The year 1939 was pivotal for race relations in America. As Georgetown’s history and African-American studies professor, Maurice Jackson, points out, it’s the year Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit,” the haunting tune that shook the jazz world and stoked support for the country’s anti-lynching measures. It’s also the same year the Ertegun brothers organized the District’s first integrated concert, performed by an interracial jazz orchestra at the Jewish Community Center.
“So you have a Muslim man, bringing black music, to a Jewish center,” says Jackson. “So it’s quite amazing!”
But the amazement of 1939 doesn’t end there, because on Easter Sunday, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, more than 75,000 people witnessed a performance by the great African-American contralto, Marian Anderson, who had been barred from Constitution Hall. And it’s this event that drew Washington native Carolivia Herron, librettist for the opera, “Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson,” into a mystery: “whether or not anybody remembers the sign for “Colored Only” in Washington, D.C., around 1939.”
Herron’s opera premiered in 2009, and now she’s adapting it as a book for young readers with help from Washington-based artist Kesh Ladduwhahetty, who moved from Sri Lanka to D.C. twenty years ago. Ladduwhahetty recently worked up a drawing of Marian Anderson being shut out of Constitution Hall, and her brother, Jack, looking angry.
“I wanted to give some indication of why Jack was so angry,” she says. “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.”
Signs of segregation
When Ladduwhahetty showed the picture to Herron, Herron sensed something was not right. When it came to ‘Colored Only’ signs in the 1930s, Herron says her mother, Georgia, had told her “in strong terms that the first time she’d ever seen such a sign was when she went to Virginia. So that when I saw dear Kesh here wrote a picture with a ‘For Colored Only’ sign, essentially, I just said, ‘it can’t be!’”
Herron asked members of the Historic Washington listserv to chime in about “Colored Only” signs in 1939, and received a slew of responses. But when she polled actual Washingtonians who remember that year, she was told that, indeed, D.C. had no public signage formally barring blacks from certain facilities.
Rather, in those days, says Herron’s mother, Georgia, what was happening was more like custom, or “unwritten law… you knew where you could go and where you were welcome and so forth. It started out with our parents, and then our teachers, our pastor and all. They told us where we could go, and we knew how to act.”
Now, of course, you did see official, rigid segregation in Washington’s housing, jobs and schools during that time. But when it came to day-to-day things, like going out to eat, or shopping, as Georgia says, it was far subtler. So subtle, in fact, that Betty Lichtenstein – who grew up white, in a black neighborhood in Southwest – says she hardly was aware of segregation at places like, say, Woodford & Lothrop, the District’s first department store.
“Somebody said that Woodies didn’t allow black people to try on clothes, or use the bathrooms,” Lichtenstein. “I probably was unaware; I do know a woman who spoke about not being able to go to Glen Echo. Now how would you know you’re not supposed to?”
“Just like you know everything else,” Herron says. “Just like my mother described. We knew we could not go. It was in the air! I wish I could remember the first person who told me!”
While Herron can’t recall who first clued her in, lifelong Washingtonian Charles Cassell says, in his case, nobody really clued him in at all.
“My parents never really talked much about that. My mother was constantly protecting me from anything that she thought would damage my little psyche,” he says.
So, Cassell says he discovered a lot of things on his own. Like when he was fourteen, and pedaled his brand new bike up into a white neighborhood.
“Well, what did I know?” he says. “I was having fun riding my bicycle and discovering new places, ya know? Whereupon a white policeman stopped me and said, ‘Boy, what you doing up here in this neighborhood?’ So I said, ‘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?”
In fact, it was events like this that led to 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.
Changes in Washington
Moving back to 1939, Herron – who actually saw Marian Anderson sing that Easter Sunday – says she can hardly believe the changes she’s seen in Washington.
“The atmosphere is different,” she says. “Now if I go to a place that I know was originally all-white, I’m proud; I feel better. And I know what the meaning of freedom is."
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.
“In Washington, D.C., the average white person makes $3.11 dollars for every dollar a black person makes,” Jackson explains. “The average white family makes $101,000 dollars; average black family: $39,000.”
But he points to another momentous occasion that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial: Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” And Jackson says that remarkable event gives him hope.
“Can you imagine just seeing a throng of people of all different colors and races in 1963, when people were still being beaten?” he asks. “It shows you the great possibilities, but it shows you the great obligation of the American people to make sure that this society reaches its dream of full equality.”
And ideally, this dream isn’t ‘subtle’ or ‘unwritten,’ but sung, from every mountainside, so freedom does, indeed, ring.
[Music: "This Land Is Your Land" by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings from Up In The Air]
Photos: Signs of Segregation