They buried one-time 14th Street community activist George W. Hart Jr. yesterday, but for the nearly 300 persons who gathered for the memorial service in St. Stephan & the Incarnation Church, and, some say, for the entire 14th Street area, Hart and his work seemed destined for immortality.
Friends of the late civil rights and neighborhood activist, who died of a heart attack a week ago, said Hart would have been pleased to see the crowd assembled for what was called a celebration of his life.
Black and white, young and old, well-heeled and tattered, they sat and stood side by side in the packed church as strains of gospel and J. S. Bach mingled in the air, and those who knew him best discussed the meaning of his life and work.
"Brothers and sisters," Mayor Marion Barry began as he addressed many of those whom he remembered from his street activist days, "no matter how much we prepare for this day, we can't ever quite get ready for it. But George knew that he had done his work, and he was ready to go.
"I first met George Hart in 1964 at a meeting on 14th Street. I don't remember all of the conversation, but the thing that stands out is that we argued. He was the kind of man who made you question your ideas. George Hart made you think."
Councilwoman Hilda Mason (Statehood-at-Large) described Hart as a friend "since the days of the struggle," and remembered him as the kind of man who "gave his life and everything he had for the oppressed."
Hart was an ex-convict who became a born-again Christian after his release from Alcatraz in the 1960's. His prison experience led him to become active in St. Stephen, an Episcopal congregation for nearly 17 years, about the same length of time he participated on the civil rights movement.
Hart was considered a dedicated spokesman for a community that some say often is without a strong voice, and since the riots of 1968 has often been viewed as a poverty-riddled and drug-plagued area where city problems and hopelessness are at their highest. But community residents agreed yesterday that the area will not be without a champion in the aftermath of his death.
"George knew that the 14th Street community ran beyond what was visible on the surface and included people from a variety of backgrounds and all walks of life," the Rev. Jack Woodard, rector of St. Stephan said.
"More than just a man of black people, which he certainly was, George was a man of the community. When I came here, he told me this church was important because of what it represents, a place where you have a fairly even mix of young and old, black and white, affluent and poor coexisting peacefully. m
"That was something he strived for not only in the church, but in the community as well. He never stopped saying how important it was. I don't think anyone who ever heard him talk about it will now be able to just forget the things he tried to do. I won't. He kept me honest."
"Our voice is far from gone," said George Storey, who worked with Hart in Bill Black Inc., an organization dedicated to reconstructing the 14th Street community after the 1968 riots. "One of the main things he did, one of the things you don't see on the surface, was educate others in the importance of following after him. He brought a lot of young men into the movement, and they're still here to carry on."
Television personality Ralph (Petey) Greene brought laughter to the faces of Hart's mourners with tales of their antics as young men growing up in Washington 40 years ago. But Greene, also a former convict, ended on a serious note by saying that Hart could talk about the struggle because he had lived it, and his dedicated approach would help the spirit of his efforts survive.
There were plenty of tears amidst those who listened and spoke, sang and prayed, but there was also a spirit of rejoicing. As the congregation sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," an elderly woman said she would remember Hart as someone who picked her up off 14th Street one night and made sure she got a decent meal.
"People don't forget about someone like that, they don't let his work or his memory fade," she said. "George gonna be with us for quite a while."