When all those new condos go in, when the dog parks fill up and the nitro cold-brew coffees are served, as Chocolate City becomes Latte Land, where will all the history go?
Will anyone learn about the Logan Circle mansion that is still home to Smith, the District’s 102-year-old prima ballerina who founded a ballet school for African American dancers when the city was segregated? Or the guy who’s been on the same front porch for nearly 90 years, who never had kids of his own but helped raise generations of Washingtonians? Or that charming, clay-smeared potter whose vases you see in local galleries? Who will be around to tell folks that he was one of the few African American rocket scientists working at NASA when he helped design complex trajectory systems? And that he then went back to school to become a lawyer and worked on the landmark Pullman Porter case, when his uncle was one of the porters at the center of the case?
At that lovely garden party under strings of white lights last week, Smith and some fellow Washingtonians gathered to talk about ways to preserve those stories, a project of the Humanities Council of Washington.
It’s one of the unspoken prices of rapid gentrification, the dilution of culture.
Because when the District was Chocolate City, it wasn’t just about a catchy name or a popular place to be. The nation’s capital, back in 1830, was the first place where free African Americans outnumbered enslaved African Americans. It was a place of opportunity, possibilities, historical firsts.
The story of the District’s importance to black America can get lost in the history of official Washington: presidents, lawmakers, wars and assassinations. It’s the natural course of aging populations and the light-speed change in D.C. demographics.
So the Humanities Council kicked off an award in the name of Patsy Fletcher, a scholar who made it her life’s work to champion the District’s black heritage until her death this year.
“HumanitiesDC is aware of the ever-changing landscape of Washington, D.C., and the need to celebrate our cultural heroes,” said Joy Austin, the organization’s executive director. “We are thrilled to have such a diverse group of awardees who represent the rich tapestry of the city we call home.”
So that night, after a jazz band, wine and cheese, Washingtonians gathered to tell the stories of three important people.
Smith, a D.C. fixture who still hangs her handmade, seasonally appropriate decorations (fabric apples for back-to-school, pumpkins at Halloween) in the windows of her Logan Circle mansion, was the most senior of the honorees. And the most nimble, with a little ballet move on her way to and from the podium.
Smith opened her own school because, after studying in Paris, she returned to a country where segregation would keep her from getting hired at any of the major dance companies. And she remembers when Logan Circle used to be called Iowa Circle, and when families dressed up their children to go play in that park. She still teaches dance. That’s 75 years as an instructor.
I met her when she performed for her 95th birthday. For her next big one — 105 — she wants to take over the National Building Museum. We’ll be there, of course.
The council also honored Willie L. Leftwich, 82, that NASA engineer and D.C. lawyer who is now a potter. He left his remarkable law career in 1996 to fight cancer and took up pottery as therapy helping him recover from chemo.
Quickly, his pottery became gallery-worthy. Then, in 2008, he suffered a stroke and lost the ability to walk and talk. But he persevered to heal through his work at the wheel. And he created a foundation, Willie’s Way, to help stroke patients and their families recover.
Stanley Ross, 89, is known as Uncle Stanley in Trinidad, the Northeast Washington neighborhood where he has lived his whole life. His story isn’t about diplomas or degrees. Rather, he was the one who witnessed decades of change, all while being there to help house and raise the neighbors around him.
These are the stories that have to be told and retold, honored and cherished. No matter who comes to the new District, they’re here because of the work these early Washingtonians did to make the city great.