Time is a strange phenomenon. It has many twists and turns. But somehow it all seems to get back to the past.
The Dinosaurs Club is a small gathering of octogenarians who meet monthly, health permitting, at Sergio's, a restaurant in Silver Spring. We pull from our memories those distant experiences that helped shape our lives. Many of those early experiences occurred in a segregated slice of Washington, D.C. It all began in the mid-1920s, some 75 years ago.
The slice was commonly known as the Hill, in Northwest, not to be confused with Capitol Hill. Its boundaries were Euclid Street on the south, Park Road on the north, 13th Street on the west and Georgia Avenue on the east. It was also called Pleasant Plains.
It was commonly said in those days that the coloreds would never reside west of 13th Street.
The slice was populated exclusively by Afro-American families of disparate economic backgrounds. There were washer women and maids, a medical doctor or two, a shoemaker, a tailor, a Pullman porter, a mortician, teachers, a principal or two and laborers.
It was a true, cohesive community, with life-affirming schools where expectations were high and mediocrity was not a desirable option.
Street cars were the mode of public transportation -- one rail line passed right in front of my childhood home on the 3200 block of 11th Street NW. But there were no Afro-American drivers.
There was a miniature golf course on the corner, at Lamont Street, but it was for whites only. Some of our buddies managed to play the course because they could pass for white. Others of our buddies would call the manager and inform him that our passing buddies were really black. Our light-skinned friends were immediately ejected from the course to gales of our laughter.
We often wondered why we as small children were denied the right to sit at the five-and-dime store counters along the 14th Street corridor to sip our sodas. We wondered why there were no black store clerks or bank tellers.
We had heard whispers of total destruction and pillaging of the prosperous, black Greenwood community in Oklahoma in 1921. We were terrified by frequent reports of lynchings of black males, especially in the southern states.
Despite the assaults on the black psyche and the attempts to dehumanize, so many who lived in our slice of this totally segregated city went on to achieve monumental success in a great variety of fields. These included the late Charles R. Drew, surgeon and the father of the blood bank; Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to Congress; retired Col. Elmer Jones, a Dinosaur Club member and an officer with the Tuskegee Airmen; pianist Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz; George Walker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer; and the late W. Montague Cobb, who was a member of the Howard University College of Medicine faculty and editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association. And, of course, there's Elmer Terry and Elliot Lucas, fellow Dinosaur Club members who grew up on my block.
How could it be that so many could achieve so much in the belly of a larger culture that too often was unfriendly, dehumanizing and violent? As very young children, we heard so many stereotypes about black people: that we were lazy and did not want to work, that we were happy darkies who loved to sing and dance, that we were shiftless, that we were the white man's burden and on and on.
The stereotypes were entirely alien to the people in our community. They somehow did not fit. We thought they were depicting creatures from another planet.
We knew maids who worked from sunrise to sunset for a mere pittance to help send their children to college. We knew messengers who were buying their homes. We knew tailors who worked 15 and 16 hours a day. We, as children 10 and 11 years old, worked to supplement the family income. The work ethic has always been an essential part of the black culture.
And it still is.
Yet, when I visit my old neighborhood now, I don't see the same nurturing, cohesive, life-affirming place I remember. There is much more violence, and the schools are not the proud places they once were.
This time the past was not prologue.
Nelson S. Burke, 87, is a native Washingtonian who has fond memories of his childhood community.