When the martial arts are mentioned, most people think of the Orient; Bruce Lee might come to mind. But many people in D.C. think of John Womble, the 44-year-old martial arts coordinator for the D.C. Department of Recreation and a lecturer on the martial arts at the University of the District of Columbia.
Womble has taught the sports-cum-philosophy to Washingtonians -- people of various nationalities, religions and handicaps -- for 24 years.
According to The Encyclopedia of Martial Arts in the United States, he was the first black person in this country to receive a black belt in 1956.
He was introduced to the martial arts while stationed with the army in Japan in the early 1950s. He and some buddies wagered the one of their fellow soldiers could beat a Japanese martial arts expert.
"There was a boxing exhibition and I bet on a fighter from D.C.," Womble recalls. "I ultimately lost my shirt, but I became fascinated by the guy who had won. It wasn't that he won so much as the way he had done it. It was impressive because he had done it with one punch. I wanted to find out more about this strange form of combat."
Not long afterward, he witnessed an exhibition of swardsmanship by men known as Samurai, from the School of the Samura on Japan's island of Kyushu.
Womble enrolled in the school and learned karate, kenjitsu (the sword) and bujitsu (the sticks), the three disciplines in which he holds his black belt.
"These teachers were masters who had dedicated their lives to the perpetuation of the art of the Samura, which had existed in Japan for centuries," Womble explained.
"To witness these men working, and listen to them would stagger the imagination."
After two years of instruction, Womble graduated, finished his stint in the service, and returned home to teach his newly acquired skill.
He was the first instructor of the martial arts in D.C., he says, and, in April 1956, aftr receiving his black belt, he opened Wombel's Kenpo Karate Do School, which is still operating in the Langdon Recreation Center, 20th and Franklin streets NE.
As a proponent of purity in the martial arts and preservation of the disciplines, Womble is disturbed by ignorance and misconceptions about the arts.
"Much of what you see today is the sport form of the martial arts, and not the art form," he explains. "In the sport form, you are dealing mainly with the physical aspect. But in the art form, there is more pure training of the mind, sprit and body. The sport form gives you a vague imitation, whereas the art form is much more profound."
The focus on the sport aspect has led to commercialization of the martial arts and an obsession with the belt, he says. "Many people are being deluded into thinking they are learning the arts when, in fact, they are not. They go to a school and for $35 they can get a belt.
"Originally, there were four belts, the white for the beginning student, the gren for the intermediate, the brown for the aspiring black belt, and, of course, the black belt itself.
"Now they've added four more belts. They are actually pseudo-belts that are more for the feeding of egos than developing technical skills."
Womble added that, contrary to popular belief, earning a black belt is not the pinnacle. In fact, he says, that is only the beginnings.
"Once you obtain the black belt, the learning process begins," he said. "You learn that the body is just a temple or vehicle for the real you. Once you reach that level, you realize that the body is limited and that the real you has no limitations.
"I've studied the martial arts for 25 years, and I still feel like a beginner because the more I learn, the more I realize that I don't know."
Many of Womble's students have gone on to teach the martial arts. They keep in touch with him from across the country, he says.
William Johnson, who has studied under Womble for seven years, teaches the martial arts at St. Paul and Augustine School.
"As an instructor he is very close to his students," Johnson says of Womble. "He tries to help you find a balance between mental and physical health. That balance, along with the other things he teaches, becomes useful in everyday life. Then you, in turn, have something positive to offer others."