Oral History

'We're Still Here'

Sunday, July 16, 2006

There was the good -- the closeness of family, community and church. More starkly, there was the bad -- segregation, discrimination, second-class citizenship. Over five generations, the Jacksons of Georgetown have experienced it all. They've watched the face of the neighborhood change as black families moved away or died out, leaving just a handful behind. But through everything, they've held fast to their own identity as Georgetowners. Cynthia Jackson, 82, her sister, Martha Jackson Roache, 65, and Martha's daughter, Monica, 33, still live in the family home on P Street NW . Here is their story, as told to Outlook's Zofia Smardz:

Cynthia : I was born in Georgetown and I've lived here all of my life. My mother and father grew up in Georgetown, too. My maternal grandmother was born in what they now call the Community House, a tiny little house over on O Street, and her parents lived there before that. I remember my father's mother saying something about how her father was a freed slave.

I was born in 1924. We lived on 32nd Street then, but when I was very young, we moved to Dumbarton Street, where we lived until I was 17. Then we moved to P Street. My father paid a little over $8,000 for the house. He bought it from a Catholic lady, a white lady -- she said she would sell it to him if he could find her a house near a Catholic church. So he took her up around St. Ann's Catholic Church in Tenleytown and she bought a house there. And we moved in on P Street, in 1941, when Martha was 4 months old.

Martha : But we almost moved out of Georgetown at that time. My father and mother saw a house they really liked in Columbia Heights. That area then was predominantly white. The owner of the house told my father that he could buy it, but he couldn't live in it because he was black. So he got this house instead.

I can remember my mother telling me that the white people who lived next door were mad as the devil that the people had sold to Mama and Daddy. On Saturdays and Sundays, they would turn the lights on in the living room and hang up a line of laundry, just to make it look bad if my parents had company visiting. They were really kind of mean to my parents when they first moved in.

But we always had white neighbors. And the people back then -- you had good and you had bad, just like you do now. When I was growing up, this neighborhood was half and half. And I think people get the wrong idea, thinking that Georgetown was predominantly black. It was not.

Cynthia : We lived together, but the blacks and whites did not socialize. When I was growing up, everything was segregated -- the stores, the churches, everyplace. The schools, of course. We passed several white schools going over to Wormley School on Prospect Street. The black children from Virginia came over to Wormley School, too. We liked to look out the window and watch them come across Key Bridge.

Morgan's Pharmacy, on P and 30th -- it's still there -- they had a counter, but you couldn't sit. You had to stand at the end and order your food and take it out. There was a five-and-ten on M Street, but you couldn't sit at the counter there, either. We had black businesses -- a beautician, doctors, a printing shop -- but there weren't really many black restaurants. There was a little deli, Mr. Kent's store on 27th and O streets -- he sold sandwiches and pies and things. But I was a grown young woman before I sat down in a restaurant -- in New York City, when I went to college there.

Our family, on my mother's side, is Catholic. They attended Holy Trinity Church. But they were segregated; they had to sit in the rear of the church or in the balcony, and take Communion after the whites. So in 1924-25, the black people got together and raised money to build a new church and started Epiphany Catholic Church on Dumbarton Street.

Martha : The churches did play such an important role. Mount Zion [United Methodist Church] is the oldest black church in Washington, period. It was one of the first churches in the late '60s or early '70s that had a street festival. All the black churches participated. They'd block off the streets, and there would be crafts and entertainment. Everybody has a street festival now, but that was one of the first.

Monica: The things my aunt and my mother had -- the social life, the picnics and carnivals, and the people all getting together -- I've never had that. The Mount Zion street festival was the one thing I got to experience when everyone came together. I was in high school when that ended; they closed that down in the late '80s. Since then, it seems Georgetown is even more divided. And people don't even realize the history.

Cynthia : All the churches lost members because people moved away. And especially the Catholic church, because Catholics were supposed to go to church in their neighborhoods.

Monica: Unfortunately, of all the black churches in Georgetown, Epiphany is the one that has not kept the black congregation, where all the rest of them have. Epiphany stopped being a black church 20, 30 years ago. And we keep losing people in Georgetown. Over the last 10 years, almost every year we've lost at least one black family. Just last year, we lost two.

Martha : It's hard to see people move and die out and whatever. Right now, as far as original black Georgetown families, there are only seven households that remain. I have good neighbors. But it can be lonely, being black here in Georgetown. You almost become family to the other six families that are here. I was told some years ago that one of the real estate agents who sells here said that in the year 2000-something, there wouldn't be any more blacks in Georgetown. We'll have to wait and see.

Then there are people who wonder what we're doing here. I've gone to the door any number of times over the years, and the people would look right at me and say, "I'd like to speak to the lady of the house." That kind of thing, you know.

Things are written as if we don't exist anymore. They never mention that there are a few blacks in the neighborhood. I know someone who rode one of these trolleys that bring tourists through the neighborhood, and the tour guide said there aren't any more blacks in Georgetown unless they're renters. It's as if the few of us who are here are not here. But we are. We're still here.

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