Every bit of her 12-year-old sophistication was pressed into "Chinese Dance," the five-minute piano solo capping the hours of practice. Her sure fingers glided gracefully over the keys, depressing the proper ones just so. Her head was held erect as if by a gossamer thread.
Young elegance in a blue Chinese tunic and patent leather shoes, she was a player on the stage of one of black Washington's most cherished traditions, the rite of passage called the piano recital.
For three generations and for hundreds of Washingtonians, that rite has been synonymous with the girl's instructor, Eunice E. Thomson-Shepherd. hAs the "programme" said: "To those who have children, the Eunice E. Thompson-Shepherd Piano Studio offers a place where they may receive the best training in an atmosphere of culture and refinement."
Thompson-Shepherd is an ever so sweet holdover from a culture of well-to-do black Washingtonians whose lifestyles flourished around finger sandwiches, formal living rooms and lessons in the niceties of life. The piano was an essential component.
A fifth-generation Northwest resident, Thompson-Shepherd has taught piano in her studio at 1763 U St. NW for more years than she can or cares to count. Her age is a secret, but somewhere around 76 is a good guess. She began her studies at three, taught her first class at 10 and became the "baby of Wilberforce" as a 14-year-old finishing high school at the Ohio University.
The 5-foot-2-inch dynamo, settling into the satisfying aftermath of her students' latest recital at the Ellington School of the Arts, acquiesced to draw from her recollections of the Washington that shaped her life, beginning with her early departure to Ohio. Her conversation has a predilection for anecdote.
"Washington wasn't like it is now," she begins from the living room where she grew up."You couldn't go into restaurants or anything like that. So once when I was a little girl, I wanted an ice cream and I couldn't go into the store.
"My mother didn't want to tell me why, but she said that when I got bigger, I was to go away so that I wouldn't get an inferiority complex."
She laughs softly, pausing to smooth the lace doily on the polished antique table before going on. The table, like the embroidered seat cushions and the pink curlicue wallpaper, is a reminder of her youth and of the special, insulated culture that thrived in the days of segregated Washington.
She was nurtured in the bosom of the black elite. Highly polished Studebackers and Packards lined her street. It was home to doctors, educators and the presidents of the city's two black-owned banks. The Dunbar Hotel was two blocks away at 15th and U. Black Broadway was a stone's throw down U to the east.
When she returned from her music training in 1925, having studied at Wilberforce University and earned her degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the then Eunice Thompson was presented to the public in a solo concert at John Wesley Church as 14th and Corcoran streets NW.
She remembers wearing a floor-length gown with pink and blue sequins and endlessly shaking hands when the recital was over. In the weeks that followed, many young people came to visit. Young gentlemen came calling, always bringing flowers. Her guests feasted on her mother's finger sandwiches and punch, then went home to tell their friends about Eunice's new studio. And that was that.
Memories of her youth are inevitably also memories of segregation. Having been the only black in her Oberlin class had emboldened her. She would use the lessons from the Ohio experience in Washington.
"I remember going to Garfinckel's. They didn't welcome you but that didn't make any difference to me," she says at her rapid-fire pace. "Some of them wouldn't wait on you. (My friends) would walk out. Not me, if it was in the White House and I want it, I'd go."
She opened her studio against the wishes of teachers and family, especially her mother, Calista J. Geary-Thompson, a well-known seamstress and designer who turned out fashions for black ladies of note -- as smart as "anything in Vogue," Thompson-Shepherd allows -- who had hopes of her only child being a concert pianist.
But Thompson-Shepherd, who remembers her mother as an elegant lady and a most important influence on her life, says the studio was her way of giving something back to the comunity that had seemed to single her out for special blessings.
"Really, if I wasn't a success I should be whipped," she says, thumbing through old pictures. "I was an only child and when I came back I had no rent to pay. The studio was in my house. My mother was always home to help with costumes and decorations. My life was so different from many others."
Her father Daniel, trained as a chef, had -- like many well-educated blacks -- worked as a postal clerk until he landed a job as chief chef for the old Hamilton Hotel. But his daughter's life was wondrous. Nights of splendid ballgowns, white ties and tails at the Lincoln Colonnade, the glittering ballroom behind the old Lincoln Theater, 1215 U Street. Less formal nights at the Howard Theater, 7th and T NW, enjoying the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
Other times, going to friends' homes for dancing and "shouts," songs for parties where budding performers rendered their hard-driving piano music for the amusement of friends. Her circle was one in which seamstresses had housekeepers and postal clerks kept gardeners.
She met her husband Bill, now a retired federal government clerk, at one of her recitals. He, too, came calling, and in April 1933 they were married.
Thompson-Shepherd transferred her advantages in her own style, through long hours of musical service to the community. For her students' most recent recital, held as every year on the second Sunday in July, she worked from nine to nine, six days a week. She organized the costumes worn by younger performers and helped build the cascade of flowers to backdrop the piano. She also roped piano-playing alumni into helping the children and seating guests. These touches, of course, are Thompson-Shepherd traditions.
Things changed, she said, after the riots. Fewer children come than in past years; potential students are "distracted" by other activities, and modern parents seem to care less about their children's upbringing than about their own careers. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, her U. Street lost the bright lights around which well-to-do blacks fluttered when integration moved the Gold Coast up Northwest 16th street.
But even if the present disappoints her, warm memories and strong ties remain. Sixty-year-old Marian Bryant, serving as a recital hostess, spans three generations of family involvement with Thompson-Shepherd. "In my day," she recalled, "(piano lessons) were the most cultured thing for the black child to do, and when school closed, that's what you did. We'd ride the streetcar all day to practice at each other's houses. And Mrs. Shepherd didn't know the meaning of an hour. You'd stay until she was pleased."
Elizabeth Wilson, whose name regularly appears on the recital programs under "Hostesses" whether her daughter performs or not, remembers her lessons as morning to twilight affairs because, "Well, recitals were the grand thing. They were very important because they were all we looked forward to."
Wilson remembers her mother spending weeks on a fairy queen or butterfly costume for her daughter prior to a recital. And as she matured, replacing the wings with party dresses and gowns. Wilson's own daughter has now begun the cycle again, paying Thompson-Shepherd the same $3 a month that her mother -- as one of 50 to 70 students at a time -- once did.
So full a life as Thompson-Shepherd's has had few disappointments, but the major one has been not having children of her own. In characteristic fashion, she overcame it.
"I used to cry," she says, closing her scrapbook, "but then I thought that every year I taught, I would have 50 babies of my own."
Her babies have grown and dispersed, but Wilson says speaking for them all, "Her patience and her teaching and her strong will have been with me throughout my life. And we never forget her."