The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A census snapshot of one block in 1950 segregated Washington

On Capitol Hill, African American residents and a Japanese American grocery store

Masaru Ushiro, right, and wife Fusaye Ushiro, who ran a grocery store at 201 10th St. SE in Washington. They are holding their daughter Joyce in an undated family photograph. (Courtesy of Ruby U. Lum and Joyce U. Sagami)
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In the spring of 1950, a U.S. census enumerator found Masaru Ushiro and his wife, Fusaye, living above their grocery store on 10th Street SE, in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, along with their children, Joyce, 3, and Ruby, 2.

Next door, the enumerator recorded Joseph F. Curtis, a mail carrier, and next door to him a truck driver, Alfred Travers, his wife, Ada, and their nine children.

As he went house to house, the census man found a pastry cook, a drugstore dishwasher, two waiters, the owner of a barber shop, a paper hanger, a firefighter and a restaurant “salad girl.”

Aside from the Ushiros, almost everybody in the 200 block of 10th Street SE was African American. All were living in a Washington that was rooted in the past but on the brink of change. And most were recorded for posterity in the massive national snapshot of the 1950 Census.

On April 1, the National Archives unveiled the personal data of 151 million Americans gathered for the census, which, to protect privacy, had been kept under wraps for the past 72 years.

The information included names, addresses, marital status and race. Residents also were asked about their job description, income and living conditions.

The accumulated data for one block, in one neighborhood, along with an examination of local newspaper coverage, illustrates a post-World War II Washington that is historically fascinating, but was crudely racist and insensitive.

Many families lived in austere conditions. Seven-thousand dwellings in the District had no bathtub or shower. Seven-thousand lacked flush toilets, and 3,000 still had no electric lights.

Yet there was also prosperity. Furniture and appliances were on sale. Arthur Murray had a dance studio on Connecticut Avenue. And a new luxury ocean liner, the SS United States, was under construction in Newport News, Va.

The 200 block of 10th Street runs between Independence Avenue and C Street SE, about a mile east of the U.S. Capitol. Homes there today are pricey, often costing more than $1 million. But in 1950 it was a mostly working-class Black neighborhood in a racially segregated city.

Public schools were then legally segregated in Washington and 17 states.

Real Estate ads in The Washington Post labeled housing opportunities as “colored” or “for colored.”

Many help-wanted ads stated that only White applicants were sought.

A market in Columbia Heights advertised on April 2 for a “white, experienced” chicken butcher. A chili restaurant near the Marine barracks in Southeast Washington wanted a “white” counter man. And a car dealer in Columbia Heights sought a “white” lubrication mechanic.

The maker of Aunt Jemima pancake mix placed an ad offering a set of “Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose” salt and pepper shakers. For 50 cents and a box-top you could “get my salt ‘n pepper set fo’ mealtime fun,” an image of Aunt Jemima said in the ad.

The Army had just abolished the quota system that limited the percentage of Blacks in the service to the percentage of Blacks in the country, then about 10 percent, according to a front-page story in The Post.

The Ushiros, too, had suffered discrimination.

They were Japanese Americans, both born in Watsonville, Calif., south of San Francisco, and the children of Japanese immigrants.

But because of her ethnicity, Fusaye, 29, who was known as Frances, was placed in an internment camp, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II, her daughters, Ruby Lum, of Arlington, Va., and Joyce Sagami, of Bethesda, Md., said in a recent interview.

And Masaru, 33, who was known as “Mas,” joined the Army to avoid being interned, they said. “He had the choice of going in the Army or going into camp,” Ruby Lum said.

After the war, the Ushiros continued to face discrimination.

Their daughters recalled later being barred from Virginia’s Colonial Beach on the Potomac River because of their ethnicity.

“When my dad approached the gate, the gentleman ... said, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry. We’re not allowed to let you in,' ” Ruby Lum remembered. “I asked my dad about that and he just explained ...'that’s just the way it is right now.' ”

The family had lived above their store, the “M and F” market, less than a year, the enumerator wrote on the official census form. Masaru reported that he had worked 75 hours the week before the census man came.

“We sold Japanese and American food,” daughter Joyce Sagami recalled. “There were several Japanese American families in Northeast, Southeast.”

“It was a great little neighborhood,” her sister, Ruby Lum, said. “We had friends ... that we played with. ... There were a lot families, and they were big families. They had like 14 children.”

She recalled that, growing up, “we played on the sidewalk ... double-Dutch, hopscotch, rode our little bikes.”

There was no air conditioning. “I remember sleeping on the wooden floors to stay cool,” she said.

“Joyce and I did a lot of working in the store,” she said. “We grew up delivering groceries. We learned how to cut up chickens, weigh things, scrub the floor. ... It was a great life.”

“We were pretty good at using a cleaver,” she said.

“I remember that my parents were really, really good to the people around there,” she said. “They gave them a lot of credit so they didn’t have to pay bills right away.”

Their mother, who died last year at age 100, loved the arts and would take the children to the ballet at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Northwest Washington.

The 1950 Census began on April 1 when 140,000 enumerators fanned out across the country. It was a Saturday, a week before Easter.

The crooner Bing Crosby was in Front Royal, Va., for Bing Crosby Day. Cherry Blossom events in Washington were postponed because of chilly weather.

On April 1, the African American physician and professor of surgery at Howard University, Charles R. Drew, was killed in a car accident in North Carolina.

In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee issued a report warning about communist spies in local embassies.

U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) had accused a prominent Asia scholar named Owen Lattimore of being a Russian spy. Lattimore called McCarthy “a madman.”

And another congressional committee warned that U.S. medical facilities would be overwhelmed in the event of an atomic bomb attack.

In Vietnam, French forts were under attack by communist rebels.

In Washington, only 28 percent of households had a television, according to the statistical data gleaned from the census.

An Admiral TV could be had for $179, with 10 percent down, two years to pay, and a free home demonstration, according to a newspaper ad.

The baby boom was underway. “Maternity Lane,” a store in Silver Spring, advertised itself as “complete outfitters of the mothers to be.” An adjustable maternity dress was $14.95.

And car sales were booming.

DeSotos and Studebakers were available. A new Buick cost $2,095. A two-tone, gray 1948 Hudson “Commodore Club Coupe” with radio, heater and white wall tires could be had for $1,295.

A 1942 Ford coupe was $275.

Baseball greats Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra were in the sports pages, and Joe Palooka was in the comics.

When 1950 had dawned three months before the census, observers lamented that it was closing a half-century marred by two world wars, several vast famines and the advent of nuclear weapons.

But a Post reporter noted on Jan. 1, 1950: “Even in a world of atomic wizardry, hope is still a mighty substance.”

Magda Jean-Louis and Tara Bahrampour contributed to this report.