The dance band was all-white, except for the black vocalist, and the music it played was fox-trottish (like "A Foggy Day"). There was a 9-minute slide show promoting Washington as "everybody's town." It showed picturesque federal monuments, sunny scenes of Georgetown, Connecticut Avenue and Capitol Hill; Clyde's, The Apple Tree and the Kennedy Center; RFK Stadium and President Jimmy Carter.
The show had no pictures of Howard University, nor of the historic Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia; no family life in Michigan Park or services at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. There were no slides of the Foxtrappe or W.H. Bone restaurant, with its chitlins and champagne fare. No sign of Marion Barry.
And when the three, torchbearing black men in tall white baker's hats paraded in to the accompaniment of the "Col. Bogey" march, leading the waiters with platters of Cherries Jubilee Flambe, one would have suspected for sure that this was the annual midwinter bash of the historically WASPish Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade rather than the 41st annual awards dinner of the city's traditionally black business group, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
But this was the D.C. Chamber, in all its new splendor -- "A New Chamber for a New Washington," its dinner theme proclaimed.
In the racially segregated world of Washington business, the chamber has historically been the representative of the city's black businesses -- mom and pop grocers, small contractors, dry cleaning, liquor store and bar owners, morticians and small-time realtors, for example.
By contrast, the predominantly white Board of Trade, its membership laden with bankers, builders, utility barrons, retail executives, uptown lawyers, and media moguls, has been the city's real Chamber of Commerce.
For example, page 111 of the 1978 District of Columbia white pages contains the following entry: "Chamber of Commerce of Washington, D.C. -- see Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade."
And needless to say, the Board of Trade's annual dinner has generally been held on a far more lavish scale than that of the smaller black group.
Last Saturday, the chamber was admittedly trying to add class to its act and reaching out to that powerful and exclusive white minority of the city, which, along with influential suburbanites, has long controlled the affairs of business in this predominantly black town.
At the same time, the chamber was trying to assert itself as a new power to be reckoned with in the future of the District, where the current urban renaissance is among the hottest things going for people in business.
"We did intentionally change the tone of the dinner (from past years). We wanted to show that the Chamber of Commerce is a chamber of commerce for all people of the District of Columbia," said chamber President James L. Denson.
"I pledge," Denson told the audience of more than 1,500, "that we are no longer a black chamber of commerce. We are THE chamber of commerce of the District of Columbia and will represent all of its business."
The D.C. Chamber's new look represents the latest chapter in a continuing tale of two cities trying to come together; of old white and old blck Washington trying somehow to merge, each somewhat skeptical of the other and each hoping the merger will be dictated by its own terms.
For the past several decades, the Board of Trade has been the major spokesman for the District business community, even though it was nearly all-white and heavy in suburban membership.
The coming of home-rule changed the complexion of local power and shifted much of the focus from the committee rooms and congressional offices of southern segregationists on Capitol Hill to the District Building, with its legislative cadre of one-time civil rights and community activists dominating the City Council. Also, younger, more liberal whites began to emerge as a prominent force in city life.
The Board of Trade read the winds of change, and began to integrate its ranks with more blacks, more women, two Jewish presidents in three years and the hiring by many of its member groups of more black persons in prominent places -- lawyers, vice presidents, corporate lobbyists and even, in an instance or two, business partners. For a while, it appeared as if this facelift would maintain the board's unchallenged representation of the District's business community.
Now, however, Denson and the chamber appear to be taking the next move on a political chess board that seems to be governed by logic akin to that espoused by former mayor Walter E. Washington at the Saturday night chamber dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
"In the (U.S.) mint here, we don't make black dollars," Washington said. "They're all green. If you want to be in the process, you've got to compete."
Denson added: "Since we are the chamber -- we are the D.C. chamber -- anything that happens in this city, we ought to have a piece of the action. We're the only chamber anywhere in the country that has had to justify its existence.
"The Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade is exactly as its name denotes -- metropolitan."
The chamber has a smattering of prominent non-blacks on its board. Denson said he expects these persons and others of "the so-called heavyweights" in the Washington business community to be "actively involved" in the chamber's activities.
Denson, a 45-year-old management consultant and member of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said he' is not worried about a large influx of whites into the currently 912-member organization.
"As long as the goal is still the enhancement of the minority community," he said, "I have no problem with the chamber having a white president if his head is screwed on right."
For Mayor Marion Barry, who declared last week "District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce Week," the new thrust by the chamber means an additional special interest group to exert pressure on his policies.
What the chamber would like to see from the new mayor, Denson said, is appointment of a special assistant for minority business and economic development; a prominent role for small and minority businesses when Barry carries out his campaign pledge to take the boards off abandoned houses and make them livable again.
"I'm convinced," Barry told the Saturday night crowd, "that the (D.C.) Chamber of Commerce is the hope of small and minority businesses in the District of Columbia."