May Miller Sullivan, a fragile-framed Washington writer with saucerlike eyes, was a turn-of-the-century child born into the protective palm of Washington's early black elite, reared among the Negro intelligentsia in the old faculty quarters on the Howard University green.
As she sat musing in her Victorian leather love seat, retracing and recounting her impressions of the past four score years from her childhood to the last time she saw the late Langston Hughes, a friend and fellow poet, Sullivan recalled a bit of old Washington that few people alive today ever saw.
The legendary writers and educators W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were among the friends and household guests of her late father -- author, philosopher, and Howard University professor Kelly Miller, for whom a Northeast junior high school has been named.
But Sullivan made her own mark among the black literati as a minor poet and dramatist in what history books now call the Harlem Renaissance. It was the period during the 1920s and '30s in which Harlem in New York City was a gathering point for many of the country's best black artists, writers and intellectuals. Some of them, like Sullivan, had lived in Washington.
She declines to specify her age, but Sullivan is one of the city's oldest surviving poets, still churning out stanza after stanza of verse, performing public recitals before approving arts patrons, and awaiting the release of her seventh book, The Ransomed Wait, due late next year.
Two weeks ago, the Folger Library was the setting for her poetry reading during which she was honored by the Women's National Democratic Club and her longtime friend Bennetta Washington, wife of former D.C. mayor Walter Washington.
Poets, great and small, have shared a table of contents or two with Sullivan, sometimes eclipsing her limited celebrity. But celebrity, she said, is not synonymous with her definition of success.
"If, out of a silence, I can fill that silence with a word that will conjure up an image," said Sullivan of her task, "then I have succeeded."
On groggy summer days, the wooden frame house with the white picket fence at the foot of the Howard University hill near College and Fourth streets NW would be abuzz with the sounds, not of nickelodeons, which were popular at the time, but of the five Miller children acting out Shakespeare.
"You didn't have a TV in every room of the house back then," said Sullivan, the third-born child and elder daughter, with a tinge of disdain for the apparatus. Instead, she recalled, they would each make up stories, and the author of the best tale won a nickel from Dad.
At 14, Sullivan did not win much more than that for her first published poem, "Venus," in a magazine called School Progess. The check was for only 25 cents, but "Papa said, 'Don't go wasting that money on candy at the grocery store,' " she recalled.
Sullivan was a member of a generation of well-to-do black Washingtonians who followed the Dunbar High School/Howard University route at a time when both schools, well-known for academic standards, provided some of the best education blacks could receive. After graduating at the head of her Howard class in 1920, she set out on a career as a playwright. She taught English at a Baltimore high school, however, to pay the bills.
More awards followed -- a particularly special one was bestowed in 1925. To describe the occasion, Sullivan pulled out a worn scrapbook, carefully flips the pages and points to a yellow-edged brochure.
"There's Langston Hughes)," she said, pointing a finger at his photograph, "and Countee Cullen and Zora (Neale Hurston)." All of them had been winners in a literary contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine and had gathered in New York for the ceremony at "a big hotel on Fifth Avenue."
Langston Hughes had won first prize for his now famous poem, "The Weary Blues." Cullen had won the second-place poetry prize and Hurston had placed third in the short story contest. And there, on the bottom row, third from the left, was May Miller (sans Sullivan), who had placed third in the drama category.
"After that," she said, "we all went down to the Greenwich Village and had a bang-up time. I can see Zora now, in that rapture-red shawl."
Literary historians now extol those days in which Hughes and Cullen and Hurston and Sullivan and others were shuttling to New York, partying at the Alpha House and reciting their work in each other's living rooms.
But to Sullivan, it was merely a part of her life. "You can call it what you will," she said, "but there have always been Negroes writing, plenty of them. That time was just a buildup that surfaced. We were products of the ages and there had been contributions to it all along.
"People look at it as if it was the bright flower for all time," she added, pensively. "People want to set it aside. That's all right. It's just a term. But there will be other great flowers."
Melancholy momentarily crept into her voice as she recalled the half of her life spent with John (Bud) Sullivan, her husband of 41 years. They had married in the wooden frame house she grew up in, he a high school principal, she a rising poet.
Now a high-rise women's dormitory named after educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune stands in place of her former home on Howard's campus. Sullivan has been a widow since May.
She spends her days in her roomy Northwest apartment, amending her manuscripts, sorting her and her father's many books and papers, and always breaking at 2 p.m. for dinner with her sister Irene, her only surviving sibling.
The task of poring over photos, manuscripts and other now-historical memorabilia, willed to various libraries, is both a taxing and an emotive one.
"I've crossed many lives in my lifetime," she said, flipping through one of her father's books in search of W.E.B. DuBois' signature.
Langston Hughes, another of the many "ships that have passed in my lifetime," had been a frequent visitor. "I remember the last time Langston was here," she said. "It was in 1963 and we had just come back from a ceremony at the Library of Congress. He was the life of the party. He had charisma, all right."
The walls of her apartment are lined with dozens of paintings and sculptures she has collected through the years, from a teal-and-olive Charles Sebree painting to a wooden Nigerian mask. Her photo albums are bulging with snapshots of her many nieces and nephews, whom she calls "my children." She never had any of her own.
Dozens of anthologies and more than 30 magazines in which her poetry has appeared are perched on her bookshelf, testimony to the niche she has tried to carve for herself amid her father's academic celebrity.
Great rocks frighten little people.
"Some people say that was my best poem," she said, chuckling. It's titled "Gibraltar," and was inspired by a trip past "that huge rock that leads to the Mediterranean" back in the early '70s.
"So much had already been written about it," she said meekly, "what could I add except my own little interpretation of some little thing that hit me as I passed?"
Her poetry, she said, follows no standards other than her own. "I"m not sure you can look at my poetry and say, 'I bet that's hers,' " she said. "It's not all iambic pentameter, but something that strikes a flow."
Neither has her writing drifted with the ebb and flow of popular poetry, particularly black poetry. "The black movement didn't recognize me because I wasn't black enough," she said, quickly defending her concern for civil rights. "We did those Negro plays before they even dreamed of rebellion."
Her resistance to poetic trendiness may have cost her a bit of the popularity accorded more stylistic newcomers, but, "you do what you have to do," she said, "and you get a certain amount of satisfaction from doing that."