Well-wishers at the Fort Dupont Park activity center in Southeast Washington applauded. But Scandrett just stared at them from the guests’ table, as if wondering what all the fuss was about.
“I grew up on the rough side of the mountain,” the Southeast resident told me later. “I worked hard all my life. I had no choice. That’s how it was.”
But the Obamas were right about what his life represented, even if the honoree was too modest to admit it.
Scandrett was born Aug. 8, 1912, on a farm in Fulton County, Ga. He was raised around people who had been slaves. Slavery had lasted in the United States from 1619 to 1865 — abolished by law, if not always in practice, a mere 47 years before Scandrett’s birth.
And yet, Scandrett was part of a generation that swelled the ranks of the black middle class, then multiplied the success by making sure the children received the education that many of the parents had been denied.
“I’m so glad that you spanked me; I needed it,” said Arthur Scandrett, Milton Scandrett’s 70-year-old son. (He had invited the Obamas to the party but was more than pleased to get a card from them.) Laughter rippled through the room at his remarks about spankings, but the honoree did not seem amused.
“I was raised a little different from how it is now,” Milton Scandrett told me. An understatement, to say the least.
During the post-Reconstruction era, blacks in many parts of the South lived under a reign of terror carried out by armed marauders such as the Ku Klux Klan. When Scandrett was born, Georgia led the nation in lynching.
I mentioned to him that puritanical punishments such as spanking weren’t just intended to beat the devil out of children. Black parents in the South sometimes beat their children to make them pay attention, lest the child stray across some racial line and end up hanged from a tree.
“That’s how it was,” Scandrett said.
At age 22, he and a friend hopped a freight train north to Washington. Having learned that survival depended on discipline, he used the same principle to improve his chances of success.
And to help raise his two sons — Ed, who graduated from Howard University in 1964, and Arthur, who followed in 1969.
After arriving in Washington, Scandrett spent a year mowing lawns to make money and pay rent on a room at 26 R St. NW. A year later, he got a job as a sleeping-car porter on the B&O Railroad and later became a dining car chef.
His barber introduced him to Susie Black, the daughter of a minister from North Carolina, to whom he has been married for 72 years.
“He was a good provider,” said Susie Scandrett, 93. “He was always thinking about his family. That’s why he worked so hard.”