Carl Schultz of Harpers Ferry, W. Va., also remembers 1954 Washington, D.C. But his letter in response to my May 15 column, "Still Separate and Unequal," was more than another slant on D.C. school days 45 years ago by someone with a white perspective. It was an insightful reflection on the way our city was then, the way we are now and how we still differentiate ourselves from each other.
Schultz and I are contemporaries. "You entered Dunbar High School in 1954, the same year I started high school at Anacostia," he wrote.
"But I was not one of the white students demonstrating against racial integration you describe." He said that his parents were from the North and that as a result he didn't have the same strong feelings against integration that many of the white students had whose parents were originally from the South.
He also told me something I didn't know: "At Anacostia there seemed to be large numbers of white kids whose parents had come up from North Carolina during the war years."
Despite the protests, Schultz's orders from home were explicit: Go to school and ignore the demonstrators.
"So I sat in the gym with the other students, including some rather puzzled black kids, and listened to the hubbub outside." His recollection was that the resistance didn't last very long before the demonstrators entered the school. From that point on, school was pretty much free of racial incidents, "probably because the number of black students was small during my three years at Anacostia."
That was not a universal Schultz experience, however. Carl's brother, three years younger, started Sousa Junior High School in 1954. Black students at Sousa, unlike those at Anacostia, "were either in the majority or were fast becoming the racial majority," Schultz wrote. His brother was subjected to constant harassment, pummeling and gang threats from black kids. And, said Schultz, "he didn't get much help from black teachers."
Seeing that conditions in the schools and in Southeast Washington were "deteriorating," Schultz said, his parents exercised their prerogative and "got the hell out of Southeast as soon as they could and moved," in 1959, to Northwest, where his brother entered Wilson High School. "We never looked back and heaved a sigh of relief at having left what would later become a racial battleground." It was the same sigh of relief, Schultz trenchantly observes, that "more affluent black families would heave years later when they departed a troubled D.C. for P.G. or Montgomery County!"
But then -- as now -- more than race was at work in our city.
Blue-collar and middle-class white Southeast Washington of the 1950s had a profound effect on Schultz and his classmates. "We had always considered ourselves somewhat inferior to the white kids who lived in Northwest -- less scholastically capable, but better in sports." "Sound familiar?" he asked.
Indeed it does.
In my neck of the woods, it was a time when some of the better-off "Negro" families living "up on the hill" (local black parlance for neighborhoods bordering S Street NW and extending eastward to LeDroit Park and north beyond U Street NW) used to turn up their noses at the "colored folk" residing in Georgetown, Foggy Bottom and Southwest. It was also a time when Dunbar students prided themselves on being academically and socially superior to, but less athletic than, kids attending Cardozo, Armstrong and Phelps. (The black elite still mark '54 as the year Dunbar started to "go down" -- ironically, the year I entered -- because new school zoning rules forced Dunbar to also take in kids living in nearby working-class neighborhoods.) By the 1960s, Schultz recalled, Southeast had become a racially tense area, in large part because it also had become the inevitable destination of many of the black people who had been evicted when Southwest Washington became the site of one of the first "redevelopment" (read: black relocation) efforts in the country.
"Naturally, if you are going to evict blacks from the old row houses of Southwest in order to build high-rise apartments and increase the value of the land . . . those blacks are not going to relocate to Northwest," he observed.
"Oh no. They'll go to blue-collar, white Southeast. And when they did, the stage was set for increased tensions and the White Flight against which you inveigh so eloquently in your piece."
The whites who stayed put in D.C. and applauded desegregation and urban renewal -- while decrying the racism of Southeast whites -- were the more liberal, economically upscale white people in Northwest. Guess what? They were largely unaffected by housing or school integration.
So much for that bit of D.C. history.
We had problems then; they linger today. What to do? For starters, I'll be the first to acknowledge that no single group has a lock on moral failure and flights from social responsibility. Loads of African Americans also "got the hell away" from "the other America" in our nation's capital as soon as they could -- and have never looked back, either.
But flight, whether by whites or blacks, only leads to false comfort. The problems follow in one form or another; they just won't go away from this city or anywhere else in America. So the challenge, as trite as it may seem, is for those of us still hanging in there with a resurgent Washington, D.C., to rise above our differences and recognize our shared destiny. Let's embrace the fact that when it comes to the District's survival as a competitive and thriving city, Georgetown can't be free of Anacostia's problems, Tenleytown can't make it without Petworth, and a diverse Northwest needs an economically healthy Southeast as much as a safe and growing Northeast needs a vibrant Southwest.
Fortunately, the geographical distance (and maybe the suspicion and ignorance) that might have kept me from knowing a Carl Schultz in 1954 are not as formidable today as they were then. Those barriers, though not completely gone, are being slowly, and at times painfully, overcome. None of that is happening by chance.
This town is full of unsung heroes. They can be found in nonprofit groups helping people in need at all hours of the day and night. And in classrooms and after-school programs working with at-risk children as mentors and tutors. They are in faith-based organizations that are doing a marvelous job reclaiming people at the brink. And today's miracle workers are black, white and brown residents who are trying to make this thing work. Together, they are breaking down the barriers that separate us. And therein lies the hope for our city, 45 years later.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.