Here’s the story behind Sousa’s famous ‘Washington Post March’

John Kelly
Columnist June 14

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the first public performance of arguably the most recognizable piece of music ever written in Washington.

No, it wasn’t “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band or Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt.” It was “The Washington Post March,” composed by Marine Band director John Philip Sousa at the behest of the newspaper you are holding (or the Web site or mobile application you are viewing).

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The march was created in 1889 to celebrate the first awards presented by the Washington Post Amateur Authors Association. This was a club created by The Post to encourage District schoolchildren to write — and perhaps their parents to buy newspapers.

On June 15, 1889, 25,000 people gathered on the Smithsonian grounds to watch 11 students be awarded gold medals for winning the inaugural Amateur Authors essay contest.

W.B. Powell, superintendent of Washington’s public schools, spoke at the ceremony, noting that teaching English was a chief duty of the city’s schools. “We train pupils to express themselves in English by first giving them something to express; then we try to lead them to express this thought in its entirety, logically, symmetrically, and rhetorically,” he said.


John Philip Sousa in 1896. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Willis B. Hawkins, president of the Authors Association, pointed out that eight of the 11 medal winners were women. “That means that the young mothers of this land, those who are going to rock the cradle, are ahead in intellectuality,” he said.

The winning essays and 11 honorable mentions were published in The Post on July 7, 1889. The younger winners wrote about pictures, describing what was going on in various scenes: a hawk threatening a chicken coop, a girl picking flowers. Several of the older winners explained natural or scientific processes: the circulation of the blood or how a pinhole camera worked.

Answer Man was struck by one of the high school winners, Mary Charlotte Priest, 19, a “pretty, well-built brunette, with large, bright, brown eyes,” according to The Post.

Miss Priest’s winning essay was titled “Saint Helen,” and it began: “The girls of to-day, just taking into our hands the duties of womanhood, are eloquently entreated to give up those idle pleasures which we find in home and in society. We are urged to sacrifice ourselves to some great work or lofty aim which will elevate us and mankind. . . . It is indeed a glorious destiny to have a purpose in this world; to work earnestly for it, and, if needed to immolate our lives upon its altars.”

The essay focuses on a girl the narrator says she attended school with — the titular Helen — and how Helen became a nurse against her family’s wishes, only to perish while treating patients during a yellow-fever epidemic.

Wrote Miss Priest of Helen: “But I cannot always think of her as the martyr. I see her desolate home, which she ought now to be brightening; her father’s grey hair and careworn brow; her brother, reckless and gloomy. Did not her true duty lie with them?”

So, kind of a mixed message. On one hand, women are urged to make the most of their lives. On the other, maybe they’d be happier — or at least safer — at home. It’s a dichotomy that hasn’t really gone away. (To read the winning essay, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.)

Answer Man was curious about this award-winning writer who lauded female achievement but consigned her heroine to the grave. What was she like?

Well, Charlotte — that’s apparently the name she went by — was among the first women admitted to Columbian College, what we know today as George Washington University. She was among the speakers at the 1893 graduation, reading an essay titled “Teachings on the Street Corners.”

She earned an MA at Columbia University and was one of the first teachers hired for the National Park Seminary, a girls school in Forest Glen, Md. She rose to assistant dean and was a favorite of the students, said Bonnie Rosenthal of Save Our Seminary, a group devoted to the history of the captivatingly designed campus.

Charlotte never married. She died in 1929 and was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. The school’s yearbook that year was dedicated in Charlotte’s honor, “in acknowledgement of her genius which has kept alive beautiful traditions and developed in us the fine spirit of true womanhood.”

In 1952, 20th Century Fox released “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a biopic based on Sousa’s life starring Clifton Webb. In advance of a special screening at the Motion Picture Association of America’s offices, The Post tried to find the 11 original Amateur Authors Association winners.

The only surviving award winner The Post could find was Anna Roach, whose married name was Anna Roach Newman. In 1952, she was working in women’s alterations at Lansburgh’s department store. Her essay was a description of a girl picking daisies.

Anna was in first grade in 1889 and didn’t remember much about the momentous day when 25,000 Washingtonians turned out to celebrate the written word and Sousa unveiled his famous march. “I do remember I was all dressed up in beads, a lace dress and a large hat,” she told The Post.

As for her award medal, her husband wore it for years on his watch chain before losing it.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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