from Constitution Hall. That historic event is the one we're going to focus on here because it recently drew this Washington native...

MS. CAROLIVIA HERRON

00:01:33
I'm Carolivia Herron. I wrote the words for the opera, "Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson."

SHEIR

00:01:38
...into a bit of a mystery.

HERRON

00:01:40
I don't know if you ever saw it on the Internet. It was like it was viral.

SHEIR

00:01:43
All right. More than a bit of a mystery, perhaps. But, in any case, the mystery was this.

HERRON

00:01:48
Uh, whether or not anybody remembers the sign, uh, of--for colored only in Washington, D.C. around 1939.

SHEIR

00:01:55
Just to, uh, back up a bit. You know that opera Carolivia mentioned?

HERRON

00:01:58
"Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson."

SHEIR

00:02:00
It premiered in 2009 here in D.C. And now, Carolivia's adapting it as a book for young readers with help from this Washington-based artist.

MS. KESH LADDUWAHETTY

00:02:09
My name is Kesh Ladduwahetty and I'm originally from Sri Lanka, but I've lived in the District for more than 20 years now.

SHEIR

00:02:16
Kesh's doing all the illustrations. And what happened was she recently worked up this drawing, kind of montage, really, showing Marian Anderson being shut out of Constitution Hall and her brother Jack looking angry.

LADDUWAHETTY

00:02:29
And I wanted to give some indication of why Jack was so angry, so I put in a sign saying colored, with an arrow. And it started all this furor about whether Washington, D.C. had signs, overt signs for segregation.

SHEIR

00:02:48
Kesh showed the picture to Carolivia who not only grew up in D.C. but distinctly remembers her family blockbusting a neighborhood in Northwest. And when it came to colored-only signs in the 1930s, Carolivia says her mother, Georgia, had told her...

HERRON

00:03:02
In strong terms was the first time she ever saw such a sign was when she went to Virginia, so that when I saw dear Kesh here made a picture with a for-colored-only sign, essentially, I just said, it can't be.

SHEIR

00:03:16
And that is when things started to get, as Carolivia would put it, viral. She asked members of the Historic Washington Listserv to chime in about colored-only signs in 1939 and received a slew of responses.

HERRON

00:03:28
I have some really wonderful answers to the question.

SHEIR

00:03:31
But, ever the scholar, Carolivia does, after all, hold a PhD in comparative lit. She wanted definitive answers from firsthand sources.

HERRON

00:03:39
And since we needed some people who were alive in 1939, we went out and found three of them.

SHEIR

00:03:42
And all three of these life-long Washingtonians, from Betty Lichtenstein (sp?) ...

MS. BETTY LICHTENSTEIN

00:03:49
I have never seen a sign in--in Washington.

SHEIR

00:03:53
...to Charles Cassell (sp?)…

MR. CHARLES CASSELL

00:03:53
Nor have I.

SHEIR

00:03:55
...to Carolivia's mother, Georgia.

MS. GEORGIA HERRON

00:03:56
There were no signs.

SHEIR

00:03:58
Agreed, D.C. had no public signage formerly barring blacks from certain facilities back in 1939. Rather, in those days, Georgia says, what was happening was more like custom, what she calls an unwritten law.

HERRON

00:04:11
You knew where you could go and where you were welcome and so forth. Starting out with our parents and then our teachers, our pastor, now, they told us where we could go in. We knew how to act.

SHEIR

00:04:23
Now, of course, you did see official segregation, rigid segregation, in Washington's housing, jobs and schools at the time. But when it came to day-to-day things, like going out to eat or shopping, as Georgia says, it was far more subtle, so subtle, in fact, that Betty, who grew up white in a black neighborhood in Southwest, says she hardly was aware of segregation at places, like, say, Woodford (sic) & Lothrop, D.C.'s first department store.

LICHTENSTEIN

00:04:49
And somebody said that Woodie's didn't allow black people to try on clothes or use the bathrooms. I probably was not aware -- I do know the woman who spoke about not being able to go to Glen Echo. Now, how would you know that you're not supposed to...

HERRON

00:05:10
You -- just like you know everything else. Just like my mother described, we knew.

HERRON

00:05:12
Yeah, you knew.

HERRON

00:05:13
We knew we could not go. It was in the air. I wish I could remember the first person who told me.

SHEIR

00:05:19
Well, while Carolivia Herron can't recall who first clued her in, Charles Cassell says, in his case, nobody really clued him in at all.

CASSELL

00:05:27
My parents never talked much about that. My mother was constantly protecting me from anything that she thought would damage my little psyche.

SHEIR

00:05:36
So Charles says he discovered a lot of things on his own, like when he was 14 and pedaled his brand-new bike up into a white neighborhood.

CASSELL

00:05:45
Well, what did I know? I was having a good time riding my bicycle and discovering new places, you know, whereupon a white policeman stopped me and said, boy, what you doing up here in this neighborhood? Says, I'm riding my bicycle. Man, what do you think? You better get back down there where you belong. Get on down there, boy. So I turned around and went home, and I was angry, you know.

SHEIR

00:06:10
In fact, it was events like this that led to Charles Cassell's eventual involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Word has it, he went to jail, at least once, with that famous firebrand Julius Hobson. But, moving back to 1939, Georgia Herron, who actually saw Marian Anderson sing that Easter Sunday, says she can hardly believe the changes she's seen in Washington.

HERRON

00:06:33
The atmosphere is different. Now, if I go to a place that I know was a really (unintelligible) I'm proud. I feel better, and I know what the meaning of freedom is.

SHEIR

00:06:44
And, granted, says Maurice Jackson, race relations in D.C. are far from perfect. When it comes to whites and blacks, we still see disparities, like when it comes to income.

JACKSON

00:06:54
Listen, in Washington, D.C., the average white person makes $3.11 for every dollar a black person makes. The average white family makes $101,000, average black family, $39,000. Now, average, average.

SHEIR

00:07:06
But he points to another momentous occasion here at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, and says that remarkable event gives him hope.

JACKSON

00:07:17
Can you imagine seeing just a throng of people of all different colors and races, uh, in 1963 when people was still being beaten? Uh, it shows you the great possibilities, but it shows you the great obligation of American people to make sure that this society, uh, reaches its dream of full equality.

SHEIR

00:07:32
And, ideally, this dream isn't subtle or unwritten, but sung from every mountainside so freedom does, indeed, ring.
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