John Milton Black wants to bring back the past -- if for no other reason than because the memories are so sweet. Certain images remain sharply fixed, heady and exhilarating:
Pomade-slicked hair, Prince Albert swallowtail coats, stiffly starched shirts, snow-white bow ties. Gowns of chiffon and satin, swatches of tulle, elbow gloves, pearls and pumps dyed to match. An evening of swinging, an afternoon of football, a concert with His Majesty of Jazz Duke Ellington, or a set with the fabulous "Mr. B" Billy Eckstine.
And, to cap it all off, this once-a-year whirlwind-of-events weekend was all tied to scholarship aid for black colleges and universities.
It was called the Capital Classic and, though it sounds like a page from a Hollywood screenplay, from 1942 to 1962 it was a very real annual fantasy for black Washingtonians. Begun by a group of attorneys and businessmen to revive local interest in "Negro Intercollegiate Football," the Classic offered a chance for black college men to play before sellout crowds at the old Griffith Stadium, then the municipal stadium where Howard University Hospital is today, as well as for black beauty queens to strut their stuff before a citywide audience.
Capital Classics pitted two black college football teams against each other on a mid-October Saturday. Preceded by a parade, the game also featured a beauty pageant to crown Miss Capital Classic, an official dance, and afterwards, parties and concerts galore, winding up with predawn stops for barbecue.
If John Black has his way, and if will alone is enough, he will, not only D.C., but cities around the country will revive the grand tradition and raise scholarship dollars in the process.
He is a one-man cheerleading band as he remembers Capital Classics from his elegantly cluttered Victorian home on Northwest 16th Street. "It was one of the greatest events. People came from everywhere. Busloads and truckloads came from New York to Mississippi." His home, willed to him by an aunt, is part of his collateral against the $37,000 cost of the revived extravaganza.
"This is the first game and I've got everything riding on it," he says. "My house is mortgaged, I got some land in Virginia that I can sell . . . Even my soul is hocked for this game. But if I get this one off, then all the proceeds will go for scholarships for the predominantly black schools."
Black first came in contact with the Classic in 1946 as a student at Howard, where he enrolled after being discharged from the Army the year before. Born in Ruleville, Miss., in 1919, one of the five children of John Black and his schoolteacher wife Sarah, Black left home at 14 to finish high school at Jackson College (today's Jackson State University), from which he earned both his high school diploma, in 1939, and two years later an associate degree. While there, he played tennis and football, and having scored a touchdown within the first two minutes of his first game at Jackson, earned a record which has never been broken.
Even as his body was on the playing fields, his heart was set on food, a paternal legacy. Black's father left Ruleville when his middle child was so young he just vaguely remembers him, joining the black exodus to the North, landing in Chicago, where he found a job preparing food in a hotel. Following those footsteps, as the younger Black finished his studies at Jackson and prepared to enter the Army, he decided to earn a degree in nutrition. After the war he entered Howard's home economics program, toying with the idea of opening a hotel of his own.
As he explored the city, he discovered the Classic, already a popular D.C. institution after four years. "The first two Classics after I got here, I couldn't even get a ticket," Black said. "It was a sellout."
Today, he, through his company, the Nation's Capital Bowl Classic and the Committee of Black Sportsmen he organized, is determined to see the dream realized again. His office-full of dutiful staffers labor at number 1023 on historic Northwest U Street to make the new Classic live in the D.C. again next week.
A formal banquet, $35 a ticket, is planned for next Friday, Nov. 7, at the Capital Hilton Hotel, complete with swing band, beauty queens and awards. The game will follow on Saturday at RFK Stadium, pitting Fayatteville State University against the University of the District of Columbia. There's even a post game dance, formal naturally, at the 10th and U Street Masonic Temple. But of course, all of this is tradition.
Begun in 1942 by now-retired businessmen Charles C. Coley, Jerry Coward and Jessie Dedman, who were later joined by attorney Ernest C. Dickson, the Classic was a black business community extravaganza. From their offices on then fashionable U Street, the entrepreneurs founded the Capital Classic, Ltd. company to lure the interest and dollars of D.C.'s thousands of "colored" fans away from the professional teams which wouldn't employ or seat blacks properly, and return those dollars to the black college teams.
The Classic offered the community, according to one of the printed programs, ". . . a massive arena where the radiant beauty of Negro women, who for so long, where beauty is concerned, have been in the shadows -- shaded by the accepted Nordic ideal can move proudly to stage center and radiate the bronze charm that will always be the heritage of women of color."
Dickson, now 80-plus, remembers fondly. "It was a colored venture, and I'm always in for a colored venture," he says from his old office at 913 U Street NW -- just down from Black's new one -- where he's still drawing up wills and contracts.
Through related activities, the Classic generated dollars for black business, so much so that the advertisements in the official programs read like a Who's Who of black Washington capitalism: the Industrial Bank of Washington at 11th and U streets NW; the Dunbar Hotel at 15th and U; Frazier's Funeral home at Rhode Island Avenue, and the competing Jarvis at 1432 U; the Park Avenue Tonsorial Shop at Georgia and Park Road; Burks' Realty. The innumerable guest houses that served as hotels in segregated days, as well as hairdressers, seamstresses, tailors, posh clubs and rib parlors, all paraded their wares in the pages of the Capital Classic.
For student-athlete Black, however, who worked his way through Howard studying by day and odd-jobbing at night, the Classic's real appeal lay in all potential money for students.
"It's something I started [thinking about] back when I was in childhood.
I searched for maybe 20, 30 years for what I was going to do that would help young people," he says, flipping through one of several photo albums stacked on the sitting room's mahogany coffee table. "I worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC when they came to Washington . . . And I found out that we need something to help the black child get an education."
Black's minister understands the nature of the man who is tackling such an ambitious undertaking. "He's a very enthusiastic and energetic person, always involved in philanthropic and community-oriented projects," the Reverend H. Beecher Hicks Jr., pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church where Black is an avid volunteer, said. "He's a very gregarious sort, a people person, service oriented. He's, let me say this, he's the kind of person where, if he's met you and he likes you, he'll give you the shirt off his back. Once you meet him, you'll never forget him. He'll force you to, let's say, to acknowledge his presence."
Black, a dapper mustachioed gentleman rarely seen without a three-piece suit now that he is promoting love of the pageantry that he remembers so vividly.
"Back in those day, all you had was movies and church," he said. But as for the Classic, "I like the beauty of if, and what it portrayed. It portrayed a life a awareness and beauty and something to work for. Now," he said wistfully, "we don't have anything to look up to, to live for. We can have it, and still help out our young people."
The old sportsman in Black disdains the view held by some latter-day sports critics that they distract young men from realistic pursuits with daydreams of professional athletics. "No, no, no, I want to give them the basics," he said. "But I want to keep them busy so they don't have time for drugs."
The original Classic folded in 1963, right after the death of President John F. Kennedy. "The teams were on their way to the game when the news about the president came on the radio," Black said, "and they just turned around and went home."
But Dickson said the real death of the Classic came with the birth of the new stadium, which opened in 1961, and its prohibitive costs. When the teams didn't play the 1963 game, the backers lost so much they couldn't finance another game.
Black, who has been working on reviving the Classic ever since, has made several ill-fated attempts which he financed with his own money. "It's hard to get a group to work with you on the first game. We're offering half-priced tickets for students and for groups, and it's not for myself because, you see, I made it," he said gesturing around the colorful, knick-knack filled living room. Black hopes not only to offer funds to colleges, but also to set up pre-college programs for young children that will be managed by the Committee of Black Sportsmen.
But, surely equally, the still rakish Black also wants to restore the gaiety of those days recorded in his stacks of albums where he is dressed to the nines in white tie and tails, a zoot suit, or frock coat and top hat, more often than not with a begowned and beguiling beauty under each arm.
Today, Northwest U Street is a faded mixture of often low income longtime residents and new affluent renovators. Fourteenth Street is the Eastern Market of drug dealing, and Black believes Washington's generally high crime rates, the norm of recent years, have dampened the flair of the District's once sparkling night life. But back then --
"You had to be dressed; all those parties were dressy affairs. You had a dance and parties all over town, and we had what you'd call after hours places," he said, beginning a recitation of a list of night spots in the heart of the old Black Broadway. "At 14th and U [streets NW,] there was an after-hours place, the Club Bengazi. There was the Hour-Hour, and the [Bohemian] Caverns at 11th and U. And the Club Bali at 14th and T -- Oh, and the Hollywood [at 9th and U]. The Hollywood was a must. If you didn't go to the Hollywood, you just wasn't in the up and up crowd," he says laughing, leaving no doubt which crowd he was in.
"There was the Kozy Korner, and Old Rose -- which was after hours after hours -- and the Pig and Pit" at 600 Florida Avenue," Black said. "That was the last place. Everybody made the rounds and at 4 or 5 a.m., that was where you got the barbecue."
Cecelia's 7th and T street, (recently reopened) and Evelyn's at 12th and U, were hot spots where band member could grab a bite to eat and hear themselves on the jukebox at the same time. It was a time when Ella Fitzgerald sang at the Howard Theater and even once dropped in on a birthday party for Black at the Club Bali -- or was it the Zanzibar (U Street between 9th and 10th)? Dinah Washington, Count Basie and the Inkspots were crowd favorites.
"Style was all important, from your shoes to your car, and affairs called for cumberlands with padded shoulder cutaways, and gowns for the ladies, perferably strapless and cut as low as you dared. Plus," said Black, pointing to his own picture," convertibles were a must."
Those days are gone here forever, Black fears, unless he and his determined staffers can revive them. "And I am," says Black, "determined that we will have a Classic this year."