From the insights born of sore muscles and bitter lessons, Joseph Scott, a Washington native, raised two sons, and cared for a wife with the earnings he made as a trucker and day laborer in the city's backstreet produce warehouses. At 68, he still makes a living with his hands as a warehouseman, as his father did before him.
Joseph Scott has never made more than $15,000 a year, but he beams with pride when he says his sons are retired D.C. policemen, living the middle-class life in upper Northwest and the Hillcrest neighborhood in Southeast Washington, where as a young man Scott, his wife and other blacks at the same station in life could not have lived.
"Sure, I'm real proud of them," he said as workmen driving forklifts moved large plastic bags of carrots and crates of lettuce to storage shelves. "And it makes me proud of myself when I see them. I raised them."
Joseph Scott will never make the history books or be included in commemorative black achievement programs that inspire and foster pride among black Americans. His picture will not be pinned on school bulletin boards next to those of heroes such as Dr. Charles Drew, Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver during the current annual commemoration of Black History Month.
But history is not merely studied, it is lived.
And the lives of Joseph Scott and other Washington blacks -- a lawyer, a banker, a hotel doorman and a cook -- have helped shape history just as history has helped shaped their lives.
In quiet and unheralded ways, their tellings give flesh and meaning to the recorded events of black history -- emancipation from slavery less than six generations ago, the demeaning Stepin Fetchit image of the past, the determination of Rosa Parks, the civil disobedience of the freedom riders, the violent demands of Black Power.
So much change is so few years has made life very different for blacks only one generation apart. But so little change in so many years has made history their bond.
To young blacks who have moved into the middle class despite impoverished beginnings, the ironies of social progress are often baffling. Two generations ago, Francester Coffee's grandparents were plain, God-fearing folk who eked out a living on a South Georgia farm. Today, at 34, she is an assistant manager of a branch of Riggs National Bank at 15th and M streets NW. She expects to be a bank vice president someday, something her grandparents and parents would never have dreamed.
"It's hard for me to see myself in the same situation as my parents or grandparents," she said, adjusting her large, round eyeglasses. "My mother had to work in the fields picking cotton and working with tobacco, but I never had to do those things. I know that it was harder for blacks years ago, but it's still amazing to me that we came up from slavery and now we're here."
At day's end when she leaves Washington and heads home to New Carrollton and a one-bedroom apartment, Francester Coffee drives her 1979 Buick Regal down New York Avenue across North Capitol Street and sees the run-down houses and black children playing on sidewalks glittering in shards of broken glass.
"I get so depressed and I wish I was rich so I could help these people find decent housing," she said, knowing that for some people, a nice job, a Buick and a clean apartment would be rich enough.
"Where my grandparents lived in Rhine, Ga., Main Street included one bank, one firehouse. When they were my age, a black person couldn't be a bank teller, much less be an assistant manager of a bank," said Coffee, her thin fingers with long, polished nails flicking ashes from her 120 mm cigarette. "When I go back home, it looks poorer than I remember. Looking back on it, how they lived, it's almost unbelievable.
"I wish that they could see me now," she said softly. "I know they would be tickled pink -- to them, it would seem like something unreal.
"My mother knows I wear a suit or business dress to work and she thinks what I do is easy," Coffee said. "Mother works for a small manufacturing business that makes tape. She thinks she does the hard work. Where she works, it gets dusty, and she would not wear her nice clothes."
Francester Coffee and hundreds of thousands of other blacks who do their jobs competently each day are making routine -- and within the grasp and expectations of their children -- what would have been extraordinary opportunities a generation ago.
"I think opportunity is what you make of it," Coffee said. "You can accomplish anything you want to if you put your mind to it. I've worked for what I have. No one gave me anything on a silver platter."
Such bald confidence, however, was unheard of in Joe Scott's day when, as a youngster, he watched his father lift 100-pound bunches of bananas tied with hemp and double boxes of oranges at the building old Central Market where a shopper "could get anything from a box of apples to a cow." The market fell to the wreckers' ball and the site is now the home of the Federal Triangle, along Pennsylvania Avenue from 6th to 13th Street.
"The best kind of jobs for black men and women when I was growing up were the menial jobs," Scott said. "We had no choice." Dressed in overalls, a pencil lodged behind his right ear, he leaned on cartons of produce at Bill Mailley's warehouse in Northeast Washington -- produce that later that day would be dilivered to fancy restaurants in the Watergate, Sheraton-Carlton and Hay-Adams hotels.
"I was bitter," he said. "But you got to remember that Washington was just as much a southern town as any other place."
When Scott was a young man, Washington stores such as People's Drug Store allowed blacks to buy food but not sit at its counters. In those days, few blacks could be bus drivers, department store clerks or bank tellers.
"It wasn't until World War II when white men joined the service that blacks began to get the good-paying jobs like driving the Safeway delivery trucks," Scott said. "When World War II broke out, you could pick your jobs."
Scott worries that young blacks just don't understand what it was to be black when Washington was a caste society, divided unfairly between black and white. But here, the old Joseph Scott and the young Francester Coffee find common ground and common fears.
They worry that young blacks in Washington -- after winning the right for them to attend white schools -- cannot read or write and have no marketable skills. They worry that a Republican presidents is intent on cutting back programs for the poor, which means for many blacks. They worry that so many black people still are poor. They worry that affirmative action programs that helped large numbers of blacks enter fields previously closed to them are under attack.
A generation ago, Coffee's parents tried to escape low-paying farm wages, traveling from Georgia to Florida, then to Detroit before her father finally found a decent-paying laborer's job at a Philadelphia utility company. Her family was among the sojourners of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when hundreds of thousands of blacks abandoned the dusty South in a great migration.Some escaped in rickety old pick-up trucks still reeking of cotton. Others rode trains nicknamed "the Chicken Bone Express," after the hordes who carried fried chicken lunches inside shoeboxes tied with string, because in railroad dining cars the staff of black porters and cooks were not allowed to serve them.
"What bothers me, is that despite all the changes, things have not changed that much for a lot of blacks in America," said Donald Thigpen Jr., a city government lawyer who prosecutes juvenile law breakers.
"Some blacks have better jobs than their parents did, but then, so do whites," said Thigpen, the son of a New Jersey dentist who grew his hair long, wore beads and dashikis during the height of the 60s Black Power movement. Once, when he returned home wearing a large Afro, his mother refused to kiss him.
Today, Thigpen wears three-piece suits with gold watch chains and drives a white Corvette. In the 1960s Thigpen was a minority affairs coordinator at his alma mater, Kent State University, where he worked to protect young blacks from the pitfalls of "the university system."
As a juvenile prosecutor, he spends a lot of his time sending black kids to jail. Thigpen explains the irony by saying he hopes prosecution will keep kids from becoming adult criminals. Besides, he said, most of the kid's victims are black.
For all the pride Joe Scott feels for his sons and the confidence Francester Coffee has in herself, Thigpen says life for blacks is still unequal.
"When I was in college, I thought that equal opportunity meant equal access," Thigpen said. "If a white boy gets into college or gets a job with a B average, I want to be able to get in with a B average. But I learned that as a black person, I had to be demonstrably better than my white counterpart.
"This is the plight of most black people today: Employers say they cannot find qualified blacks -- but they are not looking for human beings just like the white ones they just hired," he said. "They are looking for super blacks . . . It makes me angry."
But at least Thigpen never had to work as a domestic in the home of whites, as did Lucille Price, born in Washington in 1912. "Mother Price," as she is called by members of her church, the United House of Prayer for All People at 6th and M streets NW, moved into the Shaw neighborhood in the 1930s as its long-time white residents migrated to the suburbs and west of Rock Creek Park. She stayed, and now sees the whites returning.
"I never thought blacks would come this far," said Mother Price, as she barked orders to workers in the church kitchen where she has worked for 35 years. The crew was preparing chicken smothered in gravy, collard greens, corn bread and sweet potato pie for black students, church members or anyone who wandered in with the $4 price of a meal.
"Blacks have moved up, but I don't know how long this is gonna last since this new president has come in." But one thing is for sure, she said: Young people today have simply got it made compared to their parents.
Charles Simms, 20, agrees. And he also shares with Francester Coffee an attitude more common to young blacks today than yesterday: He believes he can make a difference in his own life. He graduated from Washington's Bell Vocational School and wants to be a house painter. "We can do anything that we work hard for and really want," he said. "I think life will do better for me than it was for my father. People like Frederick Douglass laid the foundation for us."
Older blacks often wonder how the young will accept the inevitable disappointments of a world long on promises, short on deliveries.
"Flexibility is the name of the game," said Clyde Dickerson, "Watergate Clyde" to his friends and a Watergate Hotel doorman since the early 1970s. "We learned to accept what we did not have."
Dickerson is an on-again, off-again professional saxophone player who sits in on jazz sessions in city night clubs such as Blues Alley, Pigfoot and One Step Down. That is a far cry from the one-night stands in 14th Street NW storefront jazz clubs where he had to play years ago and the days when he could not sleep in the same hotels as white musicians.
Today, Dickerson opens the doors to limousines of the rich -- white and black. He has opened Watergate's doors for Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson.
Young or old, blacks talk of work -- work done with the body or the brain, as a route to money, self-respect and the chance to give their children a leg up the slippery economic ladder. That dream has not changed with history; only the distance blacks dared to reach has expanded.
Joseph Scott remembered that his two sons once told him they they never wanted to have to work as hard at so menial a job as his.
"Stay in school," he told them.
"I drilled into them that in order to get the same job, the same opportunities as the other fellow (whites), they had to be a lot better," Scott said. "I remember one son was a teen-ager when he learned this bitter lesson. He applied for a job at a soda plant down on 7th Street SW the same time a white boy applied. The white boy got it. o
"He said it hurt so bad he couldn't take it. It hurt me because it hurt him. But I said, 'Son, just consider it your first lesson in life.' What happened to him then didn't shock me. I knew what the score was."