We were sitting on our back porch Sunday after lunch, my husband and I and lawyer friends in town for the National Bar Association convention, when we heard a parade coming. At first it was just a distant drumbeat booming out what I think of as the war veterans' cadence, the kind of music I've heard veterans playing in parades as far back as I can remember.
It's music tailor-made for stiff, proud marching, and, I've always sense, for remembering campaigns in foreign lands where everything was laid on the line for an ideal. Drums dominate this kind of beat, backed by earnestly, but infrequently played brass instruments doing their best to weave a recognizable melody into the rhythm.
As the drums and brass moved closer, I knew it had to be a community parade marching so majestically down 15th Street NW. Sure enough, all the marchers were black, hundreds of men in dark suits with white leather aprons, masons marching from their headquarters at 10th and U NW to the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church.
As we watched the impressive procession of rows upon rows of pressed, starched men stepping lightly in formation, one of our friends guessed that they must be gathered for a national convention.
Curious, I dashed out to the corner to find out, and found two masons pausing under a shade tree. They were all local, they said, heading to a conclave where they would award some $30,000 in college scholarships to local kids.
Back on the porch, our guests were amazed that so many black men belonged to the organization. They found the numbers astonishing; realizing that it meant D.C. had a substantial black middle class, and correspondingly, a lot more blacks than they realized.
Now, it was my turn to be surprised. Living in D.C., I just assume most of the people in this country, especially blacks, know that the city is predominantly black. And I also assume that other blacks around the country are paying special attention to what goes on here, and in a sense, hoping that black leadership will work out the city's political and social problems. Kind of a spiritual, if not political, unity, you might say.
But these men, black lawyers whom one would presume are well-read and knowledgeable, were surprised at the 70 percent black estimate. Which meant, they didn't know the real D.C. at all.
They had no idea of the agonies of a black leadership trying to remedy a black school system of such ill-repute that even the black middle class has fled it. Or of a black city government faced with resolving a mind-boggling budget deficit variously estimated at from $90 million to nearly $300 million; while, at the same time, being charged with solving a critical and complex housing problem.
And in the face of all this -- and much more -- they try to persuade a largely white Congress to give the black leadership of the District of Columbia true home rule authority.
It was hard to believe that these well-educated, concerned men, very much caught up in their own communities back home, were not turned in to D.C. They knew about the slums in the shadow of the Capitol, but by now that has almost become a cliche. The real D.C. is tortuously complex.
But most people who come into town for a conference or convention stay in Northwest Washington, and judge the town by what they see. In this case, the black lawyers had convened at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and remained downtown for meals and entertainment. Like most visitors who only see official Washington, the part of town with the fancy hotels and monuments, they don't see the D.C. we know, the D.C. which so often reels under the weight of its load.
Of course, we explained all this to our friends, as well as about Northeast and Southeast Washington, and how the black concentration had developed.
They will probably think of Washington differently now. Naturally, they will still see its many wonderful attractions. But they will also consider the city's pressing problems and wonder how its leadership is handling them. Who knows, they might even come up with some answers.