The fifth-graders at Seat Pleasant Elementary buzzed with excitement. Just before 1:30 p.m. May 26, 1988, they had been summoned by their principal, Julia Wright, to the multipurpose room, a tiled, high-ceiling hall in which the kids ate lunch and attended assemblies. Their parents were already there, along with the school’s teachers and staff. A new banner stretched across the stage, reading, “I Have a Dream,” above “Seat Pleasant Elementary.”
Wright had not revealed the purpose of the gathering, not even to most of the staff.
Sliding into metal folding chairs, Rudolph and Jeffery Norris, cousins and classmates, gaped at the cluster of TV news cameras and photographers. Jeffery’s only previous experience with reporters had occurred when they were 8, after they had seen a man grab a bat and beat Rudolph’s stepfather to death on a baseball field. Now, as they waited for the assembly to start, Jeffery wondered whether the presence of the cameras meant he was about to hear something awful.
Tiffany Alston didn’t know what to expect. At 11, she’d already decided what she wanted to do with her life. She would become a lawyer, something she had told her teacher only a week earlier.
“That’s going to cost a lot of money,” the teacher replied, an answer that Tiffany replayed that night to her mother.
Shirley Alston was a single parent who worked several part-time jobs to raise two children. No one was going to tell her what was possible for her daughter. She would decide that. And she had decided that Tiffany would go farther than anyone else in their family. She would get a degree.
“You will go to college even if I have to scrub floors on my hands and knees,” Tiffany remembers her mother declaring.
Darone Robinson’s mother arrived at the school that afternoon irritated because she’d had plans to spend her day off eating lunch with a friend. But then someone from the school had called and summoned her to a meeting, refusing to disclose the purpose.
Always showing off and getting himself in trouble, Rose Johnson said of her youngest child. What had Darone done this time?
Like Rose Johnson and Shirley Alston, many of the Seat Pleasant parents were raising children alone. They worked as secretaries and grocery clerks, as janitors and security guards, earning so little money that their kids qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The overwhelming majority of the fifth-graders — nearly 80 percent — were African American. The rest were white, Asian or Hispanic.
There were kids who had migrated from distant places. One boy came from Cambodia after his parents were pushed into a refugee camp by the Khmer Rouge. Another had escaped the civil war tearing up Nicaragua. Another came from Nigeria, only to have her father killed in a car crash on New Hampshire Avenue.
At 1:30 p.m., the chairman of the Prince George’s school board introduced Abe Pollin, then 64, who wore a “Hello My Name Is . . .” name tag on his pin-striped lapel even though all the adults in the room knew he was the owner of the Washington Bullets and the Washington Capitals. Standing next to Pollin was Melvin Cohen, also 64, who owned District Photo, a successful film processing company.