As chamber music filtered throughout and the Capital Hilton's decor mirrored the guests' aura of success, members of the Capital Press Club, the nation's oldest, predominately black organization of media professionals, gathered for the 37th Annual Awards Dinner. But Gordon Parks Sr., there to receive the Pioneer Award, recalled another era in Washington as he sipped champagne at a VIP reception.
"When I arrived as a Rosenwald fellow in 1942, Roy Stryker then head of the Farm Security Administration for whom Parks was working , asked me what I knew about Washington since I came from Minnesota. I was rather naive, you see, because I expected it to be the seat of democracy.
"So he told me, 'Well, you better get a little experience,' and he sent me to a department store to buy a coat, and he said, 'Why don't you stop by a restaurant and then go to a movie?' At each place I was refused service."
Parks later told the crowd when he received his plaque, "That was the day I decided to use my camera as a weapon against America and everything I dislike in the world. That's why I survived."
Parks, known for his work in photography, film, writing and choreography, was among five honored Saturday night. The others were ViCurtis Hinton, who received the Public Service Award for fund-raising that has fostered minority programming; WABC-TV producer Gil Noble ("Like It Is"), who won the National Media Award, and Cathy and Dewey Hughes, owners of WOL radio, who won the Washington Media Award.
The organization began in 1944 to provide a forum for black professionals in communications. But Saturday evening was considerably different from the informal meetings of the early days, with the music of Mozart and Haydn played by the D.C. Youth Orchestra String Quartet (faculty), the elegant dress and smooth demeanor of television personalities, public relations executives and representatives from the National Association of Broadcasters and corporations like IBM and the Sun Oil Co.
"A strange phenomenon is hitting America," said Noble, in between having his picture taken with the other guests of honor, CPC President Janet Dewart, emcee Maureen Bunyan of WDVM-TV and keynote speaker Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Some blacks are moving steadily in circles much as this. But this deludes non-blacks into thinking this is the overall condition."
Later, with his plaque in hand, Noble told the audience, "I got my job at ABC through the collective struggles of our people. And I'll thank you in return through my work, which will get stronger and angrier and louder."
Despite the sharp reminders of harder times, the evening wasn't without a few laughs. Mayor Marion Barry, who worked his way through the seated crowd before arriving fashionably late at his own chair on the dais, said in his greetings, "I learned if you get a podium, you use it!" and proceeded to remind everyone of his candidacy for reelection. Valenti, who spoke about widening opportunities for minorities in telecommunications because of new technology, drew laughs when he said, "For those of you who may not remember what I say, my remarks will be reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly."