The men had gathered at a hotel in downtown Washington on Saturday night to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their social club, called What Good Are We. It turns out they were pretty good.
They were doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and even a few 30-something millionaire businessmen.
They were educated and civic-minded. And they were all African American.
Dapperly dressed and sipping drinks with invited guests, they struck a pose that contrasted sharply with the images of the black men more commonly shown: Black man committing crimes. Black man as victim. Black man as troublesome figure.
I asked some members of the Whats, as the club is also known, what made them different, what kept them on the path to success. Most of them fondly recalled their parents.
“I remember my dad taking me to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery and how impressed I was by the honor guards,” said John R. Hawkins III, 66, who grew up in Southeast Washington.
His father was a D.C. National Guard member, a Boy Scout troop leader and a Sunday school teacher. Hawkins is a retired Army major general, lawyer and chief executive of a consulting company.
“He had a great influence on me,” Hawkins said.
The Whats club was founded in 1915 by a group of students at Howard University. They were seeking respite from a demanding workload imposed by a new cadre of brilliant black educators, such as mathematician Kelly Miller and historian Alain Locke.
The next year, the club organized its first chaperoned house party. Entertainment was provided by a young pianist who lived near campus. He was the soon-to-be-world-famous Edward “Duke” Ellington, son of James and Daisy Ellington, who were also talented musicians.
We sometimes forget that at the turn of the 20th century, another period of intense racial strife throughout the nation, the District was already in the business of producing outstanding black men.
Robert R. Rigsby, a club member and D.C. Superior Court judge, recalled that as a youngster he had received a lot of help from mentors. “One of them told me, ‘It’s cool to be an athlete, but it’s also cool to get an education,’ ” he said. “A group of mentors helped raise money to send me to college and on to law school.”
As a way of giving back, Rigsby, 55, started a “law camp” that helps prepare youths for college and later law school, and he mentors many of them. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and now it’s my turn to let others stand on mine,” he said.
Hawkins is also a mentor. He spent hours last week persuading a D.C. judge and prosecutors to put one of his “mentees” on probation instead of sending him to prison. Hawkins had helped the young man get into an out-of-state job-training program, but he blew it, got kicked out for misbehavior, returned to the District and ended up getting arrested for theft.
After securing his release, Hawkins enrolled him in a school that specializes in teaching job-readiness skills to students with learning difficulties.
“That’s what we’ve got to do for these young people, to whatever extent we can, get personally involved,” Hawkins said. “For those who don’t have the benefit of strong family support, it’s incumbent on those of us who did have the advantages to reach back and pull them along.”
The purpose of the Whats is not to mentor; it is a social club whose primary focus is being social. For the group’s 75th anniversary, they traveled to Europe.
But mentoring happens when you gather a group of successful black men who know that many of them got to where they are because of support from others.
Heading home from the gala, I passed the city’s largest homeless shelter, at Second and D streets NW, and saw a row of young black men huddled outside. Some had bulging plastic garbage bags slung over their shoulders. As the nights grow colder, their ranks are sure to grow. Would there ever be enough tutors and mentors to get them back on their feet?
Better to start before it comes to that.
As Reid C. Rector, the club’s 93-year-old president, put it: “My parents knew I was going to college before I was born.”
That’s a message more people need to hear.