THE '70S HAVE been an up and down decade for Ellsworth and Louise Hutchinson. The early years were shattered by the slow death of their seven-year old-son, one of their six children; as they bound their wounds after the death of one child, they knew disappointment about the life choices of some of the others. They escalated into the victory of middle class only to meet the juggernaut of inflation. But sitting in their Anacostia living room amid family mementos where they have laughed and cried, celebrated and mounred, the Hutchinsons say they have survived well.
They have strong determination to deal with personal tension and everyday worries, and say they will survive whatever roadblocks the '80s present. Theirs is a family -- clearly marked with imperfections but more clearly marked by unity -- that you want the bureaucrats and sociologists, the occasional voices of doom about large, minimally educated, inner-city black families, to look at.
Unlike many families, black and white, who did not survive the economic uncertainities brought on by three recessions in the '70s, spiraling divorce and separation pressures, the Hutchinsons, who have been married 31 years, survived because they were intrinsically strong and resourceful and could hold society's pressures at bay.
During that time, Louise Hutchinson was nearly consumed with community activism and at one point served on 12 different boards. She was a director of Southeast Community House and worked for the Anacostia Community School Project.
She was battered for her choice to work in the community. A native Washingtonian who grew up in Shaw and whose mother had been a journalist who knew women like educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Hutchinson defended herself against being "middle class." She'd retort, "The bottom line is your values. Will they endure and make some difference in the way the community moves forward?"
Hutch encouraged and supported his wife's activism, only occasionally grumbling while cooking pot roasts.
The Hutchinson began the '70s in a solid duplex on 18th St. SE, finally out of the projects. That move itself exploded the belief that people stay in the projects forever and are a constant burden on society. Hutch worked for Curtis Brothers Furniture Co. in Anacostia as their first black salesman. "He was their best," Louise says proudly. His earnings increased each year, up to $22,000 by 1975. The family's horizons always had been upwardly mobile, but now their finances improved, helped along by Louise's careful budgeting.
"Taking a woman who has something to offer and keeping her in the house taking care of a family -- she's like a caged tiger. She deserved that chance," he says.
As the country turned toward Watergate and Vietnam and away from the Anacostias of America, that close-knit community was forgetting the hardball politics of earlier days and closing ranks around the Hutchinsons in a family crisis. Seven-year-old Mark Hutchinson was ill with a brain tumor that was later diagnosed as malignant.
Death came slowly into the Hutchinson family. They'd not wanted Markie to die surrounded by strangers, so for many months all their own lives took a slow pause while they waited in their small home in Anacostia.
"We had an awful lot of support from friends," recalled Louise Hutchinson, "We had a babysitter who became part of our extended family who made it possible for me to stay in the hospital with Mark two, three, four or five weeks at the time." As soon as he got better, they swooped him home.
On one such occasion, Anacostia sponsored "Mark Hutchinson Day," featuring a reclining, smiling Mark, highlighted by presentation to him of a floppy-eared mutt named Fred Flintstone.
"Every week there was a crisis," Louise Hutchinson says. "He was dying and we know it." The family rallied. Donna, now 23, and Dana, now 16, gave up their room for him. A long-simmering confrontation between the two older boys, Ronald and David, because David got superior grades, underwent a healing process.
By now Louise Hutchinson had left community activism and was working as a historian at the Anacostia Museum.
On a biting cold day in February, 1974, Mark Hutchinson died.
As the funeral cortege bearing the boy's body climbed the hill past Moten School, every student was standing in the schoolyard in tribute to their classmate, having sacrificed the hour in which they usually ran and played. "That scene has stayed in my mind every since," Louise Hutchinson says. The grieving mother threw herself into her work and began what would be a string of outstanding historical research projects for the museum, including "Out of Africa," and "The Anacostia Story."
Her boss, John Kinard remembers: "they went into a sort of depression. But they're not boo-hoo people. They were in it together."
Friends surrounded them and in turn the Hutchinsons counselled other families with terminally ill children.
But not too many months afterward, Hutch had a crisis of his own. He lost his job when Curtis Brothers closed its Anacostia store.
The prospects of a job change was not faced with the canned laughter and elastic grins that black men show on television shows in America, but with the reality of unbent brow. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I had established a good reputation, though." To his surprise he was offered six jobs, and chose to work for another furniture company in its new suburban store, miles from Anacostia.
"I couldn't handle it. My old customers couldn't travel the distance and those who came from Washington were refused credit. I went from earning $22,000 to earning $13,000." I'm saying to myself will I ever make it because it was so slow. She continued encouraging me and I kept plodding."
Many black middle class families see their children as their investment in the future, for they have no fortunes to leave behind. The Hutchinsons have such strong orientation for their children to achieve and they have pushed them. Louise was a stern taskmaster, checking homework, insisting on good grades, conferring with teachers. "I rebelled," said Donna, "I thought my mother was wrong. It took me going through a lot of emotional problems. But my mother ever said don't do this or that . . ." Donna is a lively outgoing young woman of 23 who succeeds in getting jobs that pay well but offer little security. She says she will finally study to be an accountant. Ronald is at 28 a federal police officer at National Institutes of Health and a volunteer fireman in Prince George's County. "I used to think low of myself. I didn't have too much confidence." Today he says he is contemplating college.
Only one of the older three has graduated from college. That is a disappointment to the Hutchisons, especially Louise, who has always pushed them; pushed them too hard, they say. "When I came along you needed a high school dipolma to sweep floors; in this technological, high inflation society you'll need an undergrad degree to sweep floors," she says in only partial hyperbole. "I have high hopes for these two," she says pointing to Dana, 16, and Vicky, 9. "They all have the intelligence and ability."
Dana is resisting her mother's "pushing me, I would rather do things at my own pace."
Louise Hutchinson seems surprised."This is interesting here because I don't see myself pushing her . . ." The Hutchinsons survived the economically perilous '70s but the future finds Hutch in a bind. Louise wants him to spend more time with the family while he must sell more to keep afloat. "I feel mentally pressured because I feel I have to apologize for these hours that I work. If I lessened my hours, my income would go down."
Black families have always lived beneath the burden of myths, including that they are breeding grounds for welfare chiselers and juvenile deliquents even though it is documented that nearby three-quareters of black children have parents who are either working or seeking jobs -- in spite of continuing discrimination in jobs.
For the bureaucrats preoccupied with the "pathology" of black families, I offer the Hutchinsons.