For two weeks, the tension had been building inside the two-bedroom apartment on Bellevue Street SE that Sherita Dreher now calls home. It was early June 1985, but a heat wave had already hit Washington, and the cramped quarters grew hot and stuffy.
Casual conversations turned into shouting matches. Household chores became excuses for angry confrontations. Old grudges burst forth, creating new wounds. The head of the household, 42-year-old Jackie Sherrod, decided it was time to clear the air, before things got out of hand, before somebody got hurt.
It was time for another family meeting.
Jackie began the meetings in November 1984 as a kind of safety valve, a way for everyone to release anger. The one that was held last June 12 reached such a level of shrillness, rage and bitterness that everyone -- including me, attending as an observer -- was left emotionally drained by the time it ended after 2 1/2 hours.
The meeting had started out calmly enough.
"Can we pray before we start this meeting, please?" asked Therresia Sherrod Thomas, 21, who is Jackie's oldest daughter.
"Therresia, no," said her sister, Carol Sherrod, 19. "We ain't been praying and I ain't now."
"I don't know nothing about that," said Therresia. "I haven't been here."
"Well, you pray!" retorted Carol.
"Okay. Go ahead," Jackie said.
"Dear Lord, our Father, please give us the strength, the wisdom and the courage to carry on like adults," Therresia said.
Carol shouted, "But I'm not an adult ."
Another family meeting was under way.
Around the rectangular table, scarred and nicked from years of use, sat four women:
*Jackie Sherrod, divorced, employed from time to time in temporary jobs and living in the rent-subsidized apartment with her two daughters, Carol and 5-year-old Nyieka.
*Jackie's daughter Therresia, married to a Marine corpsman, living at her mother's until her husband returns from a post in Japan, sleeping in her mother's bedroom with her daughter, Quanette, 2.
*Jackie's daughter Carol, a secretary at a downtown hotel, who found that she did not earn enough to afford her own place and was sleeping on a makeshift bed on her mother's living room floor until she could earn enough to move out on her own again.
*Sherita Dreher, 18, mother of Marquis, 2, who moved in with Jackie and Carol Sherrod in July 1984 after her own family broke apart.
At the outset of the meeting, Jackie tried to set the tone.
"We're not here to point out, 'He say; she say' stuff. We here to lay a problem on the table and figure out a way to solve the problem that will be agreeable to everyone. We're not here to argue. We're not here to yell and holler," she said.
But her warning seemed in vain. Often, the discussion seemed to center on the mundane: Who left dirty dishes in the sink; who left dirty clothes in the bathrooms; who should sleep where. Early in the meeting, Carol announced, "I'm not cleaning up behind nobody's children because I don't have none."
Moreover, Carol said, she did not have any responsibility for cleaning the bathroom. "I don't really live here. All I do is sleep here in the living room , and as long as I pay rent, it shouldn't be nothing said about it because I don't use the bathroom."
An incredulous Jackie asked, "You don't use the bathroom?"
"I don't use nothing but the living room floor," responded Carol.
At one point, her mother interrupted and said, "Do you think there is anything in this house you suppose to do?"
"If I don't mess it up, no," answered Carol. "I don't have no rights in this house."
Meanwhile, Sherita was angry at Jackie, who had said she did not feel "obligated" to do any housecleaning.
"I think that is wrong to the utmost," said Sherita. "That's why I came into the house with a sullen attitude practically every day. But that was my only way that I could just take my frustration out, was to have an attitude and go outside. Go outside and get some fresh air and run the streets. It just do not make any kind of sense. Now, you," Sherita said, turning to face Jackie, "do you still feel like you ain't obligated?"
"I ain't obligated," Jackie replied, calmly.
The conversation turned to other issues, but Sherita wouldn't let go.
"I'm still fired up because you ain't obligated" to clean up the house, she said, with heavy sarcasm.
"I don't care about you being fired up," Jackie responded. "You know that."
"You don't care about nothing," Sherita said.
"Yes, I do," Jackie said.
"But them children," Sherita added.
"I care about you," Jackie said simply.
"Oh, come off of that, baby," Sherita said.
"You don't think I care about you?" asked Jackie.
"No," said Sherita.
"You wouldn't be here if I didn't," said Jackie.
As the meeting began to wind down, Sherita said that their inability to come to any lasting agreement was a "sad" development.
"It's real sad," Sherita added. "Simple as that. All of us in here are sad. Helpless."
"I ain't gonna be helpless for long," Carol, still angry, said. When she gets her own place, things will be different. "My house will stay clean."
Then, suddenly, in a tired, dry voice, Carol said, "Why do we have these meetings?"
"The question have been asked," said Sherita.
Jackie spoke up. "Well, I'll tell you what. We won't have no more meetings."
And they haven't