It was 1967. Gerald Lee was dressed to the nines in his alligator shoes, his 6-foot, 3-inch spindly form bent in the wind as he bebopped along Benning Road. All he wanted was a leather coat so his cool act would be complete. His quest was action, action of any kind, so he could make a name on the block. At 15, he wanted to be a gangster.
Switch to the present. Gerald Lee strolls into his law office in Alexandria, looking very clean in his three-piece suit. The walls are covered with citations, degrees and plaques. He leans back in his chair, smiles a winning face-lotion commercial smile, and points out, "I'm still looking to make a name."
He adds, very quickly and firmly, "I'm still a street dude."
But with a difference. In the time between his wayward walks in the city's Southeast and the day one year ago he picked up his law degree from American University, Lee found direction and self-respect from Pride, Inc.
"At the time there was a new awareness in the streets, people were talking about black pride. Right then I was hoping to be like the dope man and drive a red Cadillac. A friend told me about Pride: he talked of self-help, self-sufficiency and self-respect.I decided to try it and it worked for me," says Lee.
He was one of the first recruits, known as street dudes, that Marion Barry, now a D.C. City Council member, and Mary Treadwell brought into the program created to help inner-city youths who scorned the honest ways society offered for survival. Of the 15,000 young people who have had the Pride experience, not all have succeeded; some have ended up in jail.
Starting Tuesday, Pride will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a month-long program of seminars on politics, the arts, consumerism, a day of athletic competition, another day of consumer education and other activities. It is even donating the first five years of its records to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.
The philosophy of Pride has not changed in 10 years, according to Treadwell, the executive director. "Pride wanted to show how those street skills could be used for legitimate survival," she says.
"Gerald Lee is the success story every program would like to have. But he's only one kind of success, the way through academics to the white-collar job.
We had one guy who was a con artist, who actually convinced a tourist to buy the Smithsonian from him, and now he manages a mini-employment center for the city. When I see James Bundy, a guy who had no skills and has been driving a Metrobus for four years, I feel good."
How far into a life of crime was Gerald Lee? "Well, let's say I was a man at 12 years old. I had looked into the wrong end of a .38 a number of times. I was involved in activities that could lead to prison and the graveyard," he explains, adding, "and that's all I'll say. I'm a lawyer now."
He grew up in a home environment he describes as "unstable," though both his parents were around and working. He had almost been expelled from Nalle Elementary School but stuck it out, becoming a patrol boy and contributor to the school newspaper.
By junior high he was more than restless. "I went to school to hang out, just to be with the other guys," he says. "But I wanted to be out on the street, I saw 'Slick' the dope pusher, driving his hog and that's where I wanted to be."
Meanwhile Pride intervened. Soon Lee was back in Southeast, dressed in the baggy green overalls of the Pride dudes, cleaning streets, chasing rats up and down alleys and showing 'stick' - that he was serious.
"I wanted to show that Pride was no goody two-shoes' outfit," says Lee. "But frankly I told my father I didn't want to be a street cleaner. And he just said do the best you can, you wouldn't be a street cleaner all your life." His impatience and his search for status spurred him on, and he rapidly worked up the Pride hierarchy.
One of the lasting benefits of Pride experiences, Lee recalls with a frank awe, was the exposure to successful people and ideas. "It gave role models, you met balck accountants, black congressmen, people like Andy Young, black lawyers. In the black history classes you learned about Hannibal and Charles Drew," he explains.
Admittedly only marginally interested in high school, Lee still enrolled in an academic program Pride started with American University. It was known as the Higher Education Learning Lab or HELL.
"I found out that I could compete with the mainstream. I was doing college-level work," he says. That confidence helped his regular school work at Central High in Seat Pleasant, and he received a scholarship for full-time studies at American.
While he studied for a communications degree, Lee became the co-director of the Pride-A.U. Institute, directing 14 faculty members, 250 students and a $150,000 budget, founded the Black Student Union newspaper, UHURU, and helped start a radio show. "Spirits Known and Unknown." When he finished in 1973, Lee wore his black academic gown over his green Pride overalls, letting the Pride uniform show. For him, one had made the other possible.
He knows he's been lucky. Through Pride, Lee attended a Pan-African Congress in Atlanta in 1970 that gave him ideas about communications as an international skill, and the next year he spent seven weeks in West Africa, learning about the educational systems. He's also been part of community political organization, pulling together a voter-registration drive with radiostation WOL. In 41 hours, 4,200 people registered.
"I have a cousin I grew up with who is now doing 20 years for bank robbery. I know I'm lucky," says Lee. "All that I had inside me I took to Pride. I came out with all that. Pride opened the doors, I started running through. But I am still that street dude."