WHEN JOSEPH YELDELL was a barrel-voiced championship orator at Cardozo High School in Washington during the 1940s, his archrival was a baby-faced tenor from neighboring Dunbar High School named Walter Fauntroy.
The contests between those two were held on Fridays in the U.S. Commerce Department auditorium. With Walter at one podium on one side of the stage and Joe at another on the other side, the topics. "I Am an American" and "What Democracy Means to Me," were expounded upon by the boys with the golden tongues.
Walter, who was much smaller than Yeldell, reassured his audience with soft talk and smiles. Joe was forceful, and prone to pound his podium and point.
"Joe's style was assertive, and very self-assured. I don't want to say arrogant," said Doug Gordon, now a city government employe but then a Dunbar student who watched the contests from the Dunbar side of the auditorium.
"When Joe would make a good point, his crowd would interrupt and, say, 'Get 'em, Joe.' But Fauntroy would keep on winning. Fauntroy was the best. Frankly, I couldn't understand why because his voice was so high."
The rivalry between Fauntroy and Yeldell continued well into their adulthood, climaxing - but not ending - in 1971 when Yeldell lost to Fauntroy in the first election to represent Washington residents as D.C. nonvoting delegate to Congress.
Although Yeldell lost the high school debates he savored the prominence. Having felt the warmth of the spotlight, he wanted it to shine on him again.
There were four high schools for black youth in Washington back then.
Armstrong was for technical students. Phelps was the trade school. Dunbar attracted "intellectuals," including a heavy sprinkling of the children of prominent blacks and government employees.
And Cardozo was the business school. Here were the children of parents with middle class values but no middle class cash.
Whenever Cardozo and Dunbar met, it was war between two black Washingtons.
Yeldell was born in Washington in 1932, a New Deal baby, number nine in a family of 13, the youngest of seven boys, reared in three of the city's poor, and racially segregated neighborhoods - "Not a bad ghetto," Yeldell said of one of them.
Friends saw him as scrappy and strept-wise and they remarked about what seemed to be Joe's innate knack for mathematics. Young Joe Yeldell let everyone know that one day he was going to rise above the squalor of the inner city - better yet drive out in a big, fine car.
Charles Baron, who, years later, would become a top aide to Yeldell at the D.C. Department of Human Resources, described Yeldell's philosophy this way: 'He lived by one of James Brown's old songs. "I'd rather die on my feet, then live on my knees.'"
Yeldell would in time make his way out of the poor black Washington of his childhood where one faced not only the harshness of White racism but the ostracism of more well-to-do blacks. In black Washington during those days, there existed some high social circles that excluded persons who were not complexion. "I was aware of the color cliques," he said recently.
Years later, he would be appointed to serve on the first city council in Washington in 93 years, then be picked by the mayor to head the Department of Human Resources, the city's health and welfare agency and the largest department with a budget that would grow to $400 million a year.
But, once at the top, with his friends and enemies would wonder whether the struggle had been worth it.
A few weeks ago, as the federal grand jury that indicted him on charges of bribery last Thursday was winding up its investigation, Yeldell walked around his spacious government office on Pennsylvania Avenue and pondered the concept of "black power," which he had wielded as a key city department head, confidant and political strategist for the mayor.
"You know," he said, gazing at the District Building across the street from his office, "there's not a nigger in this town that's more than a step away from poverty." He shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly.
Yeldell had grown up in a large, close-knit family, residing first at 13th and Linden streets NE, not far from Nick's Hot Dog Stand and the old Lovejoy Theater. His father was a retired railroad porter and church deacon who made sure all the children went to Sunday school and church.
When he was 10, Joe got a job working for a neighborhood grocer, an alcoholic who relied on Joe to mind the store and to deliver to him two fifths of whiskey after closing.
"We were poor," Yeldell recalled, "but I did not know it at the time. I was lucky. A kid could go either way."
During those days, "either way" meant either hitching a ride to 14th and U street NW to sip sodas with the girls at the You and Me, or being taken fro a ride to the old 14th police precinct in Far Northeast Washington where, Yeldell would recall, "you didn't have to guess what was going to happen to you if you were black."
Fourteenth Street was alive then with brightly lit nightclubs, restaurants and theaters where upstanding young black men would take their lady friends for a night in the town. There were other characters there, too, like Odessa Madre, reputed queen of the city's underworld; Puddin' Head Jones, a well-known gambler, and another man who spent years searching unsuccessfully for the woman he said had knocked out one of his eyes.
Joe said he did not hang around people like that. Still, "We felt secure in our own little black world," Yeldell recalled, "Man, we played the strips (14th Street and 7th Street). I remember taking my wife to the Lincoln Theater (on 7th Street) and during intermission they had the old newsreels with an all-black newscast. She was amazed. 'All black?' I told her this was not Pittsburgh. This was D.C. and we played jammed up down here."
Washington was a rigidly segregated city then, but Joe's parents attempted to shield him from the harsh realities of racism, figuring, like many parents, that there was no sensible way to explain it, and no painless way to do anything about it.
"I didn't start to recognize the shortcomings of my situation until one day I was standing with friends infront of the Plymonth Theater, which was all back," Yeldell recalled. "This white man was heading toward the Atlas Theater just up the street, which is all white, and he just pushes all of us out of the way so his lady friend can walk through, talking about 'Watch it niggers.'"
Later, young Joe would come to learn about a cop on the beat, who was said to have wielded his 14-inch shoes much the same as he did his taped lead pipe in chasing black children off vacant lots where they played football.
"I remember saying to myself if I ever got a chance to do something about the police in this city, I'd always keep that scene in my mind." I never forgot," Yeldell said.
For the most part, Yeldell maneuvered confidently through the streets of Washington, operating within a wide swath that his older brothers had cut for him.
"I was not a member of a gang," Yeldell said. "But I guess you could call it a protective association. The name and size of the Yeldell clan was enough to keep you pretty safe."
The Yeldell clan was headed by Joe's father, the deacon. Although most of his sons worked and contributed to the family income, the elder Yeldell ruled the household.
Joe's father did not allow dancing, drinking, smoking or card playing in their house for many years. Joe, being the youngest and with times changing, was allowed to have parties in the family's English basement with the separate entrance.
"If the (Dunbar) kids didn't invite me to their parties, I wouldn't let it worry me," Joe said. "I just gave a party of my own." By most accounts, Joe's party was the one not to miss.
Says Col. Thomas Yeldell, Joe's oldest brother, "I think my father knew what Joe was doing down there. But he never went to see. He would always say, 'If you go looking for trouble, you're going to find it.'"
Joe's mother, on the other hand, would just as soon flick out the blue lights in the basement as she would flick on the bright ones.
"Mom used to say, 'If you're doing something that you don't want your mother to see, you'd better stop doing it,'" Thomas Yeldell said.
Joe graduated with honors from Cardozo High, an occasion, he recalled later, that made his parents face the realization that they could not afford to send him to Howard, considered then as the mecca for black higher learning.
Instead, Joe went to D.C. Teacher's College, located in the shadows of Howard on Georgia Avenue. It was at D.C. Teacher's that Joe met many of the friends who would play a large role in his adult life, especially after he took over as head of the Department of Human Resources.
Joseph Douglas and Lemmie Morton were in the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity at D.C. Teachers with Yeldell. Years later they would become deputy director and chief of welfare inspections at the Department of Human Resources.
Those two friends, along with four others, would also join Yeldell to form ENtrepreneur Travel Associates Inc., a travel agency that would go bankrupt. According to Yeldell's indictment, they would have a series of bank notes endorsed and loans guaranteed by Dominic F. Antonelli Jr., a multimillionaire real estate and parking lot magnate who had himself once been a poor Washington boy from the wrong side of town.
During some of his college years, Joe would cruise about town in one of his brother's 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertibles - a Big Man On Campus, as his friends recall. But in time, Yeldell would seem to lose interest. He left school and joined the Air Force in 1954. Then, after the service tour, Yeldell finished college at the University of Pittsburgh and got a master's degree in mathematics.
Yeldell returned to Washington in 1961 and took a job teaching mathematics at Calvin Coolidge High School. He left Coolidge after a year and went to work at the Labor Department as a statistician, where he stayed less than a year.
"My first love was teaching," Yeldell said, "but teaching wouldn't support my family the way it needed. It wouldn't bring my children the kinds of things I felt they deserved."
In 1954, Yeldell began working as a sales trainee for IBM in Washington. The following year, he was promoted to marketing representative and assigned to one of the corporation's most prestigious accounts - the White House.
While installing an IBM computer that formed the basis of a White House personnel recruitment system in 1967, Yeldell became friends with John Macy Jr., then head of the Civil Service Commission, which was supervising the computer installation. The two talked often about the workings of government and Yeldell developed an intense interest in politics.
This was all happening at a time when elsewhere in the White House President Lyndon Johnson, thwarted in efforts to get home rule legislation for Washington passed in Congress, was moving to replace the 93-year-old three appointed commissioner form of government with an appointed mayor-commissioner and nine member city council.
Johnson appointed Walter E. Washington, former head of the National Capital Housing Authority here, to be mayor-commissioner and he selected Yeldell's old rival, Walter Fauntroy, who by then had become a prominent Baptist minister in town and a key lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King to be vice chairman of the new council.
As Yeldell became aware of what was going on, he made himself a candidate.
"I thought about how it used to be when the only time a black could get into the District Building was to pay bills," Yeldell said. "When I saw the job opening up, I went after it. Many people said that I should."
Using a novel approach, Yeldell called up the Washington Daily News to announce his candidacy for the appointed position and asked readers to send letters of support to the White House.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., now secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, who was then counsel to Johnson, recently recalled what happened next:
"Johnson saw the piece in the paper and told me this sounded like the kind of guy that should be on a city council. He asked me to talk to him. I found him bright, articulate and interested. When Johnson interviewed him, he felt the same way. He was on his way to becoming an IBM hotshot, a top executive, IBM didn't want to let him go."
Yeldell and his family were then living in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington and Johnson reportedly was also interested in having that part of town represented on the new council. So the president appointed him and Yeldell accepted.
The small group active in the embryonic Democratic politics of Washington at the time was stunned. One prominent local Democratic party activist who lived in the exclusive, heavily black Gold Coast neighborhood in Upper Northwest Washington remembered recently: "We all wanted to meet him. None of us here had ever heard of him. I'm not saying that he was unknown, just that none of us had heard who Yeldell was."
Marion Barry, now a city council member and candidate for mayor but then one of the city's best known community activists, made headlines with the question: "Who the hell is 'Yellman'?"
In another article in the Washington Daily News, Yeldell told who he was, mentioning that he had one brother living in a penthouse in Southwest and two sisters on welfare in Southeast, and he said:
"The same dedication of purpose, the same sweat and tears that it took to get an education and rise above my environment (will) permeate my tenure on the council."