A City Voices column by Margaret Prather Shorter in the June 5 District Weekly should have referred to "my Elysian LeDroit Park."
Growing up in LeDroit Park in the '30s and '40s was a celebration -- a celebration of childhood.
When my great-aunt Lizzie needed needles threaded for her never-ending mending projects, I'd sit at the foot of her rocking chair, thread a supply of needles and listen to her tell the story of the final days of slavery, when she was a child.
My parents and I listened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats." And there were Joe Louis' boxing triumphs. After each victory we'd tear away from the radio to join our neighbors outside in unrestrained exultations for the "Brown Bomber."
When summer arrived we were creative. The girls on our block wrote, rehearsed, stitched for and stewed over the plays we presented in our basement at 122 U St. NW, charging 5 cents for admission. The boys produced a circus with half the preparation and charged double our admission.
We also staged talent shows on the roof of my back-yard garage. Our rendition of "Pennies From Heaven" was a show stopper. We kept a comic book-swapping station on the front porch. We strung tin can telephones across the back porches. When our cobblestone street was blacktopped, everyone rode bikes and trikes, skates and crates to try out the new surface. The "crates" were those scooters that the boys made by mounting discarded crates on roller skates purloined from a sibling.
On Saturday mornings we hurried through our chores to be ready for the trek uptown on U Street, to either the Lincoln or Republic theater. The feature film was only incidental to the serial with the awesome exploits that kept us coming back every Saturday for the next chapter.
Around the corner at Mensch's Five and Dime, First Street and Rhode Island Avenue, we could buy a little ceramic doll for 15 cents, or was it 20? We made tiny doll clothes and when, inevitably, the dolls broke, we held a very proper funeral, interment and all. Then we counted our pennies and traipsed back to Mensch's.
On rainy days, when we stayed inside, my brother Billy would condescend to shoot marbles with me. We'd shoot aggies all around the blue border of the carpet. Sometimes Billy would let me help roast the raw peanuts that he would sell at Griffith Stadium ballpark, now the Howard University Hospital site. Sometimes he would let me roll and tuck the newspapers he delivered for the old Washington Times Herald.
My mother's family had belonged to the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church at 14th and Corcoran streets NW since its founding. When my brother and I were old enough, mother gave us streetcar fare and sent us off to Sunday school.
After a few Sundays Billy, the strategist, proposed that we attend the little church at the end of our block, St. George's Episcopal, and thereby free up our streetcar money for ice cream cones from a new green and white ice cream store in the neighborhood called High's. This worked well until a neighbor mentioned to our mother that we had been at St. George's one Sunday morning. Of course Mother told her in no uncertain terms that she knew where her children were every Sunday morning -- John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church.
After a minor tongue-lashing from Mother, Billy and I felt that we had gotten off rather lightly, considering the embarrassment to Mother.
A beautiful, modern little St. George's Church has replaced the old one that afforded the neighborhood kids so many diversions. My brother was recently buried from St. George's.
"C'mon out and play jacks," a friend would call through the screen door. "I can't. I've got to do the oleomargarine," was a likely reply. Jacks we played with a passion, until the side of our pickup hand was nearly calloused. The oleomargarine was the new butter substitute that everyone was buying because it was cheaper than butter. By law, it had to be sold uncolored. It came white, in a cellophane pouch with a little orange coloring tablet that had to be squeezed and kneaded throughout the lardlike blubber. At first we fought to get to do it; then, when it became routine, we fought to get out of doing it.
When we became teen-agers, a dim basement and a stack of LPs meant a sock hop. Rock Creek Park meant trying to scrounge up money for horseback riding. If we couldn't, we just had a picnic up on top of our special rock. A front stoop at twilight was reason to gather and make plans for our future, or for tomorrow's activities.
We gave up the Saturday serials for the Howard Theater stage shows. There would be six of us girls in our "cool" trench coats and saddle oxfords that were muddied up just a bit in the tree box in case they were too clean. We headed for the famous theater at Sixth and T streets, first show, front row.
All told, we were pretty good kids. At Dunbar High School our Misses Brooks, McNeil, Hundley, et al., conveyed a perpetual message that translated into: Tread the straight and narrow. Across the street at Armstrong High School similar admonishments were dispensed. What with school, parents, neighbors, the mailman and the corner-store proprietor, we had very little choice.
Even up on the hill at Howard University, and over at Miner Teachers' College, demands on decorum were only a little less stringent. Would you believe that the young women at Howard were not allowed to wear pants? But the peons did revolt. On those dire days of final exams we wore our dungarees! (Well, that's what we called them.) Now, I'm not sure about the Miner girls. That may have been a bit too daring.
The LeDroit Park neighbors from more than 50 years back gather annually at a reserved local edifice for delightful reunions. A significant number of the early homeowners have remained in the neighborhood and look out for each other like family. Billy had moved back to our house many years ago, with his young family. He maintained a special knack for pulling in the newcomers and making them feel welcome to the fold.
When I return to my old block at First and U from my home in Southwest, an unabashed nostalgia creeps over me. I can almost hear the rumble of the knife sharpener's truck in the alley, Mrs. T jingling her bell to summon her two girls, and the Friday morning strains of "fresh fish" from a wagon noisily rebounding on the cobblestones.
One day, when I was almost grown, Daddy came home with this little box -- little, but it must have weighed a ton. With great effort and design it was placed on a small table, the cardboard ripped away, and there it was, in all its nine-inch splendor -- a television set.
During the day time we watched test patterns alternating with snow. The magic hour was 6 p.m. With dinner plates nestled in our laps, extra chairs lined up for curious neighbors, "Howdy Doody" appeared in living black and white. That nine-inch box totally reshaped our little world. A whole new era had begun.
How did we do without TV, you ask? We did just fine.
But as I reflect, I wonder -- It was not until I was grown and my own progeny gave me reason to question that tight little world. My three offspring had the questions that did not occur to me. I grew up in a segregated city accepting the status quo. But my little ones would ask, 'Why can't we sit on the stools in the five- and 10-cent store and eat a hot dog?' 'Why can't we go to that movie theater downtown?' 'Why won't that cab stop for us?'
Such questions had an awesome impact. How do you answer without conveying a negative self-image? As my children came along, there were dramatic changes taking place for blacks in Washington as elsewhere. My Gary, Dori and Wendy grew up in a vastly different Washington. Change had come; was way overdue. Yes, even for my elite LeDroit Park.