For 70 Years, Helping People Embrace Sobriety
When Alcoholics Anonymous marks its 70th anniversary Friday, the late Wall Street stockbroker William G. Wilson and Akron physician Robert H. Smith will be remembered for founding a self-help movement that has saved millions from the ravages of alcoholism.
Virtually anyone recovering from chemical dependency through a 12-step program can appreciate the importance of what happened when the man known in AA as Bill W, believing that he could beat his alcohol problem by helping another alcoholic stay sober, went to work on a physician who'd been hospitalized for alcohol-related disorders. A month later, on June 10, 1935, the physician -- known in AA as Dr. Bob -- took his last drink, and a miraculous fellowship was formed.
Among those who followed in their footsteps were three pioneers from the Washington area -- John Henry Fitzhugh Mayo, who helped start the first AA meeting in Washington in 1939 and later took AA to Richmond; James M. Burwell, who helped establish AA in Baltimore and later in Philadelphia; and Jim Scott, a Howard University graduate and African American physician, who started the first AA meeting for black people, in the District, 60 years ago, in April 1945.
"When AA started, the city was racially segregated, and blacks were not welcome in AA," said a member of the archives project of the Washington Area Intergroup Association, an information clearinghouse for AA in Washington. "Some of the groups eventually decided to let them come in but not stay for the social part after the meetings."
Black or white, most alcoholics were viewed as dirty, angry, hopeless, ungrateful and untreatable. In 1935, the Census Bureau reported that the District of Columbia had the second-highest death rate due to alcoholism in the United States. The Washington Star reported that the District ranked first in the nation in per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages.
A 1993 report by the AA archives project noted of the era before AA: "One distinguished Washingtonian had been arrested over 250 times and had served 197 jail sentences for drunkenness. Several others could count well over 100 each. The numbers showed that throwing alcoholics into the drunk-tanks -- even a great many times -- did not solve the problem."
But Alcoholics Anonymous could -- and did.
Mayo, Burwell, Scott and others went about the 12-step work with evangelical fervor, scouring the streets of the city and outlying areas in search of drunks to help.
"Fitz and Jim would actually bring drunks home off the streets to help them get sober," a member of AA who knew both men recalled. "You rarely see that kind of outreach anymore."
Mayo helped start the Washington Group, later called the Old Central Group, which evolved into what is now known as the Metropolis Club, near Fifth and K streets NW. The group that Burwell helped start in Philadelphia was the subject of an article on AA written in 1941 by Jack Alexander for the Saturday Evening Post. The story, which told of the humility and service of newly sober AA members, created a surge of interest in the fellowship around the world.
Scott, with the help of a white AA member known only as Charlie G., started the Washington Colored Group, which later changed its name to the Cosmopolitan Group to indicate that all alcoholics are welcomed, regardless of race. Scott went on to help start AA groups for blacks in Georgia and other parts of the South.
Mayo and Burwell helped Wilson write "Alcoholics Anonymous," commonly referred to in AA as "the Big Book," first published in 1939. Their personal stories of recovery from alcoholism, along with Scott's, are recounted in it -- anonymously, of course. But which story is which is well known. Mayo's is titled "Our Southern Friend"; Burwell's, "The Vicious Cycle"; and Scott's, "Jim's Story."
AA now claims a worldwide membership of about 2 million. But at that first AA meeting in the District, six people showed up. By 1941, the Washington Group had grown to 70, and by 1944, it had mushroomed to more than 600. Today, there are more than 1,800 AA meetings in the Washington area. And although no one knows how many people attend those meetings, what is certain is that AA has helped multitudes of all races and creeds achieve sobriety.