We know much, and will soon know much more, about the stated positions of the candidates for mayor of the District on issues affecting the city. What we do not know, to a surprising degree, is who they are--that is, where they came from, what they remember or think is important about the way they got here. In recent interviews with Michael Barone, the five principal candidates for the Democratic nomination talked about their early lives--personal and political.
The first home Charlene Jarvis remembers was on the Howard University campus, on a hill above the rest of Washington. There is a dormitory on the site now, but you can still get a sense of what it must have been like to grow up here with so much of the city almost literally before you. Just below Howard is Le Droit Park, the home then and now of much of Washington's black elite, and at a greater distance were other, humbler black neighborhoods. Beyond them on the left was the Capitol dome, on the right the skyline of downtown Washington and the hills west of Georgetown.
Charlene Drew was born to one of the most distinguished families of Washington's black elite. Her father, Dr. Charles Drew, is famous as the developer of blood plasma. As chief surgeon at Freedman's Hospital and professor of surgery, he was both a great researcher and a great teacher. He came from a family with roots in Washington: Charlene Jarvis' great great-grandfather came to the city from Virginia in 1880 and worked as an upholsterer; her grandfather was the secretary and the only black member of the upholsterers' and carpetlayers' union.
Dr. Drew died in an automobile accident in 1950, when Charlene Jarvis was 8. Two years later the family moved to a house in Crestwood, between 16th Street and Rock Creek Park, then as now one of the most comfortable and verdant parts of the city. Segregation was still very much a part of Washington life. "Blacks operated within a particular sphere," says Charlene Jarvis, "but within that sphere there was a full range of talent."
Blacks could not use public facilities downtown, and so her family tended to shop mostly in black shopping areas. Her mother took the Drew children to museums and particularly to the National Gallery; that and Union Station were the only places downtown where blacks could sit and eat. "But you accommodate to that kind of restriction," she says, and goes on to talk about the advantages her parents gave her when she was growing up.
"My father required excellence, of us and himself." After D.C. public schools, Charlene Jarvis went to Oberlin College: "I had to work very hard, but I didn't fall behind." She married, had a baby two weeks after graduation, became a teaching assistant and graduate student, first at Howard and then at the University of Maryland. "Those years were tough; I had to use every moment." Three of her rivals in the mayor's race sought PhDs; she got hers.
Her experience in elective politics is correspondingly briefer. She won election to the council to fill a vacancy in 1979 in Ward 4, the ward where many of Washington's black elite today live. It must have been a time of changes for her: she left a career in science after nearly 20 years, her children were approaching late teens, she was divorced. "I was marching down my own road in science and doing very well," she says. "But then seeing what has happened to people I knew back in school at Mott and Banneker, I decided to take my problem-solving skills to an arena where I can be relatively powerful."