It’s Martin Luther King Day and I can’t help but think of a phone call I received a few weeks ago from a kindly older lady.
I hear from a lot of kindly older ladies, and I usually enjoy our conversations. This conversation started out innocently enough. The reader wanted to talk about a column I’d written on the old Garfinckel’s department store, on how Julius Garfinckel had spelled his name, on whether J. Edgar Hoover had shopped there. She had memories of old Washington that she wanted to share, and I was happy to hear them, especially since I could absentmindedly scroll through my e-mail at the same time. (Multitasking, it’s called.)
It went along in an agreeable vein for a few minutes and then she said, “But I don’t know why you had to write so much about how blacks couldn’t shop there.”
Well, I said, that was a fact.
Yeah, but why did you have to harp on it, she said.
I thought back to that column, to the one-line mention of Garfinckel’s segregation back then, something it had in common with many other stores. I hadn’t really harped on it, I said, just pointed it out.
Well, she said, it’s better if you don’t mention stuff like that.
I am inclined to think the best of people, and so I assumed what she meant was that those were painful times but that we’ve moved on. Let’s look to the future, not the past.
That’s not what she meant at all. “I think it was better in those days,” she said.
I stopped scrolling through my e-mail.
Wait a minute, I said, you thought it was better when African Americans couldn’t shop in department stores in downtown Washington?
Yes, she said.
You know, I said, the Constitution allows people to go wherever they like.
Maybe, she said, but she liked D.C. better when blacks had their places and whites had theirs. She preferred it when the two didn’t mix.
Look lady, I said, you’re in the wrong city. You’re in the wrong country. We fought a war over that. The United States is a mixed-race melting pot. You don’t like that, maybe you should move to Iceland.
She said, “If I could afford it, I would.”
It was then that I hung up.
Now, I don’t know if she was suffering from dementia or from that breakdown in her self-editing mechanism that afflicts some people as they get older, that lack of a filter that can sometimes make family gatherings so uncomfortable. I do know that she started out so sweetly and so matter-of-factly that it took me a few beats to catch on to what she was saying.
What she was saying isn’t something you hear in polite company today, but it certainly was when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was marching for change. I spend a lot of my time reading old Washington newspapers, and it’s amazing what you find there. There are odd little stories about African Americans getting into various “humorous” scrapes, stories that as far as I can tell had no purpose other than to make whites feel superior to blacks. There are quotes from African Americans rendered in almost unreadable dialect.
Stories that weren’t as outright racist as those were more subtly racist, always bothering to list the skin color of the people being written about, no matter the subject, as if a car accident involving a black man should be thought about differently from one involving a white man. As late as the early 1960s, classified employment ads in The Washington Post — for waitresses, maintenance men, cooks — stipulated whether the opening was for a white applicant or a “colored” one.
This discrimination — whether it involved applying for a job, buying a house in a neighborhood with restrictive covenants, eating at a downtown restaurant or trying to get into the amusement park at Glen Echo — is within living memory. It’s certainly something Dr. King would remember if he were still alive. He’d be 83, probably about the age of the woman who called me.
When we think about the Washington of old — the Washington we rightly have fond memories of — we can’t forget the bad that went along with the good. We can’t forget the bad that once was and, as evidenced by my kindly older lady caller, the bad that still is.
For previous columns by John Kelly, go to postlocal.com.