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  Reflections on Chocolate City

Three mayors and an inauguration.
1991: Three mayors and an inauguration. (James A. Parcell/TWP)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998

There were about 50 people spilling out of my family room into the kitchen that recent Sunday afternoon, all sharing a connection with the school my 14-year-old son attends – teachers, students, parents of students, younger siblings. It is an "independent" school, meaning a private school, with all the tough academic and financial requirements that status implies. The students, mostly teenagers, were on their best behavior. The parents were just what you would expect, worldly and educated professionals who had arrived in a fleet of Volvos, Lexuses and Ford Expeditions that clogged the tight streets of my Arlington neighborhood.

We chatted, mingled, nibbled hors d'oeuvres; a few of us stole glances at the NFL game that the boys had quietly switched on in the corner. People talked about work and politics and housing prices. It was like any gathering of Washington's upwardly mobile caste, families with incomes below the stratosphere but certainly well above the inflated regional median, comfortable people living what most Americans would call the very, very good life.

Black United Front
(By Ellsworth Davis)

In the tumult of 1968, and in the sheer scale of the civil rights movement, it was easy to lose the details of events and the faces in the crowds. This scene was typical: five men — Chuck Stone, Clifton McCleary, Maj. Lavell Merritt, Ed Murphy and Robert Rippy — representing the Black United Front that December at a news conference at Ed Murphy's Supper Club. Black Washingtonians were seething over the fatal police shooting of an 18-year-old; Rep. Joel T. Broyhill (R-Va.), a member of the House District of Columbia Committee, was denouncing the city government; the front, which included every major civil rights player in the city, called for Broyhill's arrest. That proposal went nowhere. The front fought on into the '70s before it dissolved. But when we saw this picture in a dusty folder in The Post's library, we wondered whether the life stories of these men would offer a fuller view of what has changed since then, and started tracking those stories.
Then the Rev. Weldon Thomas, in his flowing West African robe, called us to order. Standing beside a makeshift altar laden with a display of fruit and other offerings, he began to tell us about umoja – unity – and the six other concepts that are celebrated in observance of Kwanzaa. This was a black thing: Everyone there was African American.

That is not a bad place to begin assessing black Washington in 1998, a suburban home full of people giving thanks for the fact that life is pretty good.

There are other possible departure points, all of them valid. The H Street NE corridor, for example, once a thriving business strip, now a graveyard of urban renewal schemes. Or Shaw, once a bustling mixed-income neighborhood, now a down-at-the-heels district whose residents live in a different world from the young and the hip who descend on U Street at night to party. Or East Capitol Dwellings, once clean and modern shelter for the striving poor, now the city's largest and arguably worst housing project, where welfare drives the local economy and welfare reform seems like a particularly cruel joke. Or Dunbar High School, once an elite institution with impeccable standards and blazing achievement, now just another forlorn outpost of a school system that ranks among the least successful in the nation. Or the District Building, once the Beaux Arts symbol of a young municipal government on the rise, now a decrepit hulk with a new name (after John A. Wilson, one of home rule's founding fathers, who committed suicide) and no discernible hint of a mission.

Those are bleak, depressing scenes, and they make me wince as I drive past. But to then generalize from them, and to conclude that black Washington is in unmitigated crisis, is just wrong. The truth is much more nuanced, and on balance much more encouraging. That scene in my family room, for example: Thirty years ago, it just wouldn't have happened.

Thirty years – an apt interval, in Washington and many other big cities, to consider the African American experience. It is perhaps useful to remember that we were "colored" back then, or "Negroes," and that our most basic everyday rights – to shop, for example, or eat or go bowling or play golf wherever we wanted in the nation's capital without being insulted or shunned – were still achingly new.

What happened was that for the first time, beginning in the wake of the riots that burned out so much of the city's heart, a significant segment of black Washington became mobile in every sense of the word.

In February of 1968, a year when America saw so much upheaval that nobody even remembers the half of it, there were very few "black" people in Washington; the usage, which once would have been an insult, hadn't yet become standard. Of those who embraced the term, most were known as "black militants" because they espoused views that now seem remarkably tame – that a majority-black city, for example, perhaps should be allowed to elect a black mayor. Anyone encountering the term "African American" would have assumed it referred to recent immigrants from Ghana. Black consciousness was sweeping the college campuses, including Howard University, but it was just too radical a concept, involving too much unruly hair, for most of the students' parents to accept. We didn't yet have the language for what was about to happen.

But everyone caught the whiff of anger in the wintry air. Watts had already blown, Newark had already blown. On some level, everyone knew the possible consequences of one white-hot spark.

I wasn't in Washington in February 1968; I was a high school student in Orangeburg, S.C., the small college town where I grew up. In Orangeburg, the requisite white-hot spark came that very month.

Students at South Carolina State and Claflin, two historically black colleges that sit side by side just a few hundred yards from my house, tried to integrate a scummy little whites-only bowling alley downtown, the All-Star Lanes. They were turned away; the incident evolved into a larger protest; nightly rallies grew larger and larger. I remember coming downstairs to leave for school one morning and seeing a row of highway patrol cars across the street, troopers crouched behind open doors, rifles shouldered and aimed at a house three doors away from mine; they were looking for an organizer from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an "outside agitator" who they were convinced had stirred up the whole thing. (He was long gone; and for the record, he came from a town not 20 miles away.)

At the final rally, something happened – the police claimed students fired first, but there is no evidence of this. In any event, the police and troopers began shooting into the crowd. By the end of the evening three students lay dead.

Just two months later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by a sniper's bullet, and America's cities, including Washington, caught fire. Decades of bitterness and frustration and dreams deferred kindled walls of flame that swept through the streets. An indelible line was drawn in this city's modern history, a line separating Before from After: Nothing could ever be quite the same again.

Now, with inner-city Washington in such dire straits, it is tempting to look back 30 years to February 1968 with nostalgic eyes and see a golden age that never was.

We remember a Washington where black people had almost reached 70 percent of the population, giving the nation's capital a larger black majority than in virtually any other city in the country. We remember taking pride in a growing and sophisticated black middle class in a town that people would soon be proudly calling "Chocolate City." We remember Howard in its heyday, a black intellectual mecca that was not yet having so many bright minds stolen away by the likes of Harvard and MIT. We remember the community's pride at seeing black people moving into the imposing houses between upper 16th Street and Rock Creek Park, an area that had become known as the Gold Coast. We remember places like Shaw and Petworth as economically integrated neighborhoods with stable families, a healthy income mix – laborers and cabdrivers, but also doctors and lawyers – and no shortage of role models for young people to emulate. We remember the schools as uniformly excellent and the streets as perfectly safe.

And, of course, none of that is quite true.

By February 1968, Washington's housing patterns were becoming more segregated rather than less, with whites to the west of Rock Creek Park and blacks to the east. The city's employment base was shrinking. Washington was being run by congressional committees dominated by white conservatives whose antipathy toward this uppity black city was manifest. There was already widespread concern that the schools were in decline, even citadels like Dunbar.

"Equally disturbing," writes Constance McLaughlin Green in The Secret City, her history of race relations in Washington, "was the continued existence, in fact the growth, of what civic-minded people came to call 'the other Washington' – the city of slums and broken homes, of unemployed fathers, of wretched living conditions, and of drab streets where vice, disease, and hopelessness were ever-present . . . The black ghettoes were as much part of Washington as were the stretches of greensward and the gleaming white marble facades of public buildings."

Those two paragraphs, of course, could be written today. But to conclude that essentially nothing has changed would be to venture even farther from the truth.

What happened was that for the first time, beginning in the wake of the riots that burned out so much of the city's heart, a significant segment of black Washington became mobile in every sense of the word – physically, economically, socially, politically. Looking back, with exquisite hindsight, it is as simple as could be: If you moved, you swam; if you stayed put, you sank.

Black people moved up in the ranks of the city's largest employer, the federal government, ascending to the rarefied GS levels that once were for whites only. They moved in their political thinking, becoming less concerned with empowerment and democratic ideals – the rhetoric of home rule's founders – and more concerned with declining city services. They moved into the city's political and cultural mainstream, coming to dominate and define it in a way that once seemed impossible; affluent white Washingtonians still have their Georgetown dinner parties, but the streets all around them are full of young black men and women, window-shopping and club-hopping in baggy jeans and bright windbreakers, a crowd far more emblematic of the city's style.

Finally and most importantly, black Washingtonians moved in the physical sense. Many thousands who wanted safer streets or better schools simply packed up and left the city; most settled in Prince George's County, transforming one of the area's poorer, whiter, more rural suburbs into a stunning concentration of black middle-class affluence.

I moved here 18 years ago, and already it was impossible to speak of Washington as just one city. The events of 1968 had made that fact both clear and irreversible. Today, Washington is at least four cities: one white and well-off, one black and well-off, one made up of struggling recent immigrants, and one black and poor. That fourth city, 30 years on, is still sinking in shocking decline that will take more than good intentions and a new basketball arena to halt.

Eugene Robinson is The Post's foreign editor.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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