Cato Adams' step is sprightly on the winding staircase of his elegant old 13th Street NE home. He walks into the cool, quiet living room, well turned out in a light blue summer-weight suit and sporting a devilish smile.
A visitor extends her hand, but frankly, Adams says, he'd prefer a kiss."For good luck."
Only the body is old.
Adams, now 91, is amused by the notion that stories of his days as assistant principal of the former Armstrong Technical High School would be of interest to anyone.
"You'd better write fast," Adams cautions. "Because my memory is liable to blow a fuse any minute."
It was a time of two worlds and two Washingtons. One black, one white. Each clearly defined, each separate from the other.
The schools and everything else in town were segregated when Adams began his teaching career at Birney Elementary School in Southeast Washington in 1911, but like many educated blacks of his day, he learned to work artfully within the confines of a system he despised.
"I used to always say, if I wasn't good enough to teach in the white school, I wasn't good enough to teach anywhere," he says, but his commitment to quality education for black children kept him working in what was then called the Negro Division of the D.C. public schools.
With a distant look in his eyes, Adams remembers how vastly different education was then. And, segregation aside, he believes that in some ways, the schools were better.
"For one thing, in those days the parents were always behind you. That's now a thing of the past. Today, we have schools which are open to everyone, but the standards have declined so much that the education often is less than what we were able to provide during segregation."
But the reality of two separate educational systems still hurt.
"Black schools were never really up to par," says Adams. "We were always supposed to have the same buildings and supplies, and of course we never did, and the heads of the colored schools -- as they were called -- were never completely autonomous.
"They had one superintendent, who was white of course, and he had two assistants -- one white, one colored. But they worked in an advisory capacity. There were no blacks at a policy-making level. The white assistants had all sorts of leeway that the colored didn't. We really felt we should have one of our own in there (to supervise black programs) but we all knew that they were never going to put a colored fellow in charge of anything."
Armstrong always held a special meaning for Adams. When he was a boy, he watched as ground was broken for the building. He was graduated from Armstrong in 1908, and as an adult, he returned to teach math and history, and to coach the school's championship baseball team.
Armstrong's role as a technical highschool ended in 1954 when the District's technical programs were merged at McKinley High School. The merger was part of the school desegregation ordered by the Supreme Court. Armstrong's building, at First and O streets, NW, was later used for a variety of public school programs.
"I came from Southwest, and the thinking was, if you didn't belong to a certain set, you didn't go to M Street (Dunbar High School.) They (Dunbar students) called us the manual training school and used to tease us all the time."
Everyone, it seems, thought that Dunbar and its students were somehow better. Everyone but those at Armstrong Tech, that is.
Adams' face, softly etched with the lines of age, hardens when he is asked if Dunbar High was the only school attended by the elite of Washington's black community in those days.
"That's absolutely nowhere near the truth," he says. "Oh, I know everyone wants to tell you that only Dunbar had the elite, the college-bound, the best. wBut we had our share of good students who came from fine families and went on to college, too."
Armstrong, although catering primarily to those black students seeking technical training, always "measured up" in terms of the scholars it produced, Adams remembers. The school, he said, turned out its share of college graduates and Ph.D's. Several students, including the late journalist Fannie Granton, once a student of Adams', went on to prominence.
In both Dunbar and Armstrong, as elsewhere, segregation caused serious morale problems for the students, Adams says. Anything which singles out a student and points to him as an inferior person, Adams believes, is "damaging . . . in ways we couldn't even have speculated on back them."
"The ironic thin is this (racial prejudice) was never something which was instigated by the kids. Children are the same everywhere -- a lot of the bad feelings between youngsters were created by the parents. Things were fine until they got to be of high school age, and then the big worry was that they would become attracted to each other, and that would lead to other things . . . The adults just wouldn't realize that there are some things -- things like that -- that no laws of any kind can control.
"I think even the top-flight students were resentful they were told you can go so far and no further, and even though it (segregation) was all they knew, it bothered them. So I would tell my students: 'prepare now and complain later.'"
Adams actively fought segregation.As a young man, he moved to Falls Church, Va., and helped organize the first chapter of the NAACP in that area. One of the men who worked with him there was a fair-skinned black man who used "to pass for white and come back to us with a lot of information about where all the anti-black sentiment in that area was coming from," Adams recalls with a sly chuckle.
Adams, whose lifetime has spanned four wars and vast technological advances, says that integration was the even which had the biggest impact upon him. It was, he recalls, "one of the most wonderful things to come about -- not only in the schools, but in the entire country as well. I always knew I'd live to see it, I was confident about that, but still, it was one of the happiest moments of my life."
Adams, after his graduation from Armstrong, attended Washington Normal School -- now D.C. Teacher's college -- from which he was graduated in 1910. He also attended Howard University. He retired from the teaching profession in 1947. His two regrets, he said, were that he never taught the German which he mastered while serving in World War I, and that he was unable ever to teach in an integrated school.
Adams' wife of 45 years, Travola, is also a retired teacher. He married late in life -- he was 45 at the time -- and while he won't admit to having been a ladies' man before then, he does allow -- with a wicked gleam in his eyes -- that "the women did find me useful, I suppose."
Adams belongs to several social clubs, and his duties with each keep his schedule packed. In fact, he says, hinting broadly, he really ought to be tending to his responsibilities for one -- the Saturday Night Club -- instead of giving an interview.
At that moment, the Adams' housekeeper enters the room to tell him she is leaving for the day. "Be good," she cautions him. Unwittingly, she has set him up for one of his favorite jokes.
"Good -- I can't see as I have any other choice -- my parents have taken care of that," says Adams.
"Your parents?" the startled housekeeper repeats.
"Yes," he says, now giggling uncontrollably, "Mother Nature and Father Time."
"He settles in for a long private laugh as the housekeeper shakes her head and hastily walks out the front door.