On this last Christmas of the millennium, some children may be too occupied with what's taking place around them to give much thought to the astronauts in outer space restoring an ailing 25,000-pound telescope. Fifty years ago, that feat would have been unimaginable.
During Christmas of 1949, our flights of fancy didn't run much beyond riding the streetcar, taking a school trip to the local dairy or visiting a government building. Oh, yes, and avoiding the scourge of the day--tuberculosis. Today, the streetcar is gone, along with the local dairy. And TB is not the public health threat it once was in the District.
But those events were real. So were the fears.
They are scenes from my childhood, described in the December 1949 "Tuberculosis-Christmas Edition" of the Stevens Star, the school newspaper we published as pupils of Stevens Elementary School, at 21st and L streets NW. A slightly worn copy of that precious 17-page publication is on the workstation next to my computer.
"Workstation"! "Computer"! Seldomed-used words in 1949.
That was the year in which the classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written. It was also the year that Rep. William Dawson became the first black person to chair a standing committee in Congress and WERD-AM began operating, in Atlanta, as America's first black radio station.
Christmas 1949 came four years before the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in restaurants in the nation's capital; five years before school segregation was ruled unconstitutional; six years before a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.; and seven years before 101 southerners in Congress signed the Southern Manifesto urging states to reject and resist the Supreme Court's Brown decision.
But was Washington at Christmastime that much of a different place for children in 1949?
Here is the season as reported through the eyes of my Stevens classmates 50 years ago:
By Timothy Lewis, 3A Grade
Christmas comes but once a year,
Let's be merry while it's here.
We should be happy and gay,
All through the Christmas holiday.
By Brooks H. Neal, 4A Grade
When Christmas comes
We all have fun
One by one.
When Christmas comes
Santa comes, too
He brings nice gifts
For me and you.
By Ann Hayes, 6A Grade
Santa Claus comes once a year.
And when he comes he brings
He brings a bag stuffed full
For all good girls and all
Our school newspaper, where my sister, brother and I worked as reporters and artists, also provided insight into what made children tremble. Two columns were devoted to the prevention and control of that dreaded disease, tuberculosis. "Many grown-ups and children die from this disease each year," wrote Sandra Smith, 5A Grade, in her column. She listed nine rules for building a strong body "to fight against an attack of this germ." At the end of her instructions dealing with proper clothing, exercise, nutrition and grooming was a ninth commandment: "Be happy."
Shirley Moses, 5B Grade, covered much the same instructions in her piece. But she put in a special plug for the giving season: "Buy Tuberculosis Seals for a penny apiece. This will help the victims of tuberculosis, as well as make a happier and merrier Christmas for you."
Three pages of articles describing class trips told a story about our closed-in world. The lead piece by Bernard Lewis, 4A Grade, was on the visit of his class to the Georgetown library. It showed how big a deal it was to leave our school near Foggy Bottom to travel across the bridge spanning Rock Creek Park to reach that imposing library structure.
"We went to the library on the streetcar. On the streetcar we heard the World Series baseball game. Some of the children were talking and laughing. Some children looked out of the windows. When we got off we walked up the steps and went through a big door. We read and looked at many books. The librarian read us a story. It was very funny and we all enjoyed it."
Other stories reported on trips to the now-defunct Chestnut Farms Dairy at 26th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the old Wilkins Rogers Flour Mill at 36th and K streets NW, the FBI building, the Washington Monument and the White House. "Mrs. Malone [the school's principal] sat down in Vice President Barkley's chair and pretended to be talking to President Truman about getting her a new school." In '49, the Stevens building (which is still standing) must have been more than 50 years old.
The Stevens Star Christmas edition of 1949 even had an editorial page.
Howard Kenny, 6B Grade, wrote an essay dedicated to an earlier Stevens principal, Dr. Mildred E. Gibbs, who ran the school from 1881 to 1935, when she died two days before she was to retire. His tribute shed light on the circumstances of pupils who attended school in Dr. Gibbs's day.
"Dr. Gibbs loved the children so, that she saw that they got what they wanted and needed. If some of the children didn't have shoes or other clothing to wear she'd buy them. Some of the children didn't have any lunch to eat. She always saw to it that no child would go hungry," he wrote.
"There were times when a parent didn't have his rent money. That parent could get it from Dr. Gibbs."
Her giving spirit was still present in '49. The Stevens Star reported that our Junior Red Cross chapter had filled 75 Christmas stockings for the needy and made tray favors and menu covers for city hospitals and the VA hospital at Tuskegee, Ala.
And though our paper's advertising budget was nonexistent, we managed to have a promotional jingle, thanks to Jean Ann Yates, 5B Grade:
Stop, stop where you are
Right here buy a Stevens Star.
It shines with news of Stevens bright
So read the Stevens Star tonight.
Stevens Star, Stevens Star,
Where do you get your news?
From boys and girls of Stevens School
Who observe courtesy and safety rules.
Now that's journalism.