As educated men dug ditches and hauled coal for a pittance, it was easy to forget the African kingdoms taught about in college and the stories of valiant slave escapes and Civil War battles that old folks told to children.
The 1930s clouded earlier memories of the good times during the Reconstruction Era when blacks could be elected to public office even in southern towns. After that short-lived era, however, blacks struggled with a growing specter of segregation that engulfed the South and, in subtler ways, the North. But the 1925 Ku Klux Klan parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and all it symbolized to many blacks seemed like a vague nightmare compared to the reality of the Depression.
"My father was laid off," said retired District fireman Norbert King. "He took any job he could get. He even followed coal trucks to earn 50 cents a load carrying coal from the street to people's coal bins."
King's father, who King said "had never been sick a day in his life," fell ill and died three days after he had been laid off from his construction job.
"They said it was pneumonia," King said. "But I think he died of a broken heart."
The Depression forced destitute men, black and white, to scrounge for a living to support their families.
"People used to really support one another," said Anacostia-born Leona Harrison, who now lives in Prince George's County. "It wasn't uncommon for someone to run and holler out the back door, 'Hey girl! I'm out of sugar,' " she said. "And we would answer, 'Send the cup over.' "
Inez Waynes, an Arlington resident, said, "I used to see those poor men--the only jobs they could get was digging ditches for $2.50 a day. I quit school and did housework for $5 a week."
Waynes remembers that walking from the Highview Park area of what used to be called Alexandria County to jobs in Cherry Hill, Falls Church and Clarendon was an everyday occurrence.
"We could have taken the bus and sat in the back, but trying to save that nickel was most important," she said. "A nickel seemed like a dollar."
As the Depression eased, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the federal bureaucracy and created work programs, conditions improved in the Washington area for all. But segregation continued here, with one society for whites, another for blacks.
"You didn't really come into contact with whites. They had their society and we had ours," said King's wife, Helen. "Although there were some stores which would let you try on clothes, (most often) you had to take it as was and there was no bringing it back."
King's cousin, the Rev. James W. Quander, remembers having a special interview with the civil service after ranking high on a government apprenticeship test in the late 1930s. "They told me I was ahead of my time, but no government agency would hire a Negro statistician or economist. They said they would refer my file to the post office."
As World War II began, people from Maryland, Virginia and around the country crowded into the federal city for jobs. But segregation prevailed as blacks with job seniority were passed over for supervisory positions given to less qualified whites, according to King, who worked in the Government Printing Office in the 1940s.
"Every time there was a position open, they would transfer a white guy in from another unit," said King. "The foremen were always white and you knew there was no future for you there. . . . You just went on hoping you could effect a change in the system."
On the war front, black soldiers who enlisted to fight for their country faced disheartening racism as they were segregated in all-black troops with mostly white commanders. Although some of them died to protect the United States, black servicemen generally were not afforded the same privileges as whites.
Roscoe Nix, president of the Montgomery County NAACP, remembers tactics practiced by some white commanders at home and abroad. Nix said that the way the whites treated blacks, "I knew they hated us worse than Germans."
When World War II ended, blacks who had fought for their country returned to second-class citizenship in metropolitian Washington. Many returned disillusioned.
"I went through a period where I wanted to become an expatriate," Nix said. "But then I thought, Europe was decadent and it was no place for me to be. There were things that had to be done and they had to be done here."
Nix said the Washington of 1946 was as segregated as any city "down South." Although black Washingtonians never had to sit in the backs of buses, Nix said that schools, theaters, restaurants and some concerts were segregated. "You could go to the Uline Theatre on Sixth and Florida NW to see fights but not the Ice Capades."
But the war had helped blacks understand that they too had a stake in this country and were entitled to full rights as citizens. Blacks began to believe that if they had the right to fight and die for the country, they had a right to vote and to have access to good schools and public accommodations.
The war also helped humanize the faceless black masses to whites who had served with them. In Washington, a coalition of black, Jewish, labor and religious leaders arose with one goal: to overthrow segregation. The 1950s saw lawmakers on Capitol Hill debate civil rights as some of the black community's most prominent leaders took to the streets to protest segregation.
"My most vivid memory as a child was a picket line around Hecht's led by Mary Church Terrell," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Georgetown University law professor.
Through the efforts of Terrell, a noted educator and civil rights leader, and many others, the bars of segregation were lowered. President Truman desegrated the armed forces and President Eisenhower instituted policies that, in essence, said the federal city should be a model to other cities, and therefore not segregated. But policies that had been in practice for generations were not easily changed by presidential edict.
The 1950s was the decade of the court decisions that would provide the legal foundation for the budding civil rights movement.
In Washington, for example, the successful suit led by Terrell against the now-defunct Thompson restaurant chain allowed blacks to be served at counters.
The landmark 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation meant an end to substandard financing of black schools, but it also sounded the death knell to all-black academic schools like Dunbar High School in the District.
"I remember when I was in high school and they announced over the loudspeaker that the case had been won," said Norton. "One of my teachers actually cried, because she knew, we all knew, it meant an end to schools like Dunbar."
"There you didn't just read about famous blacks," said Helen King, speaking of Dunbar of the 1930s. "They came to our school-- educator and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt Mary McCloud Bethune, scientist George Washington Carver--all of them came. You could actually talk to them and touch them."
Although teachers at Dunbar had been educated at the finest Ivy League universities in the nation, racism prevented them from getting other jobs and they returned to serve the black community.
Those who didn't teach went into government service. "You'd be surprised how many blacks with fancy degrees were working in the post office," Waynes said.
The end of segregated school systems in the Washington area proved to be a new battleground for children and their parents. The Rev. Thomas Brown of Gum Springs remembers the desegregation of Fairfax County's Walt Whitman High School. His daughter Ivy was one of the school's first black students.
"The teachers had an attitude with the black kids," Brown said. "I remember when I had to come down and talk to them because they made her stand outside in the hall because she and a white girl had gotten into an argument .
"They let the white girl express herself and they were going to do the same to my child," said Brown, who demanded that his children get equal treatment.
"Our black children missed out on a lot of the fun of high school: the football team, the basketball team, the cheerleading squad. Nobody (there) was going to pick a black girl as a cheerleader," said Kay Holland, whose daughter Norma was also one of the blacks at the high school, who were called the Gum Springs Six.
As the 1960s civil rights movement geared up, bus boycotts, sit-in demonstrations, freedom rides and marches across the country met with resistance from some whites who generally harassed, beat and murdered blacks and white sympathizers.
Blacks were mobilized by the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent movement. Television images of black men, women and children being set upon by police using fire hoses and dogs for marching peacefully, singing or kneeling in prayer shocked the world.
A two-stage movement supported by the coalition formed after World War II pushed nonviolent demonstrators into the streets while lobbyists worked in Congress and the White House to give blacks full citizenship. The result was the reinstatement of the same rights blacks and poor whites held during Reconstruction, more than a century before.