In April 1979 a few black graduates of Harvard Law School held an after-work cocktail party for the other black alumni of "The Law School" working in Washington. They thought there were enough of them here to have a small affair. Surprise: One hundred people showed up.
"Can you imagine 100 black people from Harvard Law and all in Washington?" says Stephanie Phillipps, Harvard Law '76, an associate at Arnold and Porter. "I didn't realize that there were that many of us. There were people working at the White House, at law firms, in the government agencies . . . they were all over."
Not only black Harvard Law School graduates "all over" Washington, and "getting over" in big jobs with big salaries. There are young, black professionals in government, workings as lobbyists and at trade associations -- more than ever before. And for the first time their numbers are large enough to be visible. To walk K Street at noon in 1981 is to see black faces in the best suits and dresses, at the best restaurants, entering the most glamorous office buildings.
These men and women aged 28 to 45, well-educated, working for major law firms and corporations or with first-rate medical practices, experience no double standard in their earnings; they are well paid by anyone's measure. They are the inevitable output of white colleges and graduate schools that began opening their doors to blacks as never before in the late '60s. They are the largest group of successful blacks in American History, but they are still only flecks in the current picture of America's upper middle class, a predominatly white class.
The growing number of blacks in the professional white world is changing the view beyond K Street as well. In the city long famed for its tightly knit black middle class -- Chocolate City, Washington, D.C. -- the new black professionals are breaking the bonds of old black society.
Some live in white neighborhoods, play in white athletic clubs and when traveling stay in the fanciest white hotels. They want the big suburban house, the big car, the kids in prep school -- the best of the white world and the black world.
Most have few ties to Washington's old black society. Some come from other towns, others attended white schools and didn't join black fraternities. Rather, they have their own small network.
"I was in Jean-Pierre's [a K Street restaurant] one day," says a young black lobbyist, who asks that his name not be used, "and I saw this guy across the room . . . you know, the dark pin-stripe suit, African elephant-hair bracelet, pan-African pin [with a black outline of the United States embedded in the larger shape of the African continent] and I didn't know him. I couldn't believe i didn't know the brother. It bugged me.
"So I got up and went to the men's room. I wanted to walk by his table . . . He got up and started introducing me to the people he was having lunch with. I didn't know this guy. Then I realized if he worked with that company he could be only one person. The minute I realized I knew his name, I realized I knew where he grew up, what school he went to . . ."
That they know each other only through a grapevine is a first for black Washington's elite. Only a few years ago it was impossible for well-to-do blacks of any age not to know each other directly -- they lived, loved, worked and played with each other .
Such ties as exist between the new professionals and old black society are mainly through the rising young people who are the children of Washington's black gentry. Unlike their parents, they have found white businesses opening the doors to black management personnel.
"In Washington there was a professional, middle-class, lettered group of black people dating back to the turn of the century," says Vicki Assevero, a black graduate of Washington's exclusive and mostly white National Cathedral School for Girls, Yale '73, Harvard Law '76 and the daughter of a Washington physician. "Those older people fought a lot of battles . . . They helped open doors to good schools and good jobs for us, their children."
Washington's old-line black wealthy are people like William T. Syphax, the millionaire developer, and Flaxie Pinkett, the daughter of the founder of John R. Pinkett Real Estate. Their families were set apart long ago by their possession of wealth and extensive education when such things were even less common among blacks than they are today.
Also members of the old elite, though at a slightly lower level than the gentry, are the successful black entrepreneurs, business people who made it more through enterprise and personal hustle than through education and connections. The group is typified by H. R. Crawford, the millionaire real estate man and property manager who was recently elected to the city council, and Theodore Hagans Jr., developer of the $500 million Fort Lincoln community.
Now this black elite is swelling with a new class of blacks with money -- young professionals who are earning good salaries from their educations, salaries that take them well beyond the median income for a black American worker. Typical of the new class is Vincent Cohen, a partner in the prestigious law firm of Hogan & Hartson. At 44, Cohen is slightly older than most of the new-breed elite, but his road to success is characteristic -- integrated white schools, affirmative action and work experience in prestigious white firms.
"I remember the first time I got a check for my share of the firm's year-end earnings," Cohen says. I'd never seen anything like that before . . . I couldn't believe it."
This new class of young blacks who hold season tickets to the Bullets (they haven't been around long enough to have season tickets to the Redskins), drive Audi 5000's and shop at I. Magnin is also changing black social values in Washington.
"I see them around town," say John Ray, one of these professionals himself, a law school graduate and a District Council member. "I don't have anything good to say about them. They don't do a damn thing except work, drive 280-z's, listen to music and watch football. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X opened doors for them, but they don't act like they know it. . . . Some of them are anti-black neighborhoods, anti-welfare, anti-poor.
"The biggest issue I faced in my last campaign was welfare," says Ray, who earns $37,000 a year on the council and doesn't practice law on the side because he doesn't think people would trust him if he did.
"Young blacks particularly were demanding that I go after those people on welfare. It's not only welfare. Successful young blacks today are among the greatest opponents of social programs. . . If there is lobbying to be done for a social program down here [at the District Building], it's young whites, the socialists and the communists that you see."
Assevero, the Harvard Law graduate, call the new young black elite "bourgeoisie."
"Some people are very aware of being black and the need to help their brothers. Then you've got other people who want to avoid certain problems because they figure black people will pull you down like crabs in a barrel if they know you've got something."
The greatest impact of the new black elite is in race relations. They work, lunch, argue and even socialize with their white colleagues. Outside the sports world, such contact between the races is unprecedented in American life. These blacks have the potential to do more for "black and white together" than demonstrations and busing.
But what do a few big-time blacks sitting in an office downtown mean for blacks still caught in the grips of unequal education and poverty? The answer is not much.
"Even a black doctor who is making $100,000 or $200,000 is not creating any big number of jobs to be filled by black people," says Charles Williams, 34, assistant to the president of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation. Williams is a graduate of Harvard College and a joint graduate program at Harvard in business and law.
"That doctor may make a lot of money as an individual, and he might hire a nurse and a receptionist, but that is it. He is not creating jobs for people who don't have work. He isn't creating better jobs for people who have low-grade jobs.And if he dies he leaves nothing behind. . . . There is not a plant or manufacturing business that can carry on, keep creating wealth."
To create the jobs Williams is talking about would take wealth -- the capital to start industry and provide jobs. Young blacks now coming into the white world are far from that kind of wealth. They work for other people. And they do not have the kind of policy-making power to change hiring practices, for example, that blacks on the outside might imagine.
"You can sit on the board as a black and help to set policy," Williams says, "but if the white middle management feels threatened, the policy is going to be words only. They might hire one black and leave it at that."
Below the professional class of blacks now gaining access to the white world and its riches there continues to be the black middle class, the teachers and mid-level city and federal government workers. And then come the poor, whose numbers are far larger than any of the classes above them.
Not all wealthy blacks are lawyers, doctors and business people. There are entertainers and athletes -- like Peaches and Herb and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard -- who are millionaires. Some television news personalities make six-figure salaries. Howard University president James Cheek makes $95,000 per year in salary and is said to make over $160,000 when you add in such benefits as a chauffeur-driven car. And there are preachers who earn six-figure incomes in the way of the late Sweet Daddy Grace, who owned a pink Logan Circle house and driven about in a pink Cadillac.
These exceptions always existed -- famous singers and boxers, a gambler or a writer. But they never had the numbers of the new elite. And whereas a singer's or boxer's money was often squandered, the new black professionals may have impact across the generations by passing their money and attitudes on to their children. Typically such children are sent to the best schools and expected to learn impeccable manners and speech so they too can succeed in the white world. Meantime their parents are buying stocks and bonds, seeking equity in major developments. They are helped by the black political connections in the District Building that did no exist for their parents' generation.
But even as the new elite wheel and deal to get into the big money, there are surprisingly few black joint ventures. In fact, some older blacks say privately they don't trust each other. It is rare to find a successful young black who has black doctor, black lawyer, black stockbroker or even black carpenter. They prefer the white stamp of quality. Many blacks say they prefer to keep their money quietly in the bank or in stocks to avoid a public image -- the rich black -- that would just cause them problems with whites and poorer blacks. One black doctor, who earns $120,000 a year, just denies that he is wealthy.
"Man, I'm not rich," he says rolling his eyes, "You need $75,000 a year to live in Washington. At least. By white standards I'm middle-class. The only people who would even think of saying I'm rich are black people. That's why I don't want my name in your article."
Nearly all young black professionals with money repeat the doctor's disclaimer: "I'm not rich." But the statistics don't support them. The median earnings of a full-time white worker in the United States is about $260 a week. The median for a black worker is about $213. In 1977, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 9 percent of white Americans earned more than $25,000 and only 2 percent of black Americans could claim such a high income. A black American family with both the husband and wife working had an average income of just over $20,000. In the Washington area, including the suburbs, the median income is $19,800; in the city it is $13,100 and for a black family in the city the median income is about $12,000. A doctor who individually takes home $100,000 more than the average working black couple and says he is not "rich" is simply not telling the truth.
Part of the reason for the denial of wealth by some black people is that there is heavy pressure on well-to-do blacks to contribute time and money to every black movement while their success also makes them suspect as having "sold out" to the white man to achieve success.
In fact, young black professionals who claim not to be rich may be wrong about themselves individually, but they are right about black people as a race not having money. The difference in incomes for black and white workers grows larger by the month, according to government statistics. Blacks, who comprise about 10 percent of the nation's population, make only 5 percent of the nation's earning, control only 3 percent of the businesses and hold only 2 percent of the country's assets.
Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was recently quoted in Ebony magazine as saying: "We struggled in the '50s to integrate the schools and the buses. We struggled in the '60s to integrate the lunch counters and the ballot boxes. And we've got to struggle in the '80s to integrate the money."
The fighters in the struggle described by Andrew Young are likely to be the young black elite now showing up on K Street, earning large salaries and having the opportunity to obtain stocks, bonds and make investments in companies that will carry down to their children as wealth. THE NEW BREED WORK LIKE AN S.O.B.; NO PHILOSOPHICAL B.S.
Vincent Cohen, 44, is at the pinnacle. He is a partner in Hogan & Hartson, a major Washington law firm. As an aide to his friend, Clifford Alexander, the departing secretary of the Army, he traveled the world. He lives in a large house filled with African art in North Portal Estates. There's a pool in the back yard.
Cohen plays success like chess, staying a few moves ahead: "The bottom line to success in white America," he says, "is to work like an s.o.b. and not make enemies over philosophical b.s. You've got to know the culture you're dealing with, too. They like a good family man, so don't run after little girls . . .
"When it came time to decide whether I was to become a partner there was one good move: Make me a partner."
Cohen was born in Brooklyn but his mother came from Barbados and his father from Jamaica. His father told him that he got the name Cohen from black Jews in Jamaica. At 16 he went to Syracuse University on a basketball scholarship, and after college, went on to Syracuse law school. Despite the education, though, there was a question: Where could a talented young black lawyer find challenging work in the late '50s?
"My big chance came when Bobby Kennedy got to the Justice Department," Cohen says. "As I understand it he started asking, 'How can this be the Justice Department when there are no Negro lawyers here?' They told him they couldn't find any black lawyers. He said he knew what the problem was. 'If you can't find black lawyers, okay, I'll fire you and find somebody who can.'" Cohen was one of the lawyers the Justice Department found in 1962.
In 1967, Cohen went to Ohio to work for Ohio Bell, the telephone company, but quit after 11 months. He found his white suburban Cleveland neighborhood to be racist. There were threats to his children.
So in 1972 it was back to Washington. At first he went to work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- "to change the world" -- but after two years Cohen wearied of government lawyering. His experience as a trial lawyer gave Cohen entree to Hogan & Hartson.
Cohen is a Democrat but impatient with welfare. He believes all people should work. But he believes the government should start a subsidy program to pay lawyers to represent middle-class clients.
"Black people can't afford Vincent Cohen," he says. "That's just the facts. The government says health care is important so they have Medicare and Medicaid. But everything outside of health is law, from your birth certificate on down. The middle class should have access to a good lawyer." THE NEW BREED YOU GOT TO PLAY TO WIN; I'M OUT HERE FOR ME
The doctor has curly hair that he has carefully trimmed every two weeks at hip, black Shelton's Hair Gallery on Connecticut Avenue. With his hair styled and his white Porsche gleaming, "Doc," as some of his friends call him, has the cultivated good looks that say he has the time and money to take care of himself.
At the nightclubs he goes to regularly, women's eyes flick on like neon lights at the sight of him -- and the lights say "This man has money."
But though he earns more than $100,000 a year, the doctor denies that he is rich.
"I'm making it, man, you can write that," he says angrily after being asked how much he makes from his private practice and his assignment at Howard University Hospital. "I don't have no big bucks like what whites call big bucks. But I've got more than most of the brothers you see on the streets.
"When a black man gets money," the doctor says, "no matter how little, everybody wants to tear him down. . . . So I keep to myself. I don't know why the hell [a friend of his] told you to come talk to me. I don't want my name in any newspaper story about successful black people or whatever. I'm not out here for black people. I'm out here for me. Why don't you ask me about medicine?"
Although the doctor refused to let his name be used in this article, he did grant permission for his story to be told. It is the stereotype of the successful young black who is often subject to criticism from other blacks.
He has never voted in any election though he is 33 years old. He is divorced -- and against having children because the world is so "sick." He spends money on alimony, jazz records, student loans, women, his car and his clothes. He does not read anything but texts necessary for his work. He enjoyed the television series "Shogun." He says that may be because he studied karate in college.
He belongs to several medical societies and can tell you whose career is up or down in the local medical world.
"You got to play to win," he says of his interest in professional organizations. "You have to make connections and know what can be done to make money."
What does the doctor think about people who say he is narcissistic and hurting other black people by not contributing to black causes?
"How come no one ever asks that of a white doctor?" he asks. "The only reason successful black professionals are a story is that they are black and in America blacks are not supposed to be successful. I know that. This country is racist and I'm black. So I just lay low and protect myself. That's what I'm about." THE ENTREPRENEURS WAKE UP EARLIER; HAVE LESS MOUTH
Theodore Hagans Jr. is not shy about his millions, or his stature: he is the most successful black businessman in Washington.
"A few years ago," says Hagans, "my line of credit at the bank was one and a half million. I don't know of any other black person in town with that kind of credit." Hagans smiles: "When I first asked [National Savings and Trust] for a loan it was only for $300. They asked for a co-signer. Now I'm on the board."
Hagans, in his late '50s, is a likable and confident man who is one of the few black people in town who appears comfortable with his wealth. His riches show in his sparkling blue MG for getting around town, and his two Rolls Royces. He flies his private plane to Canada and the Bahamas a few times a year. He looks capable of starting over right now and making millions more as a black man, a white man or a greeen midget.
"The thing to do if you're black and want success," he says, motioning with a hand of polished nails, "is to recognize your disadvantage because of race and prepare. You've got to get schooling, experience . . . you can't be average and hope to succeed. You've got to get up earlier, work harder and have less mouth."
Hagans is a native Washingtonian, the son of a cabdriver and a cook. After college and World War II he returned here only to discover no jobs for black engineers. That did not stop Hagans. One ad called for applicants to reply to a box. Instead, Hagans called the newspaper, said he represented the company that placed the ad, and got its name and address. In person, he offered his deal: He would work two weeks free. If he did a good job he would be hired at the same salary as a white engineer. Hagans got the job and the pay.
Hagans parlayed that job and much moonlighting into a 51 percent share of the Dunbar Hotel -- the best blacks could stay in the '50s. With the hotel's white minority owner, Hagans then set out to buy apartment buildings.
But the big deal was Fort Lincoln. Westinghouse and others planned the in-town development for years. But while black groups talked about investing in it. Hagans stole the show. He alone bought out Westinghouse.
"I haven't always been up on politics and every social movement," Hagans says. "I didn't believe there could be riots . . . that shows you how asleep I was."
But Hagans does believe others will have to do what he has done to end the disadvantages of being black in America. "Communities are controlled by businessmen and blacks need to control businesses so they can control their communities," he says. THE ENTREPRENEURS BEING WEALTHY SEEMED FAR-FETCHED
William Fitzgerald, 48, president of Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association, is sitting on the veranda at the Sheraton Washington in tennis whites, watching a tennis game's back-and-forth. He's drinking screwdrivers and telling how it was to hustle for a living as a black man in Washington of the '40s.
"I've been self-supporting since I was 10," he says. "I know what it's like to hear the ice cream truck coming and not have any money."
In 1951 Fitzgerald was working 10 hours a day at a laundromat, then shining shoes at Euell's Barbershop (a shop with black barbers that served only whites) and mopping up after closing. At 5 a.m. he was back up to deliver newspapers. He'd dropped out of Dunbar at 17 to marry, so he was also going to night school.
In 1952 he became the second man in a two-man firm that installed fiberglass house insulation. His boss was white. Ten years later the company was 50 men and Fitzgerald was superintendent of labor.
Even so Fitzgerald was being left behind. Salesmen were making $40,000 a year, twice what Fitzgerald made, but he couldn't be a salesman: "I'm black. I couldn't go to the country clubs where the deals were being made."
So Fitzgerald drove a cab for extra money and got into real estate. Seeing an opportunity to sell houses to blacks in good neighborhoods like Michigan Park and Shepherd Park, he became a full-time house renovator and salesman. Larger projects followed.
"It seemed to me far-fetched that I could personally be wealthy," he said. "But I didn't think it was far-fetched for me to . . . control money and use that as a lever to get things done. I wanted to get into the banking business."
In 1964 Fitzgerald and seven other blacks bought 42 percent of the stock of the struggling United Community National Bank. In 1965, with nine other men -- four whites and five blacks -- he won a charter for Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association. Independence (assets: $57 million) is now the nation's fifth largest black-owned savings-and-loan.
Fitzgerald today is a major power broker. His Thursday lunches for politicians, government officials, businessmen and experts in any and every field are a prime marketplace for the exchange of ideas. And he's looking for his own piece of downtown development.
"If black people can't make it in this town," says Fitzgerald, "there is no place on earth we can make it. If the haves in this town don't . . . open a little bit more for black people," says Fitzgerald, "then blacks won't have any interest in protecting this society. That won't be good for anyone." THE ENTREPRENEURS DON'T ASK WHY THEY CAN'T BE LIKE ME
When John R. Pinkett, Amherst '11, died in 1958, he was president and chairman of the board of a real estate company grossing more than a million dollars a year. A month after his death, his heir and daughter Flaxie assumed those titles. Current estimates put her far ahead of that million dollar earnings figure -- she won't say how much.
Flaxie Pinkett's father was a teacher who turned down the principalship of prestigious Dunbar High School, became agency director of the country's top black insurance firm, and then formed his own small company, eventually showing such an impressive sales record that a white New York firm made him its Washington representative.
When Flaxie Pinkett graduated from high school at 14, she went to Howard and worked in her father's office. A fast learner, she was soon his right-hand woman. In 1942, she was elected to the board of directors and by 1958 had become assistant treasurer. After taking over the firm, Pinkett worked with a vengeance to live up to her father's standards, making sure the company did better and better.
"There's no way to compare me with someone who is poor and black and ask why they can't be like me," Pinkett says. "Going to school, going to college, all that was just like getting up and brushing my teeth. I was expected to do it. . . . I had a protected life. You can't compare that to someone who has to fight to survive."
Pinkett's community service and status have taken her to the boards of the Potomac Electric Power Company, the United Givers Fund, the Howard University Cancer Center, and George Washington University, among others.
The fact that Pinkett money is second-generation money and that her father was a school teacher, and a Washingtonian, qualify Pinkett for Washington's black society. That she runs a successful business adds to her prestige. It makes her the top business person among Washington's black gentry and yet Pinkett is no "know your place" lady.
"My attitude has always been to help the community I live in," she says. "That means I may be the first black in the door but I won't be the only black if there is any way I can push that door open."
In 1975, when Pinkett was named Realtor of the Year by the Washington Board of Realtors, an all-white group that in 1956 rejected her father because he was black, Pinkett mentioned the discrimination against her father. "You could have heard a pin drop," she recalls. "Then the Jews stood up because they understood what discrimination is like. It turned into a standing ovation." THE GENTRY NO BLACK PEOPLE UP THERE TO HELP YOU
William T. Syphax is no longer one of the top 20 black businessmen in America. At their height his real estate interests grossed $9 millon a year and made him Washington's richest black man. But his empire ran into trouble in 1978 after his wife, who handled one of his four firms, had a heart attack and the recession, rising oil prices and rent control hit.
Syphax needed help: he needed business-smart people and he needed money.
"If I could have gotten money -- not millions, thousands -- I could have made it through the recession," Syphax says today, looking across the desk in his K Street office. "With the Jews there might have been a relative or a friend who could lend the money, use it as a tax shelter and take the loss. But I had reached the point where my folks could not help me.
"Maybe if it was $10,000 I needed," he says, thinking aloud, "maybe I could have called someone. If it was $50,000, maybe a couple of people could have come together to help out. But when you get up to $100,000 -- in that neighborhood -- there are no black people up there to help you."
In a smaller way Syphax remains in business, and he is a consultant to other black developers and businessmen. He won't talk about his current wealth, but other businessmen believe he's still a millionaire.
What Syphax wants to talk about are his books. He is writing two: The Fire in the Family, an attempt to show black youth how to succeed in America, and Digging Your Grave with Your Teeth, an argument that nucleic acid-rich foods (e.g., fish prolong life.
"He has the money to waste his time on that stuff," says one businessman.
Syphax is unbothered by such talk. He says his critics mostly are young black businessmen who lack the commitment to their race of older black businessmen.
"Young blacks now are more materialistic," he says. "It's their whole background. Service and community are not first for them. The only reason I went into business was to help the black community. They feel they don't need to worry about the community."
Syphax's great-great-grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of one of Martha Washington's sons. The first black in the Virginia legislature was an ancestor. The Syphaxes have a long history of public service. One of them was a founder of the District's first black schools.
"My folks were not necessarily rich," says Syphax, who lives in Arlington.
"It's a relative thing. They were teachers, doctors, bureaucrats. But if you were pushing a wheelbarrow like most other blacks then the Syphaxes were rich."