I enjoyed the July 26 column about John Philip Sousa and "The Washington Post March." I have a question: Were all of the participants/winners in The Washington Post's Amateur Authors' Association contest white, or was the contest open to all schoolchildren in D.C.?
Randall Brooks, Washington
This is an interesting question. Race is the prism through which you can view pretty much anything in this country. Why should a writers club for kids in 19th-century Washington be any different? Here's what Answer Man discovered:
Like most newspapers back then, The Post wasn't exactly sensitive when it came to race. The black community wasn't covered very well. Like the city, the news stories were strictly segregated. People mentioned in stories were assumed to be white. When they weren't, The Post made sure to point that out. Particularly disturbing to modern eyes were stories about allegedly "humorous" scrapes involving African Americans.
Therefore it was with some trepidation that I delved into The Washington Post Amateur Authors' Association. The article announcing the formation of the club in 1889 said that "a pupil in any public school of the city of Washington shall be entitled to a certificate of membership and to compete for the annual prizes."
Any public school. The Post honored that promise. Education was segregated then, but membership lists printed in the paper show that plenty of students from black schools joined the club. At least one of the 23 judges of the contest for which Sousa wrote "The Washington Post March" was black: Frederick Douglass.
The judges didn't know the names of the students who submitted entries. They had been removed and replaced by numbers. It's unclear whether the names of the schools remained. If they did, judges would have been able to figure out who was black and who was white.
In any event, the 11 grand-prize winners all attended "white" schools. The Post remarked that one, third-grader Marco Tulio Perez, was from Costa Rica, the son of that country's ambassador. (It noted that when Marco received his prize, his "dark, swarthy face shone with happy, eager expectancy.")
Although no African Americans were among the grand-prize winners, two were among the 11 who received honorable mentions, had their names read aloud at the gala ceremony on the Mall and had their essays printed in the paper a few weeks later, accompanied by pen-and-ink portraits.
James Gregory, a sixth-grader at the John F. Cook Building, wrote about blood. His essay began: "The circulation of the blood is brought about by a complete series of tubes and channels extending through every portion of the body, and all communicating with each other, and with a powerful, muscular central organ called the heart."
In his essay, Charles Steward, in his second year at Washington's black high school, described an animatronic wizard named Cani Mina that he had designed and built.
"The words 'cani mina' are African, and mean 'which way,' " Charles wrote. "He could answer any question by 'yes' or 'no.' "
Charles explained how he had used magnets, wires, batteries and a confederate in the audience to make it appear as if the "silent sage" was ringing a bell with his hand in answer to various questions. Three rings meant yes, two rings meant no.
Charles Steward's name showed up in a few other Post articles that summer 115 years ago. They praised his skill with electricity. One mentioned a burglar alarm he helped design that was displayed at "an exhibition of the industrial work of the colored pupils of the public schools, which will go far to illustrate the great advantages and results of industrial education and to silence those who oppose it."
A Man, a Plan, a Column
An update on last week's Pekin/Nikep column: Several readers from other Pekins across the country said they can shed light on how Allegany County's Pekin might have gotten its name.
Barry Clatt of the District grew up just north of Pekin, Ill. "We were always told that Pekin was named after Peking (aka Beijing), since it lies on approximately the same latitude as the Chinese capital."
Run your finger across a globe, and you'll see that's true. Beijing, China, and Pekin, Ill., are each at roughly 40 degrees north. So are Pekin, Ind., and the three (!) Pekins in Ohio. And so is Pekin, Md.
It seems a strange way to name a city, but then tell that to Chevy Chase, a town named after a comedian.
Alexandria's Paul Gatza pointed out that Waple Road near South Pickett Street is named for veterinarian Marshall Waple. Nothing backward about that, but the animal practice founded by the good doctor is called Elpaw Veterinary Clinic.
A. Grace Lopez of the District and Steve Synder of Reston both asked about Tunlaw Road in Glover Park. Isn't it "walnut" backward?
Yes, but the street is actually named after Tunlaw Farm, said Gail Redmann of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The farm's mansion sat at the corner of 45th and Klingle streets NW. As for how the farm got its name, Gail said the mansion sat in a grove of American walnut trees.
Good thing it wasn't surrounded by tulip poplars or some residents of Glover Park might today be living on the rather less euphonious Ralpop Pilut Road.
Researcher Alex MacCallum contributed to this report. Send queries to email@example.com. Or write The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.