When Louis Rothschild Mehlinger came to Washington to become a clerk-stenographer in the Treasury Department, Theodore Roosevelt was president and the city's streets were clogged with streetcars and electric vehicles.
"It was like any small southern city -- segregated," said attorney Mehlinger, reaching back through 75 years of memories to recall his arrival from Ocala, Fla., where he had taught carpentry.
Mehlinger, the oldest surviving graduate of Howard University Law School and a cofounder of former Robert H. Terrell Law School, is one of the District's longest practicing attorneys. He still has "two or three cases" on his calendar as he approaches his 100th birthday Dec. 20.
Mehlinger reminisced recently about his acquaintances and friends, including some of the great black minds of this century: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Charles Drew and Mary Church Terrell, among others.
An elfin man, he pads slowly around the 16th Street NW apartment where he has his law office and lives with his wife of 60 years, Gladys.
"People keep asking me what it feels like to be 100 years old. What they should ask is what it feels like to be half blind and deaf," he said with a chuckle. "Other than that I'm fine."
The first of five children of a German immigrant father and a freed slave mother, Mehlinger was born in Union Point, La., and reared on a farm in rural Bolivar County, Miss.
Mehlinger left home in 1898 ("the year of the yellow fever," he recalled) to go to boarding school at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss. While still in knee breeches, he was among the students assigned to care for the founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, when he visited Tougaloo.
"I never will forget," Mehlinger said, adjusting his thick-lensed, horn-rimmed glasses, "I got to shine the dear gentleman's shoes."
Years later, as a clerk in the District, Mehlinger became more familiar with the orator and educator who was the era's national spokesman for the black masses, when he would go to hear Washington speak at churches and the YMCA.
"There was a real set-to between Washington and DuBois," Mehlinger said, referring to the historic debate between the two men in which Washington advocated vocational training for blacks and DuBois argued for an academic education. "I think under the circumstances in which Booker Washington found himself and the type of Negroes that were going to Tuskegee, he was right."
Dubois was "the most brilliant man I ever knew; I knew him well," Mehlinger laughed, beaming with pride.
In 1909 and 1910, Mehlinger occupied a room in a popular Washington boarding house that adjoined the room of historian Carter G. Woodson. Through Woodson he met many of the nation's black intellectual elite, including educator Mary Church Terrell and Charles Drew, with whom he played tennis.
"He dictated his first book 'The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861' to me," Mehlinger said of Woodson. "I took it in shorthand and then typed it up.
"Those were fantastic years," he mused. "I probably disappointed him that I didn't follow in his footsteps . . . . He was a man who gave his life that the Negro may not become a negligible thought of the world."
Rising with some difficulty from the brocade sofa, Mehlinger navigated past glass tables and lamps to his book- and periodical-filled office to pull from a shelf the bound first volume of the "Negro History Bulletin." He turned to the only article Woodson persuaded him to write: "The Attitude of the Black Man to American Colonization."
After serving as an Army captain in France during World War I, Mehlinger returned to Washington and resumed his work as a clerk. He took courses in dentistry, accounting and other subjects before settling on the law. He was nearly 40 when he graduated magna cum laude from Howard's Law School in 1921.
In 1925, he was one of the seven black lawyers who founded the Washington Bar Association. Among the group was future Howard University Law School Dean Charles Houston, who would later be credited with revolutionizing the school's operation and making it a quality institution whose graduates include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the first black U.S. District Court Judge William Hastie.
"Houston had the Harvard stamp on him. He felt that a boy couldn't study law successfully and work in the day and go to school at night," he said. "And he succeeded in getting Howard University to abolish the night school."
Mehlinger disagreed with Houston's actions, he said, because under segregation "the white schools didn't permit Negroes to matriculate and that was the basic reason" blacks were forced to work during the day and attend school at night. He joined several other black lawyers in founding the Robert H. Terrell Law School in the 1930s.
The Terrell Law School, named after the city's first black municipal judge, graduated about 600 lawyers in its 15-year history, including D.C. Superior Court Judge William S. Thompson, City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark and the late District Judge Austin L. Fickling.
Law school graduation made Mehlinger eligible for the special limbo to which most black attorneys were relegated under segregation.
"There were a number of black lawyers who could not get employment as lawyers in government agencies and carried on sort of a moonlight practice," said Wiley Branton, dean of Howard University Law School. "They would work at very ordinary jobs as clerks and messengers in the day and go to their law offices in the afternoon, working late into the night and on weekends."
Mehlinger was an exception. He was appointed a law clerk at the Justice Department, with the help of the deparment's only black lawyer, Perry W. Howard, special assistant to the attorney general.
He was admitted to the District bar in 1922 and soon after was promoted to assistant attorney and assigned to argue cases in the Court of Claims, a position he held for 30 years, retiring as a senior attorney in 1952.
Still in active private practice, Mehlinger successfully argued a case last year, but plans to retire from his law career next year.
"I've got two, three more cases on my calendar," he said running his hand over his mixed-gray hair. "When I get through with them, I'm going to ask the court to put me on the inactive list. I think after working until you get to be a hundred, that's enough."
Despite the glaucoma that has claimed the sight in his right eye, Mehlinger said he believes he is fortunate, but not without regrets.
"One of my most solemn regrets is that my wife and I, both of us educated, conservative people, had no children to pass on what little we have achieved," he said, one hand over his furrowed brow.
Mehlinger, a deacon at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, said the basis of his philosophy of life is a lesson learned more than 80 years ago at Tougaloo College:
"What does the Lord require of the old man? But to love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with thy God."