Shirley Ridgeley Banks, who works at the Office of Personnel Management, grew up on Marion Street NW in Shaw when it was the heart of Washington's black community. She now lives in far Northeast in Capitol View. Shaw is now in transition, with many of the turn-of-the-century houses getting extensive face lifts at the hands of middle-class professionals. Banks' childhood home is one of these that has been renovated.
The District Weekly welcomes such reminiscenses.
Let's run! We want to be first in line and it's getting late. We wanted to be in the first row up at Shiloh Baptist Church, so we ran! All of us, boys and girls, sometimes four or five, sometimes eight and nine or 10, going to see the free movies Shiloh showed on Saturday evenings.
This was in the late '30s and '40s when I was young. At the church we'd line up against the fence on P Street NW and sometimes the line went around the corner and on down Ninth Street. All the neighborhood kids for blocks around, coming to something we all enjoyed so much.
At the end of the program, we sang "Now the Day Is Over," and on the way out we were given lollipops. Then we strolled back down to Marion Street, where most of us lived, savoring the treat and feeling warm and wonderful. And even now, I sometimes feel that same warm glow when I visit Shiloh.
We were all poor and didn't know it. Even when we sometimes missed one of the gang who had moved away, we did not know till we were older that the reason some of us moved so often was that the parents were getting away from the rent man. Nevertheless, we took advantage of all the things we had here in D.C.
We went to the library at Seventh Street and New York Avenue NW every couple of weeks. That was one of our favorite places. We'd walk to the Capitol and on up the Mall to the monument, ending up by chasing each other up the stairs. Who cared what the guards said? And of course we visited all the museums.
We knew the National Gallery of Art as the Andrew Mellon Art Museum, and at that time a museum was on Independence Avenue at about Ninth Street NW that we called the Army Museum of Science. We loved to go in and look at the curiosities, like things in bottles and pieces of bodies that doctors had tried to heal, and we'd shake our heads and tell each other how horrible it was and how those doctors ought to be ashamed for messing up people like that. (Isn't it strange how children love to be scared?)
When we left the pool, we were starved and we headed straight to the Wonder Bread bakery just down the way on Georgia Avenue. You could smell the fresh baked bread, but it smelled 1,000 times better back then, and tasted even better. Somehow, someone there always gave us some fresh bread or rolls or something to eat, or we put together a nickel to buy a bag of scrap cake. It would feed us all.
A few of us belonged to a group of youngsters called the Sunbeams at the Salvation Army, which was at the corner of Seventh and P Streets NW, across from what is now the Kennedy playground.
One evening a week, we went to the Sunbeam meetings, where we had activities similar to Girl Scout training, as well as Bible study and religious training. Those dedicated leaders were genuinely interested in us and made it a point to visit each of our homes to meet our folks and let them know that they would help us in any way they could.
We often went down to New York Avenue on Sunday afternoons when we were streetcar riding. We would ride from one end of the line to the other. At that time, a weekly pass sold for $1.25 -- it had recently gone up! -- and almost every family bought a pass so that all could use it. On Sundays, three kids could ride on one pass, so all of us could ride and ride. The New York Avenue line ended at 15th Street NW, and the motorman would walk up and down the aisle turning each woven straw seat, which was a bench-like, smooth-top seat that held two persons. Anyway, he'd turn the seat to face the front, then he picked up the steering wheel from out of the hole in the car floor, carried it to the other end of the car and put it in the hole there, and we were in business and on our way to far Northeast.
We really had a long ride all the way to 15th Street NE. One time we went all the way to Suburban Gardens, at the end of just about everything we knew of in D.C.
The Suburban Gardens Amusement Park is long gone. But it was as big as a carnival with rides and games and hot dogs and cotton candy to make kids' hearts happy -- and grownups' too.
It seems to me that there was a dance hall and outdoor beer garden for the adults at night, and that was when I usually went, with my daddy and the family.
We did not play all the time. We all had our household chores to do (my two sisters did most of mine because I loved the streets so much and didn't like housework at all). One job was to empty the icebox water. We didn't have a refrigerator, so the icebox had a pan under it to catch the water from the melting blocks of ice. We bought the blocks from the iceman, who came to homes each day. We got a 25-pound block for about 15 cents and it lasted till the next day, and that's how we kept the food cooled.
Much of our food was bought at the old market at Seventh and O streets NW. The market had stands inside and out for the length of the block from P to O streets and they were all full of fresh meat or vegetables, fresh baked goods, homemade pickles, jellies, and fresh fish and poultry. I mean the chickens walked around in wooden cages so when you bought a fresh chicken, you bought a fresh chicken!
Sometimes on hot summer nights, my daddy would pile the family in the car and drive somewhere to "catch some air." We might go to Hains Point or the reservoir. At that time, cars drove up onto the reservoir grounds, and we could sit around the water. (The fence got put up after Pearl Harbor, or around the time World War II started.) Anyway, we would sometimes put down blankets and spend the night. Nobody would bother anybody and I don't think anyone ever thought of such a thing.
Or sometimes daddy took us down to watch the trains. That too was a nighttime thing. Many folks would come to New York Avenue NE across from the Sixth Street Market and park along the street and spread a blanket or sit on the hillside (where there always seemed to be a breeze) and watch the trains or whatever they do in the roundhouse. That stretch on New York Avenue was not fenced off either, and it, too, was a favorite place to go on a summer night, back in the years before the war.
During this time it was compulsory in some high schools and voluntary in others for the young men to be cadets. Each spring all the high school cadets participated in military-like drills which were held at old Griffith Stadium (now the site of Howard University Hospital).
Squadrons of students, resplendent in crisp uniforms, highly polished shoes and immaculate white gloves that stayed that way all day, competed for best looking and best marching in gun drills and sword handling.
Drill Day was a big deal and many parents would take off work to go see their sons perform. Students dressed in their school colors spent the entire day at the stadium, cheering their cadets. Cardozo, my school, always looked the best in their purple and white but Dunbar usually won.
When I grew older I started going to nightclubs. We had lovely nightclubs, from the Off Beat Club at Seventh and T streets NW, to up on U Street, to the Bali at 14th and S streets. These were all top-rate places that folks from all over the country came to see and be seen in.
The Lincoln Colonnade Dance Hall under the beautiful Lincoln Theatre was the top dance spot in town, but there also was Turner's Arena at 14th and W streets and the Elks Home at Third and Rhode Island Avenue NW. I tell you, we had lovely times in lovely places, theaters, nightclubs and restaurants to equal any anywhere!
I've told some of the good as I recall, but there were plenty of tough times. I think it is important to learn from the bad and cherish the good.
I know that with my family, just getting together and remembering from whence we've come, by God's grace, has always been a comfort to all of us.