Though we are reputed to be rare, there are many native-born Washingtonians still living and working in this city.
I grew up in Petworth, a Northwest neighborhood that folks often drive through on the main arteries of New Hampshire, Georgia or Kansas avenues. Petworth is roughly bounded by Randolph Street on the south, Georgia Avenue on the west and Rock Creek Church Road on the east. The northern boundary could be considered Gallatin Street, or perhaps Kennedy Street, where the area blends into Brightwood.
Petworth was the name of a large farm in the then suburbs of Washington City that became part of the District and was cut up into subdivisions.
My family moved uptown from a small house in LeDroit Park to the 500-600 block of Randolph Street in January 1950 when I was 6 months old, so that I could grow up in a "better" neighborhood and have space to play. We were the second or third "colored" family on the block, moving into an area where restrictive covenants had been enforced before the Supreme Court struck them down in 1948.
My block, between Fifth Street and Seventh Street, is lined with row houses, some large enough to have two interior staircases. Home for us -- my mother, father and an aunt -- was a semidetached, four-bedroom house with a large back yard and front porch.
My father, a plumber and master craftsman, worked hard with the help of his friends to modernize our 1912 house. He completely remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms, finished the basement and replaced other pipes and electrical wiring over the years.
Up to the present day, my parents have kept busy changing and adding when necessary -- air conditioning one year, concrete driveway in the back yard, vinyl siding on the back of the house another year.
When I was growing up, there were many children on the block and we all played with each other, going in and out of each other's homes. At first most of my playmates were white but if any neighborhood was an example of "white flight," Petworth was. Soon my block was all black.
Photos from my third birthday party show that about half the 20 or so guests were white. But two years later whn I entered Petworth Elementary School, my kindergarten class was 98 percent black.
Before I started school, our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ferrara, used to take me with her to watch assembly programs her daughters were participating in, even when the school was still for whites only.
On the first day of school, soon after integration, I learned that I was something other than just "a little girl." When my father took me to register for kindergarten, a little white boy pointed to me and said, "You're colored," and I turned to Daddy and asked, "Am I colored?"
Otherwise, race was never an issue for me or my peers. By my third grade 99 percent of the students were black. Only a few white teachers remained and the principal and his administrative assistant were white but I never really thought of them as different and certainly was never mistreated by them.
I especially remember two of these teachers. One was Ms. McLaughlin in kindergarten. The other, whom I fondly remember, was Miss Heyman, the dedicated fourth-grade teacher who taught us folk dancing from around the world, took us on a camping trip and introduced the class to banking by having each child open up a small, in-class bank account to save for the end-of-the year camping trip.
However, of all the international folk dancing we learned, African dance was not included.Few, if any residents of Petworth were, in 1958, aware of Africa and its culture.
But my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Haynes, who was black, often read to us poems and stories by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. She read the dialect with skill and tried to instill in us a sense of racial pride, as did most of the other black teachers.
In summer, my mother always made sure I was involved in some special activity -- vacation Bible school at one of the many neighborhood churches (as in other parts of Washington, there's a church on almost every corner) or swimming lessons at Banneker Recreation Center or day camp at Fort Totten Park.
Many evenings, from spring through fall, to the delight of some and the consternation of others, we were entertained by neighborhood boys who stood on the corner of Seventh and Randolph streets crooning doo-ops, doing a good job of imitating Shep and the Limelights or the Coasters. Some of those same boys sang in the choir at First Baptist Church, still a landmark at the corner of New Hampshire and Randolph.
And there were the neighborhood parties where preteens and teen-agers would get together in someone's basement for a "set" where we "fast-danced" (called the D.C. Bop by out-of-towners), or "slow-dragged" to the same tunes that inspired the street corner singers.
If the party was at a boy's home, there was often just one dim light on and a red one at that. Parents manned the front door and kept a sharp eye out for party crashers. During a birthday party for my friend Sheila, Miss Fannie Mae, a friend of the family, chased party crashers down the street with a rifle that belonged to Sheila's father, a police officer.
Most of the children in the neighborhood left Petworth and attended MacFarland Junior High, then Roosevelt High School, although some attended the local Catholic elementary school, St. Gabriel's, and went on to high schools as far away as St. John's Military Academy or Elizabeth Seton in Bladensburg.
Life at Roosevelt brought with it fraternity and sorority parties held at such places as the 12th Street Knights of Columbus and at "1601 R Street NW" in the building that now houses Foxtrappe. Girls dressed in their Sunday best for "Heel and Tie" or even dressier for those semi-formal occasions. This was all before blue jeans became the norm.
Following the dances, we stopped at the Hot Shoppes at Georgia Avenue and Gallatin Street where a Perpetual Bank Branch now stands. In 1966, we'd go to the drive-in section and push a button and a waiter would bring a Mighty Mo or Teen Twist and Coke to our car.
After graduation, many of us went away to college, others started jobs and a few married and started families right away.
Many of the families that came to Petworth in the '50s are still there. Most of the homes are occupied by people like my parents -- retired or semiretired but still active. Sprinkled in are a few Spanish and West Indian families. My block remains generally unchanged and well maintained. And there is a new generation of children growing up there.