When THe Rev. James Christopher Wyatt died last June, nearly 600 mourners attended the funeral at the Deanwood First Baptist Church in Northeast Washington. They came from as far away as his hometown of Dinwiddie, Va., and from as close as Jefferson Heights, just across the Maryland line.
For the older Jefferson Heights residents, the funeral inadvertently turned into a reunion. Their children, grandchildren, former neighbors and friends many of whom they had not seen in years, were all there. Forgetting themselves, the mourners greeted each other with cries of joy and smiles, not tears. Then someone suggested, "Hey, instead of meeting at an occasional funeral, why not have a reunion?"
Last weekend, 200 present and former Jefferson Heights residents and relatives turned out for the community's 40th reunion at Peppermill Village Recreation Center in Seat Pleasant. This time, there was no reason to hold back. They hugged, kissed, reminisced, gossiped and danced until early into the next morning.
Children stood by their mothers' sides or sat dutifully at their tables, rolling their eyes and wiping wet kisses off their cheeks, while teen-agers flaunted their new outfits and showed everyone how much they'd grown. Some of the oldest ones simply stayed put, nodding their heads and smiling.
Standing near the stage, Charlotte Spriggs, the event's chairwoman, distributed gifts and certificates to "outstanding" community members, who were the oldest residents of Jefferson Heights.
Jefferson Heights, residents said, was one of the only all-black communities in the area that was tight-knit, loving and safe. Times have changed; many of the original residents have died and the younger ones have moved on to bigger and better communities. But pride in the community has never been lost, they said.
The man who build Jefferson Heights, an unincorporated area of Prince George's County, was "god-sent," residents said. Frederick L. Watkins Sr., a white businessman and owner of a local building supply company until he died in 1941, began building the community in 1938 and sold all the small homes to blacks for $1,625 to $1,950. (Forty years later, Jefferson Heights residents would spend almost that much to hold their reunion.)
Freddie L. Watkins Jr., who inherited the business and finished the project after his father's death, said at the reunion that he is not quite sure what made his father sell the houses for so little. His father spent much of his money employing poor blacks to build the four-room houses, Watkins said.
Watkins Sr. once allowed a homeless family who had traveled several miles in a truck loaded with furniture live in one of his houses free until they would find a way to pay the $16.50 monthly rent. Watkins later sold the family the house.
"To build a community for black families in 1938 was unheard of," said Justin Wyatt, 40, son of the late Rev. Wyatt and one of the planners of the reunion.
Situated in a pocket of the mostly black, low-income neightborhoods of Cedar Heights, Fairmount Heights, Seat Pleasant and Gregory Estates, Jefferson Heights is composed of four roads and 52 frame houses. There are no sidewalks or curbs, and there is only one narrow road leading into the community.
"I don't know what those people saw in these houses," said Watkins Jr., 74, while driving through Jefferson Heights. "The streets are a little narrow," he said, trying to make a U-turn in his Ford station wagon and barely succeeding.
"There was absolutely nothing in those homes when they were first built. Now, I can hardly recognize the houses because they've changed them so much. I used to know every corner of the area."
None of the houss had plumbing when they were built. Residents shared the neighborhood water pump. In winter, fires were build around the pump to keep the water from freezing, said Otis Holman, who now lives in Chapel Oaks. Even though the houses were crude, they provided shelter and security for several poor families, Holman said.
Although residents agree that the area is safe, Dallas Williams, 69, once a storekeeper in the neighborhood, complained of petty crimes at his store.
"All those youngsters used to run around like madmen wanting my only $1 bill on me, and I know they would knock me on the head to get it. They used to break in my store regularly," Williams said. He closed the store in 1970.
Spriggs, 41, remembers the neighborhood as very safe when she was a child. "But when any of us were bad, the older folks took care of us. Everyone of us in the second generation has been whipped by one of these old folks here," Spriggs said.
"Today, everyone is as happy as they could be. This is such a rare happening for us," she said. "All I can hear from everyone is 'Next year. Okay?'"