A Star in the Northwest: Our one-religion elementary school


The December 1949 edition of the Stevens Star, published by the students of Stevens Elementary School. (Dwayne Freeman)
December 23, 2011

There is a document on my desk that, in contemporary times, might be considered subversive. It is the December 1949 edition of the Stevens Star, published by the pupils of Stevens Elementary School, then located at 21st and K streets NW.

The front cover of the newspaper has a drawing of three figures standing in front of a Christmas tree topped with a cross and a star.

The trio is singing the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.”

The newspaper also includes three pages of holiday-related poetry, including a sixth-grader’s poem about shepherds watching their flocks by night where, “A babe is born in Bethlehem.”

It is the third edition of our school newspaper. My sister, Lucretia, served as a reporter, and my brother, Cranston, contributed a drawing of Santa Claus. For the life of me, I can’t tell from flipping through the pages whether I wrote anything at all, though there is a sketch of a basketball player that I might have drawn.

That issue also included a letter from our principal, Lillian S. Malone, that conveyed a message probably regarded as a no-no these days.

“Merry Christmas,” she wrote, “to the best school community there is from a grateful principal who knows and respects real cooperation.”

To think: “Merry Christmas.”

This was 13 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Engel v. Vitale , that school-initiated prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment, and five years before the court struck down segregation in public schools.

Before those decisions, Stevens was a one-race, one-religion elementary school that conducted morning prayers and songs of praise that made our classrooms sound like church on Sunday mornings.

We weren’t much on multiculturalism back then.

Those were the days when the only Native Americans we gave much thought to were Tonto and Little Beaver, sidekicks of the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder, respectively. Oh yes, and there were Howdy Doody’s friends, Chief Thunderthud and Princess Summerfall Winterspring.

Our acquaintance with Latinos was limited to the Cisco Kid and Pancho.

All that is changed.

Stevens is no longer on 21st Street. It has been merged with Francis Junior High School, nearby at 24th and N streets.

Gone, too, are the kind of gifts from Santa Claus that showed up in our West End-Foggy Bottom neighborhoods on Christmas Day.

The streets would be filled with kids and their new guns. Western cowboy cap pistols, police detective cap guns, holster sets, toy rifles. All reflected our favorite pastime: Saturday matinees at Mott Theater, where, on a weekly basis, good guys in white hats shot to death throngs of bad guys — without leaving a trace of blood.

No one ever got a horse for Christmas.

But there were plenty of bicycles and wagons and roller skates that ended up with names like Silver, Scout, Champion, Trigger, Topper and Thunder.

Christmas 1949 was a year between wars. Yet war was never out of our young minds. World War II movies such as “Battleground,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Home of the Brave”were making the rounds. And within six months of Christmas, we were at war again, this time in Korea.

So here we are, 12 presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama), six wars (Korea, Vietnam, Grenada — “a lovely little war,” one correspondent called it — Operation Desert Storm in Iraq [Bush I], Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan [Bush II], Operation Iraqi Freedom, replaced by Operation New Dawn [Bush II]), and 62 Christmases later.

Today’s America is browner. By 2050, projects the Census Bureau, ethnic and racial minorities will become the majority.

The U.S. Capitol of my youth is still there. It shines brightly. The Congress inside does not.

The city of my youth is here, too, but much changed.

The city is rapidly returning to the majority-white District of Columbia of 1949. The government that then was appointed by the White House has been replaced with an elected mayor and city council. Yet today’s leaders, sitting in a cesspool corrupted by campaign money, don’t appreciate the position they are in because they’ve grown accustomed to the odor.

And yet, some things endure. A Stevens Star editorial paid tribute to a former principal, Mildred Gibbs, in words that could apply to many others today: “Dr. Gibbs loved the children. . . . If some didn’t have shoes or other clothing to wear she’d buy them. Some children didn’t have any lunch to eat. She always saw to it that no child would go hungry. There were times when a parent didn’t have his rent money. That parent could get it from Dr. Gibbs.”

Christmas 1949.

kingc@washpost.com

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