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  • The Washington Post Century
    For Black Migrants,
    D.C. Liberated Lives

    By Michael A. Fletcher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, May 24, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

    Emma Butler in her Landover home. (Gerald Martineau - The Post)
    Emma Butler sat in the back yard impatiently waiting under the cooling shade of a mulberry tree for the folks from the government to show up. Finally, she could see the early summer sun glinting off a black sedan as it made its way up the dirt lane outside her family's two-story house. The car stopped adjacent to the white picket fence as Butler anxiously made her way to the front.

    She peered in the car and saw two white women, recruiters for the federal government. In the back seat was Alva Felder, Butler's cousin, who had been picked up in neighboring Reedville, Va.

    The recruiters had come to administer tests for the jobs she had heard about in church: "temporary/ indefinite" positions as file clerks with the federal government.

    Butler climbed into the back seat next to her cousin and the two of them took the "exam." She remembers it as little more than an application asking about her work experience and personal background. Once they finished, Butler and her cousin sat in the car as the papers were reviewed. It wasn't 10 minutes before the proctors turned around and gave Butler and her cousin the good news: They had passed. The jobs in Washington were theirs.

    "At first, I couldn't believe it," Butler says. "Right there in the car they told us that we would be going to Washington to work in a couple of weeks."

    For Butler, the chance at a federal job was no less than the opportunity of a lifetime. She had left rural Virginia to travel north in search of opportunity before, only to return to the family farm with a late husband to mourn and two young children to raise. At 29, she was jobless and back in a town that seemed to offer only struggling family farms, two general stores and little hope, particularly for African Americans. A federal job in Washington, D.C., was a rare second chance at a way out.

    Two weeks later, Butler packed her cardboard suitcase, put on a Sunday dress, kissed her two daughters (who would be staying with their grandparents) and headed off to meet her cousin to embark on the three-hour ride to a new world in Washington.

    It was 1944 and the two cousins were joining one of the great migrations in American history. In the first half of the century, more than 4 million African Americans left the South, its broken economy and its violent racism in search of better lives in the North. They left places such as Jackson, Miss.; Macon, Ga.; and Burgess Store, Va., Butler's home town, for destinations like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. Often, they took jobs in factories or meat-processing plants alongside European immigrants who had started their voyage to America's industrial cities just decades earlier.

    Washington didn't have those factories or plants but it did have an image -- and a reputation.

    Nearly 100,000 blacks came to Washington during the 1940s, propelling the city on an arc toward its modern identity as a majority black city. Even though it was located below the Mason-Dixon line and despite its history of slavery and oppressive racial segregation, Washington has long been seen by African Americans as synonymous with opportunity and freedom. "We thought Washington was a great place," Butler, now 84, says. "It was the place where the president lives and it was the nation's capital."

    It is a reputation the city has enjoyed since before the Civil War, when Washington emerged as a magnet for free blacks. As early as 1850, blacks accounted for 27 percent of the District's population and nearly three of four of its African American residents were free. The free black population was increasing so rapidly that it prompted fears among many whites in the city -- premature by more than a century -- that blacks would soon outnumber them.

    Those fears spread in ensuing years as newly freed slaves, mainly from neighboring Virginia and Maryland, poured into the District, causing the black population to more than triple in the 1860s. By 1868, there were blacks serving on the city's Board of Aldermen and the Common Council.

    "Washington was sort of a destination for black people because there was this free community that existed along with the enslaved community," said Adele Logan Alexander, a George Washington University historian, whose upcoming book "Homelands and Waterways" traces the city's development in the early part of the 20th century. "During the war you had literally thousands of people coming from Virginia and Maryland who could just scoot over to a place where there was no longer slavery."

    The black influx into the city slowed considerably after 1870, when Congress severely limited home rule for the first time, nipping the power that blacks were beginning to accrue.

    Still, the popularity that Washington enjoyed among African Americans never completely waned. They were proud of the city's unparalleled cadre of black professionals and intellectuals. They admired Howard University, long regarded as the nation's top black college. They marveled at Dunbar High School, which stood out as prestigious in part because during the 1920s its faculty boasted four black female PhDs.

    But for Butler, and those who joined her in the black migration to Washington, the real attraction was the abundance of federal jobs. New federal workers were everywhere, as tens of thousands of people, black and white, poured into Washington to take new jobs during World War II.

    As Butler's bus pulled into town, she stared in wonder at the bustling scene outside Union Station. It was nothing like home. "I thought it was the most tangled-up place I had ever seen," Butler says. "All I can remember thinking was asking my cousin, 'If somebody put you out here, would you know where to go?' "

    It was a concern that had been anticipated by the federal government. When they got off the bus from Virginia, Butler and her cousin were directed to another part of the station where they were met by another bus. This one delivered them to the Langston Stadium Dormitory, a three-building federal complex off Oklahoma Avenue NE. At its peak, the dorm housed 1,014 black women who worked for the government.

    Butler lived in a building residents christened Guam Hall. The others were called Wake and Midway. The structures were typical of the temporary housing that went up across America to accommodate war workers: 8-by-10-foot rooms, unpainted wood walls, cots with spring mattresses. The rooms were decorated with Venetian blinds and yellow curtains that contained a black satin liner that blocked any light from leaking outside during air raid blackouts.

    Butler called this place home for two years. One day after moving in, she started her work with the government. Each day, she caught the street car to work. For a year she toiled as a file clerk at the Adjutant General's office. She then went to work at the Pentagon, where she tended to the personnel files of soldiers. Later she took a job at the Naval gun factory. Not only was the work decent, she says, but she felt that it accorded her a new level of dignity. "I thought I was treated very well," she says.

    One thing she hated was being so far from her children, whom she visited perhaps twice a year. But even those joyous visits home, where time seemed to stand still as her parents tended to fields of tomatoes, corn and potatoes, reminded her of her newfound opportunity.

    In Washington, Butler would break the routine of work by visiting the occasional carnival along Benning Road, going to dances or attending lectures at the dormitory. "We would all come down in our nighties, robes and slippers and listen to the speaker," Butler says.

    The lifestyle may have been routine and the work mundane, but for Butler and other African Americans of that era, it represented a dramatic step forward. And their progress proved to be the first decisive strides toward development of a broad middle class that continues to make the Washington area a destination for African Americans.

    Before the 1940s, while the city was long known for its prominent, if small, black elite, the vast majority of black working women in Washington had been domestics. But the war changed that, forcing open the doors of government and large industry to thousands who were previously locked out. During the 1940s, the percentage of black domestic workers in the city plummeted from 61 percent to 29 percent.

    It was just one measure of the improving standard of living being enjoyed by black Washingtonians. By 1950, 30 percent of blacks owned their own homes, which rivaled the white homeownership rate of 33 percent, according to a 1954 report by the city's Department of Public Welfare.

    "Particularly because Washington is the capital city, the war made a tremendous difference in people's lives," Alexander said. "Particularly as white men moved out of positions, black men and black women -- really, all kinds of women -- were able to move into those civil service kind of jobs in ways they had been unable to previously."

    It took more than war to prompt such dramatic change. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph had threatened to hold a massive march on Washington in 1941, resulting in a presidential order requiring federal agencies and government contractors to adhere to anti-discrimination rules.

    Also, protests against segregation became a regular feature in Washington during the 1940s, leading to the integration of public accommodations such as restaurants and theaters more than a decade before such change was thrust upon the Deep South. In addition, the emergence of Washington as an international city after the war helped improve the plight of blacks as the specter of segregation proved to be an embarrassment before the rest of the world.

    Butler was no activist, but she knew that she had found a home in Washington. In the late 1940s, she met her second husband, who had moved to Washington from North Carolina in 1939.

    Through the years in Washington, Jurle L. Butler worked as a construction worker, tire factory laborer and truck driver. They married in 1950 and soon Butler's children and mother joined them, because her father had died. "My mother had to come, she really had no way to work the farm," she said.

    For several years in the early 1950s, the family lived in Northeast Washington. It was a time when African Americans were flooding into the District and whites were leaving -- both in unprecedented numbers. By 1960, the census for the first time found Washington to be a majority black city.

    But that count did not include the Butlers. By the mid-1950s, they were part of another black migration as they moved to their new home, which the couple still occupies, nestled on a hilltop in what was then a mostly white, rural outskirt of the city: Prince George's County.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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