"We went to the library on the streetcar. On the streetcar we heard the World Series baseball game. Some of the children were talking and laughing. Some children looked out of the windows. When we got off we walked up the steps and went through a big door. We read and looked at many books. The librarian read us a story. It was very funny and we all enjoyed it."
— Bernard Lewis, 4A Grade, on the visit
of his Stevens Elementary School class
to the Georgetown library in 1949.
Bernard's was the lead story published in the "Tuberculosis-Christmas Edition" of our school newspaper, the Stevens Star. Stevens was located at 21st and L streets NW. That December 1949 edition, 68 years ago, was my first venture into the newspaper business.
A year later, my father led my sister, Lucretia, 12; brother, Cranston, 9; and me, 11, from our home at 24th and L streets NW to the corner of 22nd and K streets NW. He pointed us eastward, and said: "To reach the Central Library on Seventh Street, just follow your nose."
After about a 15-block walk, we arrived at the city's then-main library at Mount Vernon Square, presented newly acquired library cards and had the time of our lives. We returned home with borrowed books under our arms. It was a trek we repeated for weeks on end.
The Central Library, dedicated in 1903, was the District's first desegregated public building. But it was more than a place with tons of books: The Central Library was a treasured passport to worlds beyond our West End/Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
I take you back to yesteryear because two weeks ago, I found myself standing in the new and luxurious West End Library, which is sited on the grounds of my former family home, in a D.C. neighborhood that will always remain my first love.
As with so much that did not exist 70 years ago, the new West End branch is filled with collections beyond our childhood imaginations: What would we have made of public-access computers, e-books, laptops, cellphones, workstations and rental movies?
The sweep of time, the man-made changes over seven decades, are breathtaking and humbling: the former because of the genius that produced that storied progress, the latter because of the paucity of my contribution.
But it is the contrast between Christmas 1949 and Christmas 2017 that really hits home.
Gone are the days of segregation in D.C. schools, restaurants, theaters and department stores. Gone is the scourge of tuberculosis, and the tuberculosis Christmas seals that we sold for a penny apiece to help victims of that dreaded disease.
Also mercifully gone are the White House-appointed D.C. government commissioners. The West End Library ribbon-cutting was performed by an elected mayor, Muriel E. Bowser (D), and an elected senior council member, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), joined by elected advisory neighborhood commissioners from Dupont Circle to Foggy Bottom.
Yet some things never seem to change.
Christmas 1949 was a brief respite between wars. Even then, our young minds wrestled with bloody conflicts overseas. World War II, for us, was not an abstract tale in a comic book. We were alive when it ended. We saw the homecomings. We relived the war in movie theaters and newsreels that were making the rounds.
And in 1949, our thoughts were short lived: Six months after Christmas, the United States was once again at war, this time in a place called Korea.
Korea: a word I first heard at the dinner table where the West End Library now sits. Korea: a far-off place where one of my best friends' father, Army soldier Ashley Corley, was being deployed, and where young men from the neighborhood were being sent.
An unknown world, at least for grade school kids, where the United States ended up with 33,652 battle deaths and war-zone deaths from illness and accidents that brought the Korean death toll to 36,914.
And here we are nearly 70 years later: It's Korea once again.
Regrettably, our grandchildren and their generation are celebrating the holidays knowing that somehow and in some way, Korea may figure into their young lives, just as it did in ours.
Our generation was led by a war-hardened president, Harry S. Truman, who fought in World War I, approved the controversial dropping of atomic bombs in Japan to end World War II, and led the country to war to preserve South Korea after an invasion by North Korea. Truman also desegregated the armed forces, proposed domestic economic recovery programs and instituted the Marshall Plan to reconstruct war-torn Europe and fend off communism.
Today in early 21st-century America, the country of my youth is in other unimaginable hands. The West End Library with its floor-to-ceiling windows and 40,000 books is still close to a scene from my childhood.
Twelve presidents later, there is one in the White House with delusional fantasies and grandiose obsessions like nothing seen before. What will the repositories in future libraries tell about us?
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