It was life in a locked room. But a room so filled with books, music, privileges and education that the world beyond the keyhole almost ceased to exist.
Those who gathered at the Folger Shakespeare Library yesterday expecting to hear stories of abuse, insults and deprivation from those blacks who grew up in Washington when racial segregation was the law, got instead a rare but rich glimpse into the separate society that genteel, privileged blacks built to protect themselves and their children from the ravages of segregation. It was a secret city built not on wealth, but education.
"Despite segregation and the shadow of the [white] Capitol we had such advantages we had no great concerns," said Howard University historian Rayford W. Logan, 84, who joined W. Montague Cobb, 76, former chairman of the Howard University anatomy department and former national president of the NAACP, poet Sterling Brown, 79, and playwright May Miller Sullivan, who would not give her age, to open a two-day symposium on black life in segregated Washington as told by those who lived in it.
"We were not deprived," Cobb said of the society that coexisted with white Washington from the Civil War until the mid-1960s, when integration became the new law of the land. "We knew where the blocks [barriers] were, but they didn't affect anything important. The segregated restaurants meant we saved money. The important things were opened: the libraries, the museums and the concerts."
Theirs was a city where congressmen came to the U.S. Capitol to fight "likker [liquor] and niggers," where the white-owned daily newspapers described all blacks as "big and burly" and where poor blacks lived in the squalor of homes built in the city's alleys.
But this small elite created another world that centered on Howard University and its professors.
They studied Latin and French, memorized Cicero and the Roman orations, learned to play tennis, took music and dancing lessons, attended Dunbar High School for its "classical education" instead of Armstrong the "manual training school," where most blacks studied, and then went on scholarship to Ivy League New England colleges such as Harvard University. Although they do not like to admit it, it was a society of light-skinned blacks. But it was these people who returned to train another generation of blacks and instill in them the ideal that pride came with education.
"The schools were segregated but our schools were excellent," recalled Brown.
"Our schools" meant Garnet Paterson, at 10th and U streets NW, then an elementary school and now one of the worst inner city junior high schools; Lucretia Mott, at Fourth and W streets NW, at the foot of Howard University, now a boarded-up relic with broken windows and a haven for drug addicts and bums who inhabit the empty, littered classrooms.
Cobb and Brown attended Dunbar, the premier black high school that produced three generations of black leaders including congressmen, a senator, lawyers, doctors, principals and teachers. Miller and Logan graduated from Dunbar's predecessor, the M Street School, at First and M streets NW. It is now boarded up and abandoned.
Miss K. C. Lewis -- "a great teacher and a great lady" -- taught them and a whole generation of middle-class blacks, poetry at Mott, Angelina Grimke taught them English, Clyde McDuffie taught them Latin at Dunbar and Johnny S. Wilkinson taught them tennis.
"I had a beautiful childhood," said May Miller, the daughter of Kelly Miller, former dean of the college of arts and sciences at Howard University. She recalled that W. E. B. DuBois, the black writer, educator, historian and cofounder of the NAACP, once stayed in their home at Fourth and College streets NW, as did Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute.
DuBois and Washington were philosophical rivals: DuBois supported militant efforts to end segregation, while Washington supported a self-sufficient, coexisting black society. The Miller home was torn down for the site of Howard's Bethune dormitory.
Many elderly blacks in the integrated audience recalled these days, and when a favorite Dunbar teacher or black family was named, they gave a sigh of recognition or a nod.
"What a feast," said one gray-haired black woman as she left with her memories.