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A club of their own: The story of a secret poker society started by pioneering African Americans

The Brookland Literary and Hunting Club began in the 1940s as a group for black professional men who wanted to play poker. Here are some of their stories. (Video: Eve Austin and Kenneth Campbell)

In 1942, a group of university professors, doctors, lawyers and other black professionals in Washington wanted to get together on weekends and play poker. But they had a problem. Not only did segregation in the District bar them from joining country clubs or other social organizations where men could gather, but the president of Howard University, where many of them taught, was a religious man who did not approve of card-playing.

So they started a monthly gathering in their homes and came up with a name to mask its true nature — the Brookland Literary and Hunting Club. Still going after more than 75 years, it is the subject of a project funded by the D.C. Oral History Collaborative, which trains people to record pieces of the city’s history, that will be archived in a special collection at the D.C. Public Library.

The project’s creator, Eve Austin, first heard about the club when her husband, Doug, joined it last year. Now 54, he was a couple of generations younger than most members, many of whom are in their 90s. That lent an urgency to Austin’s undertaking.

“From the minute he told me about it, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re still playing?’ ” she said. “They started in 1940-something and they’re still playing?”

They were. Early members included Matthew Whitehead, former president of Miner Teachers College in the District and also a consultant on Brown v. Board of Education; William B. Bryant, the first black chief judge of Washington’s federal court; and H. Minton Francis Sr., a high-ranking Howard administrator and one of a small number of African American graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at the time.

“These were serious men, but they had very few options for relaxing and getting together and just recreating,” Austin said.

None of the current members were part of the original group, but as pioneering African Americans, they mirrored those men’s legacy.

Walter Robinson, 97, was a Tuskegee Airman. Tom Taylor, 91, was executive director of the National Capital Child Daycare Association. They came of age when black people were not allowed to try on or return clothes at a downtown department store, and they witnessed the District’s transformations through the civil rights movement, desegregation, riots and gentrification.

Now, they were seeing the end of another era: that of the club itself. Some of the men were getting too old to gather. A couple of them were moving to Florida. One, a loquacious life of the party, had had a stroke and didn’t talk much now.

Time being of the essence, Austin, a social worker turned oral historian, quickly set up video and audio interviews with as many members as she could (one died before she could interview him). On Sept. 1, she gathered with several in the basement of the Takoma Park Neighborhood Library in the District to watch the footage and ruminate about the club’s past and future.

Waiting for the videos to start, Taylor, who joined the club 33 years ago, explained its name. “It was literary because of discussions we’d have — of the civil rights and so on. And it was hunting because we played the cards, and you’re always hunting” for a good hand.

There were two tables — the big table, where hundreds of dollars exchanged hands over five-card stud, and the little table, whose participants played for coins or dollar bills and peppered the games with wild cards. Men would start at the little table and sometimes move up to the big one. As they got older and went on fixed incomes, some would move back to the little table.

Five current members and several family members joined Austin and her videographer, Kenneth Campbell, to watch the footage.

Austin dimmed the lights and the men’s faces bloomed on a screen. They talked about childhoods in the 1920s and ’30s. They talked about careers, families and politics. And they talked about poker.

“We’ve had great games and there’s never anybody who ran out of money, because somebody says: ‘Here, take some more. Just take it. Give it to me when you can,’ ” said the on-screen Jim Butts, 84, who was also in attendance. “It became an organization of people who were not only interested in an outlet for discussion of the issues, but also one of concern about each other.”

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Jock Banks, 65, began coming in as a guest in the 1970s when his father or uncle, both members of the club, hosted. After his father died in 2007, he was invited to take his place. It felt good, he said, “like sitting in Dad’s comfort chair.”

In Austin’s video, he spoke of his membership as a treasured legacy. “You get a lot of things from your parents, but when you get a social organization as part of your inheritance it means something. And I like these guys. I like the gathering. I like the literary part. The older people had a nice tradition going. … It helps me sort of, you know, understand my dad, where he assembled his values and who he looked to in terms of role models.”

As part of the D.C. Public Library’s special collection, the footage will be available for future researchers, family members and others to view and use, said Maggie Lemere, consulting oral historian and director of community engagement for the collaborative. The collaborative, a partnership project between the Humanities Council of Washington, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Public Library, has funded 18 oral history projects in the past two years and holds classes for others who want to learn to do them. “We want to capture the memories of people while they’re still here to tell their stories,” Lemere said.

Archival material collected by Austin includes copies of formal letters about club business, typed on a typewriter. From 1985: “Dear Tom, At the February meeting of the Brookland Literary and Hunting Club you were voted into membership in this fellowship.” A “Schedule of Events” from 1995 included a Literary Period and a period of Gastronomic Diversion before the Hunt began.

For the gastronomy, wives, or sometimes mothers, would cook (many wives were also poker players who played alongside their husbands in other, mixed-sex gatherings). Club members also helped their colleagues outside the game, sending get-well cards to each other’s spouses, visiting each other in the hospital, contributing to endowments after they died.

The meeting earlier this month had a bittersweet edge. Members acknowledged that in all likelihood, the club was finally fading out.

“When you begin to hit 90, you begin to slow down,” Taylor said. “The enthusiasm is there, but the energy’s not there.”

“I think we should keep it up,” said Robert Vest, 99. Then he added, “I don’t know whether I can or not.”

The problem wasn’t just the aging of the group. Earlier cohorts had aged out and been replaced, but these days it was harder to recruit the middle-aged men who traditionally filled in the gaps.

“I think the appreciation for getting together is not there anymore,” said Doug Austin. “The younger generation, they play poker online or in the casino.”

Banks admitted he had taken his poker table to the dump. “It was all ripped up.” (He kept his chips, though.)

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Taylor nodded. “Society does change, and we have to change with the times,” he said. “The weekend now is busier than it ever was. There’s so many things that you can do on the weekend. … So I don’t know. Should we take a break?”

Butts suggested that maybe the group could meet less often, like every other month, or quarterly. “Just to keep the genesis of the group together, because we all enjoy the interaction.”

That interaction could be part of what has kept them going for so long. Studies show the importance of social networks for maintaining good health in old age, and the club has been a reliable touchstone for its members, Austin said.

“It was about getting together to play cards, but it was really about the friendship and the relationships,” she said.

Austin, who is considering turning the footage into a short film, added that she has learned a lot from the men — including how to gracefully accept the end of an era.

“They all have this kind of really healthy, mature attitude about change and loss,” she said. Perhaps, she said, “when you get to a certain age you’re dealing with so much of it, you get better at it.”

Even the group’s younger members were philosophical about the end of what they jokingly call “old man poker.”

“I feel really privileged to have been able to participate, you know, as a young man and now as an older man, and I do have regrets that it seems to be passing into the night,” Banks said in the video. “But if that’s its fate, I mean, there will be other poker games for me to play. … Don’t cry for me. I’ll be fine.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Eve Austin as using the word “God” in exclamation.