Leona Barnes doesn’t remember when, back around the close of World War I, she met Gladys Butler, Ruth Hammett and Bernice Underwood. Growing up in Southwest Washington, they were part of the landscape, in the same way that her house and her street and her church were.
As little girls, the four played jacks and jumped rope; later they shared gossip and danced the two-step and the Charleston. Two of them lived in the same house at one point, and three of them had babies the same year — 1933. But they could not have predicted that someday they would be poised to celebrate their 100th birthdays together.
“We all are grateful, and we thank the Lord for all of us to see 99,” Barnes said as she sat this week in Zion Baptist Church in Northwest Washington with the other three, who are members there. Slapping her thigh for emphasis, she said, “If we don’t make 100, it’s up to Him — but we made the 99.”
Underwood, dressed elegantly in a flowered skirt, turquoise jacket and heels, dropped her jaw, feigning shock.
“Yes, you’re 99 years old,” Barnes said, giving her a nudge, “and looking good.”
“It came so fast, I didn’t realize it,” Underwood said.
Making it to the triple digits together is one of many things the four friends never foresaw. When they were girls, the District had separate movie theaters for black and white patrons and separate schools for black and white students. As kids, they didn’t think much about it.
They accepted that a black girl couldn’t try on clothes or hats at the department store; she had to take a gamble that the items she bought would fit or that she would find someone in the neighborhood willing to buy them off her.
Chances were, in that patchwork of tenements and alleys in the shadow of the Capitol, someone would.
“It was a fine neighborhood,” Barnes said. “If you took sick, the next person would know about it. We were very close, closely knitted. That’s one thing that we miss. The neighbor on either side, they’d make you nice hot soup. It’s not like neighborhoods of today where sometimes you don’t know your next-door neighbor.”
In the first half of the 20th century, Southwest Washington, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, was home to African Americans on one side and Eastern European immigrants on the other. It had a commercial district, grocery stores, schools and churches, including Zion Baptist, a stately red church with a wrought-iron fence that was started in the 1860s by former slaves. There were a few large, elegant residences, but much of the area was a warren of small, ramshackle homes, many of which lacked electricity and relied on outhouses. Marvin Gaye was born there, and Al Jolson lived there as a boy.
The girls lived within a few blocks of each other — Barnes’s and Butler’s families even shared a house for a while. In those days of relaxed security, they could roller skate right up to the Capitol. When they were 10 or 11 the four formed a social club, with a president and a vice president.
“Our parents stood in back and listened to us talk, and then after that we would have a repast,” Barnes said. “Chicken, potato salad . . . ”
“Chitlins,” Underwood added.
As they grew up, married and had children, they witnessed the forces shaping the century. They had relatives who fought in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. They felt hope listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and despair during the race riots that wracked the city after his assassination.
They had their personal ups and downs. “We would fight together and our children would, too — and then we’d have a good time,” Barnes said. “We were friends, friends, friends.”
As they settled into middle age, they saw family members join the struggle for equality: Barnes’s husband and 11 other black men fought successfully to be allowed to do a higher class of work at the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving. “My husband was the first black plate printer — Turner Barnes — back in 19-whatever.”
She worked at the bureau, too, until a better-paying job came up at the National Security Agency. To this day, she won’t reveal what she did there. “That’s security,” she said, pursing her lips.
Butler worked for 39 years as a housekeeper at the Metropolitan Club. Hammett was a department store stock clerk and later a supervisory key punch operator at the Office of Personnel Management. Underwood shucked oysters at a restaurant, and worked as a cosmetologist, a milliner and a money counter at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.
Elaine Saunders, who at 80 belongs to a younger generation, remembers the figures the four cut. “Miss Bernice was always Miss Fashionista; she had her hat and gloves. Miss Leona, she always had her hat tilted to the side.”
Hammett’s son, Vernon, 60, knew he couldn’t misbehave in sight of his mother’s friends. “Every last one was a mother to me, and I respected that, and if I didn’t act right, I would hear about it.”
In Southwest Washington, people tended to live out their days in the neighborhood, and the women never imagined that their friendship would outlast its stoops and storefronts. But in the 1950s, the area was marked for urban renewal and razed, decimating the community.
Nearly everything was demolished, including Zion Baptist, whose building on F Street SW was replaced by a segment of the 395 freeway. Barnes’s church, Mount Moriah Baptist, also had to move. Their congregations scattered. Neighbors lost touch, and many found it impossible to re-create the old sense of closeness.
But from new homes in Northeast and Northwest Washington, the four women’s friendship persisted. They saw each other become grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and “great-greats.” They can still send each other into hysterics. And they share memories of places and people no one else remembers.
Such as Hammett’s father, who was a deacon of Zion Baptist; a chapel there is named after him.
“He was a dapper dresser,” said Barnes, chuckling as she recalled his white spats. “He was clean. No flies on him, nowhere.”
The years have not always been easy. All four women lost their husbands; some also lost children, including Barnes, whose son George, her only child, died last year of cancer in his early 80s.
But they have each other. Underwood calls Barnes every afternoon at 4 o’clock, to check in. “She gets tired of me calling,” Underwood said. Barnes held her tongue, and Underwood grinned. “She didn’t say no, either.”
Three of the four live on their own and still do their own housekeeping. Hammett volunteered at church and at a Veterans Affairs hospital until a few years ago and now lives with family. Underwood gets on her stationary bike every day and loves to dance. Without hesitation, she bent forward, straight-legged, and touched the floor. “I’m old,” she quipped, “but I’m not cold.”
“They say, ‘You okay by yourself?’ and I say ‘I feel good by myself,’ ” she said. “I sing to myself and I talk to myself. As long as I don’t answer myself!”
By age 92, the women thought they had seen it all. But then something happened that they would never have predicted.
“That a black man became president of the United States,” Barnes said softly. It was, she said, the best thing that ever happened to her. “I never thought in my wildest dreams that that would ever happen. That’s how far down we were.”
Butler shook her head. “I just wish that some of my parents and my sisters and my relatives could have been here to witness it.”
“The Lord carry me home, I carry that with me,” said Underwood.
At the same time, they’ve been around long enough to know that the path to justice can be uneven. Asked about the current presidential campaign, they shook their heads.
“I look at the paper and we might be going back to the same old days,” Barnes said.
“Please,” Butler said.
On the other hand, the idea that a woman could win pleases them.
“We never had one before, and I think that she would try to do more than anyone else had, because she’s a woman,” Butler said.
“We won’t be here long enough to see,” Barnes said.
But maybe they will.