As early as I can remember, Howard University has been a part of my life and the resource from which I developed enduring images, values and friendships.
My family's relationship with the Capstone preceded mine by at least 65 years.
My family's association with Howard began with my great-grandfather, James Henry (Grandpa) Hill, a faculty member, and my grandmother, Mamie Hill Robinson, who received a teaching certificate in 1887. My father, Harry G. Robinson Jr., was born in 1908 on what is now the 50-yard line of the stadium.
Just prior to my birth, my parents and 2-year-old sister, Joan, had moved from 18th and California streets to an apartment at 2715 Georgia Ave., next to the Howard Manor. The Robinson family residence was directly across the street at 2714 and was a gathering point for family friends.
The "Robinson House" had provided a haven for friends and relatives for many years. The large Victorian-style structure was next to the University Grill and attracted many students and faculty to its large front porch and to the comfortable and convenient perch provided by its front wall.
The university community always had its resident children. The period of my youth was no exception. The Drews -- "Bebe," Charlene, Sylvia and Charlie -- lived on College Place, behind the Lawsons -- Raymond, Warner and Lynn -- who lived on Fourth Street between College and Bryant. The Clarks -- Jimmie, Ann and Bill -- lived in a large and distinguished looking frame structure on Howard Place next door to Dean Russell Dixon and his family. I remember the gatherings in Bill Clark's rear yard when we casually, but competitively, pitched horseshoes and planned the day's activities. We also used that yard to recover from sandlot football games on the field that is now occupied by the university's Administration Building.
"Big John" Huguely lived at 618 Gresham Place next door to the Wheats -- Jane, Clarence, "Reggie" and Phyllis -- at 620. Charles Bush and Sam Gough lived with their families in staff residences in Clark Hall and Cook Hall, respectively.
A byproduct of living in the Howard neighborhood and north of Euclid Street was attending Monroe Elementary School, which was a laboratory for student teachers from Miner Teacher's College.
I remember with warmth and appreciation Mrs. Grace Smith who was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. George Leftwich, who would go on to be an All-Metropolitan basketball player at John Carroll, and Joseph (Butch) Wilson, whose family owned the Florida Avenue Grill, were among those who joined me in being charmed, and in the process, taught by Mrs. Smith. She was one of those special people who changed the direction of your life. Mrs. Troupe and Mrs. Parker, too, had that ability to make a difference.
Among those who attended Monroe School and remain active in the city are Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Absalom (Ab) Jordan, attorney Willie Leftwich, Howard College of Medicine Dean Russell Miller, Psychiatry Department Chairman James Collins, D.C. consumer and regulatory affairs official Valerie Barry, and D.C. Auditor Otis Troupe.
Georgia Avenue, in the vicinity of the university, was a "village center" that provided all of the goods, services and relationships that were needed. On the west side of the 2700 block was Stein's Market with its select meats and Al and Hanna Stein with their neighborly greetings.
Garrett's Deli, in the same block of two-story buildings, was the source of my many "hand-dipped" scoops of Breyer's ice cream, neighborhood gossip and greetings for my grandmother. The corner of Girard and Georgia was a seasonal market before it became a gas station. Vegetables and fruit were featured at the peak of their availability -- autumn pumpkins, Christmas trees and black diamond watermelons that were plugged as a guarantee of their quality. The University Grill, University Cleaners, the Guild, Spearman's Barbershop, and Fickelstein's Grocery completed the commercial area.
Ground-level retail space in the Howard Manor set the tone for the east side of the street. The venerable Cardoza Sisters Hairdressers anchored the Girard corner and created not only a steady flow of well-coiffed ladies but a distinct perfumed aroma from its exhaust fans. Pietro's Shoe Repair, a small card shop, Kent Cleaners and Dr. Jones' drugstore rounded out the merchants. "Doc 'n the drugstore," in addition to being a dedicated pharmacist, was a friend of the neighborhood and maintained a close watch over the children. Doc's ice-cream sodas were more than worth half of my first grade allowance.
Grace and Louie's on the Southeast corner of Fairmont Street catered to the sundry needs of several generations of Howard students and neighborhood residents. I remember that the delightful smell of this first generation of fast food and the continuing interplay between members of their families always provided a "floating opera" quality to that small slice of Italian American family life. Gracie's father was normally at the center of the sometimes highly charged verbal exchanges in a mix of English and Italian. My friends and I learned enough Italian to be misunderstood.
This store gave our neighborhood color and personality. Since members of the family lived in the rear of and above the store they were more than merchants. This family was part of living on "the Hill."
Where Columbia Road crossed the "Avenue," merchants catered to the Monroe School children. Mr. Owen's store and Jimmie Walker's barbershop provided needed points of reference and a safe port in bad weather for members of my unit of the school safety patrol. The hot chocolate provided by Mr. and Mrs. Owens and the book storage and hand warming facilities of Mr. Walker's barbershop were always welcome during the cold and rainy mornings.
A few blocks south of the university was U Street, the main street of black Washington. How well I remember frequenting U Street with my father to go to the bank and to visit my godfather's law offices at 12th and U. Many family special occasions were celebrated with a movie at either the Lincoln, Republic or Booker T. Theaters and dinner at Harrison's or the Ben Gazi. Harrison's vanilla ice cream was made on the premises and without rival, then or now!
"Johnson Hill," so named for the man who was then the university president, and Sixth Street between Howard Place and Bryant Street were the sites of "world class" sleigh rides. Everybody had Flexible Flyers and wore three pairs of corduroy pants for both insulation against the cold and padding.
Each of the inclines produced a different challenge. "Johnson Hill" ranged from a gentle slope to a steeper drop depending on how close you were to the stairs that linked the upper campus with "the valley." The challenge of being king of this hill was the ability to complete the run and continue down the stairs that went through the gate to College Street. For the really strong of heart, a ride down the three-tier steps next to the hill was unbelievable and produced many bruises and scrapes. After the first day of a snowfall, the south exposed steps would be covered with ice. Nobody did a running start here!
Sixth Street Hill had established its reputation well before my time. "Uncle Jim" and Daddy had "done" this one. Those of us who knew the microclimate of the hill would wait until several hours after it had been closed by the police before we made our way to the starting point at the main gate of the campus. It was important that you not waste your energy on an unprepared surface. It took several hours of novices trying to ride on fresh snow and slight melting to produce the coveted fast surface. We also knew to go home, warm up and put on another three pairs of dry pants in the early afternoon and return for the best rides as the sun set and because the melted snow had turned to a layer of ice. There was something mystical about those early evening runs down Sixth Street hill. The earlier chattering that accompanied the first rides after a fresh snow, now were reduced to occasional exchanges between the veterans who remained. The level of danger was heightened as darkness closed in. I was in a private world as I negotiated the "fastest track" of the hill.
Burr Gymnasium is only the name of a building to today's students at Howard. To me, it evokes memories of the kind gentleman who had coached my father on a university varsity basketball team and who would coach me through competitive swimming, my life-saving certification and teach swimming during the summer months. John Burr was not alone in my development.
Thomas (The Skipper) Johnson was also an athletic coach and professor who gave countless hours extending his hand to us. "Skip," was a baseball, swimming and football coach, in addition to being an outstanding athlete in his own right. While he let me assist with the equipment, I referred alternately to myself as assistant equipment manager, batboy or mascot. Like Coach Burr, he also taught skills development and character. I was never more proud than when my picture appeared in the Washington Afro-American with "Skip" and the captain of the baseball team, Hal Davidson.
The week that I finished the sixth grade at Monroe Elementary School, my family moved north to our new home on Farragut Street. The move was a temporary barrier to my intimacy with "the Hill" and meant that I had to travel farther to court that faithful and distinguished friend.
The next school year, 1953, I attended Banneker Junior High School and with increasing difficulty maintained my presence and friendships on the campus. Our circles were widening, our interests were more diverse and the demands on our time slowly eroded the circumstances that bound me and my friends to the Howard of our preteen youth.
It would not be long before I would return, as a freshman, leave for military service, and return again for graduate studies. In reality, I left Howard, but Howard never left me.
On cold winter nights when I leave the School of Architecture and Planning to the 6 o'clock chiming of the Founders Library clock tower, the same delicious smell of baking Wonder Bread fills the air. Memories of my childhood are resurrected and I remember what this special place has meant to my life and to the lives of so many others. It is a feeling not easily described, yet, enduring and without equal.