At a birthday party for Milton Scandrett, who turned 100 last month, one of the greeting cards he received was from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
“Your life represents an important part of American history, a century of memories,” the party host read from the White House stationery. “We hope you have many more years as a centenarian.”
Well-wishers at the Fort Dupont Park activity center in Southeast Washington applauded. But Scandrett just stared at them from the guests’ table, as if wondering what all the fuss was about.
“I grew up on the rough side of the mountain,” the Southeast resident told me later. “I worked hard all my life. I had no choice. That’s how it was.”
But the Obamas were right about what his life represented, even if the honoree was too modest to admit it.
Scandrett was born Aug. 8, 1912, on a farm in Fulton County, Ga. He was raised around people who had been slaves. Slavery had lasted in the United States from 1619 to 1865 — abolished by law, if not always in practice, a mere 47 years before Scandrett’s birth.
And yet, Scandrett was part of a generation that swelled the ranks of the black middle class, then multiplied the success by making sure the children received the education that many of the parents had been denied.
“I’m so glad that you spanked me; I needed it,” said Arthur Scandrett, Milton Scandrett’s 70-year-old son. (He had invited the Obamas to the party but was more than pleased to get a card from them.) Laughter rippled through the room at his remarks about spankings, but the honoree did not seem amused.
“I was raised a little different from how it is now,” Milton Scandrett told me. An understatement, to say the least.
During the post-Reconstruction era, blacks in many parts of the South lived under a reign of terror carried out by armed marauders such as the Ku Klux Klan. When Scandrett was born, Georgia led the nation in lynching.
I mentioned to him that puritanical punishments such as spanking weren’t just intended to beat the devil out of children. Black parents in the South sometimes beat their children to make them pay attention, lest the child stray across some racial line and end up hanged from a tree.
“That’s how it was,” Scandrett said.
At age 22, he and a friend hopped a freight train north to Washington. Having learned that survival depended on discipline, he used the same principle to improve his chances of success.
And to help raise his two sons — Ed, who graduated from Howard University in 1964, and Arthur, who followed in 1969.
After arriving in Washington, Scandrett spent a year mowing lawns to make money and pay rent on a room at 26 R St. NW. A year later, he got a job as a sleeping-car porter on the B&O Railroad and later became a dining car chef.
His barber introduced him to Susie Black, the daughter of a minister from North Carolina, to whom he has been married for 72 years.
“He was a good provider,” said Susie Scandrett, 93. “He was always thinking about his family. That’s why he worked so hard.”
In 1944, Scandrett joined the Army, rode on a racially segregated train to San Francisco and was shipped off to fight in the Philippines during World War II. He attained the rank of sergeant, returned to work for the B&O Railroad after the war and was promoted from chef to sanitary inspector.
One day, when the family was living in the Langston Terrace housing complex in Northeast, toddlers Ed and Arthur slipped away from their babysitter and headed for the Eastern Branch creek to teach themselves how to swim.
Susie Scandrett returned home from her job at the Labor Department just in time to catch them wading into the water.
“I almost lost my babies that day,” she recalled. So she quit her job to stay home with them. “Milton said to me, ‘We’ll just make it on what I make.’ ”
In addition to his job with the railroad, Scandrett leased a convenience store at Sixth and E streets NE. He had an old B&O caboose hauled to Seat Pleasant and turned it into a barbecue restaurant. Using his knowledge as a sanitation inspector, he started a pest-control business.
“I mean, he got out there and hustled,” Susie Scandrett said.
Her husband added, “I was fortunate to get good jobs.”
At the birthday party, the Scandretts’ pastor congratulated him for making the most of his opportunities. But he also urged the gathering not to forget how such opportunities came about.
“You can’t think of Scandrett without thinking about that statue in Union Station,” said the Rev. Vernon Shannon, pastor of John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Northwest. “Because, you see, Brother Scandrett was a railroad man, and you know who fought that fight to make it possible?”
The statue he was referring to honors A. Philip Randolph, an African American civil rights legend who, in 1925, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the largest black labor union in the country at the time, which resulted in men like Scandrett being able to earn a living wage.
“You ought to know that history,” Shannon said.
Scandrett gave his pastor a nod and mused, “That’s how it was.”
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.