Maurine Pelham Johnson still remembers the dresses she bought for her graduation from Dunbar High School on June 17, 1931. One was white organza, the other was blue silk -- and they were bought at Garfinckel's at a time when blacks were not welcome to move freely through racks of more elegant attire. "They couldn't," said Johnson firmly. "But (the dresses) were bought there."
After Dunbar and after college, she left segregated Washington with her medical diploma from Howard University in hand. "I wanted different advantages," she said. And she got them, says the woman who became chief of staff at D.C.'s Veteran's Administration Hospital.
Johnson's classmates gathered at Fort McNair last week, 97 of the 207 members of the Dunbar Class of 1931. They gathered to review and celebrate 50 years of achievement: the days since they left the Dunbar auditorium, then at First and N streets NW, to greet the hardship of the Depression; and the years when they earned the professional recognition which many of them never dreamed they'd attain as they embarked upon their adult lives.
"I didn't know, where I'd go" said Johnson, now retired from medicine. "I knew I was going to be a doctor -- my family had planned for that. But I never thought I'd be the head of anything."
Others, like Dr. William K. Collins, a dentist, a Howard University trustee and a founder of the United Community National Bank of Washington, knew that success of some kind semed destined for them. "Oh you know, when you grow up in a family like mine -- my father is a lawyer, my mother a teacher -- you have to go to college," said Collins, 66, who still practices dentistry and serves on the Regional Dental Examiner's Board. "It was the thing to do; I had to do it."
Many graduates of the class of 1931 couldn't be there to hear the mayor's congratulatory declaration and to greet old faces. About 85 members of the class are deceased, including the late Joseph C. Waddy, class president and a former U.S. District Court judge. The careers of others have taken them far from Washington, like Elizabeth Catlett Mora, an artist who has exhibited in museums of modern art in Mexico and New York, according to reunion chairwoman Ethel Belcer Nickens. Mora now lives in Mexico.
But for those who were there, the evening was a moment to bask in the rewards of satisfying lives. "It was wonderful to see the old faces," said Collins. "You know, some of them haven't changed much at all."