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Celebrating the Pride of a Pioneer

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 19, 2005

This evening, Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant was supposed to host the monthly dinner of our club, the DePriest Fifteen. But his plans were changed last Sunday night when he was called home to rest eternally from his lifelong labors. That leaves surviving club members to gather this evening in his absence at our usual downtown haunt. If I know the members, we'll hoist a few, consume a hearty meal that our wives would never approve of and trade some of our favorite stories, all in fond memory of the former chief judge of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

And why not? Year after year we broke bread with Bill Bryant nearly every month, in addition to hosting an annual ladies night black-tie affair and an annual picnic of 150 or so of our friends, all paid for out of our own pockets.

It's odd to find myself writing "Bill." For more than 14 years I sat across the table from him at our intimate and strictly off-the-record dinners. Yet I can't recall addressing him as anything but "Judge," since, as far as I was concerned, that was his first name. In fact, I can't recall having much to say during my first two years in a club that is more than 60 years old. (Membership is limited to 15, hence that part of the name. The rest can be explained at another time.)

It was a pleasure just to be in Bryant's company and to hear him trade war stories with the more senior members about the early days in Washington, when the city was, by law and custom, divided by a strict color line. And, of course, the meetings were made richer by the friendly barbs between Bryant and other members, such as the late Walter Washington, the city's first elected mayor; Julian Dugas, the club's current president and the District's first city administrator in the Walter Washington administration; Vincent Reed, former D.C. school superintendent and former Post executive; and Theodore "Ted" Newman, senior judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals and that court's first African American chief judge. The list of members who assembled over the years with Bryant represented a who's who of black achievement -- although rank is not a condition of membership.

Bryant now joins other deceased DePriest members: Charles Duncan, former Howard Law School dean and counsel for the plaintiffs who sued the segregated Glen Echo Park; Elmer Henderson, former Howard political science professor and civil rights pioneer who sued and won a Supreme Court case in 1950 abolishing discrimination in dining car service in railroads across the United States; John Duncan, the District's first black commissioner; James Nabrit, former Howard University president and law school dean, who, along with Thurgood Marshall and DePriest founder George E.C. Hayes, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court; Jesse Mitchell, DePriest founder and first president of the Industrial Bank of Washington; and his son, B. Doyle Mitchell, who also was the bank's president and chairman.

The list of deceased high achievers is long: the late John Risher, former D.C. corporation counsel; Wiley Branton, Howard Law School dean and chief counsel for the black plaintiffs in the Little Rock school case; U.S. district judges Aubrey Robinson and Barrington Parker; and Superior Court judges James Cobb, Robert Campbell, William Gardner and Luke Moore. Physicians Edward Mazique, former president of the National Medical Association; and W. Montague Cobb, physician, educator and the only black anthropologist with a PhD before the Korean War, are also on the list of deceased members. With Bryant's loss, the title of the club's oldest member now passes to 94-year-old Burke "Mickey" Syphax, former senior professor of surgery at Howard University's medical school and among the first African American surgeons to become board-certified, in 1943. Current members, beyond Dugas, Syphax and moi, shall remain nameless.

Thinking about those DePriest Fifteen members who will gather tonight and the others whom Bryant joins caused me to search for the common denominator, for those characteristics beyond race that they all share. Most, for sure, were not to the manor born. They didn't start life with great wealth. They all faced roadblocks because of race. Yet, almost to a man, they overcame the rough seas and ended up as significant contributors to the advancement of society and as powerful influences in the lives of people, especially African Americans. True, they were well educated and well trained, motivated and disciplined, goal-oriented and supported by the camaraderie and devotion of friends to die for.

But was that all?

The answer was elusive until I came across words spoken by Pearl, a freed slave girl in E.L. Doctorow's novel "The March," as she considered her life since leaving the plantation and following Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia:

"No, no, dear God, but I am worse, coddling up to be like one of them, making them like me like slaves to proteck theirselves, bowin and scrapin to the white folks and smilin like some fool."

And there it is, ladies and gentlemen: To a man, Bryant and the others never resorted to bowing and scraping and smiling like fools to get ahead. That, sad to say, cannot be said of many contemporaries in all fields of endeavors. It is, as a people, one of our most vulnerable spots. But Bryant, and those I laud today, never considered themselves "owned" and would never recognize those who, centuries after the Emancipation Proclamation, would still assume the behavior and airs of "owners." Self-respect, dignity and pride in themselves are three conditions Bryant et al. held in common. That's what helps set them apart.

Bryant, as was evident from his life and his funeral, had beloved friends who came in all sizes, shapes and colors and from all economic stations. So it was and is with other club members.

But they stand out for their devotion, convictions and commitment to racial justice. Maybe it's because they, like Judge William Bryant, never lost sight of who they were. Maybe it's because, like him, they found it better to speak from the heart on matters close to the heart and to persevere to the finish for great causes, no matter the consequences.

Anyway, that will be what I will toast tonight.

kingc@washpost.com


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