MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Shier and welcome back to Metro Connection. Today our theme is Spring Break, which is our way of saying, we're kicking back and listening to some of the stories that have really stuck with us in recent months. Like, Jessica Gould's piece on Justin Purvis, a comedian who's coping with fading eyesight. And we'll revisit that one in just a bit. We'll also meet a man on a mission to revive ragtime and find out why he thinks the genre that had its heyday a 100 years ago deserves a second look. But before we go back to the era of ragtime, lets revisit a year that's a bit more recent, 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
There's so much going on because that's the same year, of course, Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit."
Which, of course, is the haunting tune that shook the jazz world and stoked support for the country's anti-lynching measures.
It's also the same year that, in Washington, D.C., that Ahmet Ertegun and his brother have this big concert.
Big, as in the District's first integrated concert, performed by an interracial jazz orchestra at the Jewish Community Center.
And so you have a Muslim man bringing black music to a Jewish center, so it's quite amazing.
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.
A 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
I'm Carolivia Herron. I wrote the words for the opera, "Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson."
...into a bit of a mystery.
I don't know if you ever saw it on the Internet. It was like it was viral.
All right. More than a bit of a mystery, perhaps. But, in any case, the mystery was this.
Whether or not anybody remembers the sign of -- for colored only in Washington, D.C. around 1939.
Just to back up a bit. You know that opera Carolivia mentioned?
"Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson."
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 LADDUWHAHETTY
My name is Kesh Ladduwhahetty and I'm originally from Sri Lanka, but I've lived in the District for more than 20 years now.
Kesh is 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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
I have some really wonderful answers to the question.
But, ever the scholar, Carolivia does, after all, hold a PhD in comparative lit. She wanted definitive answers from firsthand sources.
And since we needed some people who were alive in 1939, we went out and found three of them.
And all three of these life-long Washingtonians, from Betty Lichtenstein...
MS. BETTY LICHTENSTEIN
I have never seen a sign in -- in Washington.
...to Charles Cassell…
MR. CHARLES CASSELL
Nor have I.
...to Carolivia's mother, Georgia.
MS. GEORGIA HERRON
There were no signs.
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.
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.
Now, of course, you did see official segregation, 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 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, Woodward & Lothrop, D.C.'s first department store.
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...
You -- just like you know everything else. Just like my mother described, we knew.
Yeah, you knew.
We knew we could not go. It was in the air. I wish I could remember the first person who told me.
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.
My parents never talked much about that. My mother was constantly protecting me from anything that she thought would damage my little psyche.
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.
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.
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.
The atmosphere is different. Now, if I go to a place that I know was a really, 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.
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.
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.
Can you imagine seeing just a throng of people of all different colors and races in 1963 when people was still being beaten? It shows you the great possibilities, but it shows you the great obligation of 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.
And an update to this story, Carolivia Herron's book for young readers "Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson" is scheduled for publication on May 1st. And you can find more information, all about it, on our website metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.