My Washington Mission

February 6, 2015

Martin L

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, DC Public Library’s main branch, Washington, DC, November 2013 (never looked this nice in 1995). (http://popville.com).

Twenty years ago this week I began the official phase of my doctoral thesis research. But it was much more than reading monographs and finding old papers at the Library of Congress and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. It was also a long trip, where I would spend the next two months living in Washington, DC, to do my research on multiculturalism and multicultural education, and to find evidence of both in Black Washington, DC and in the segregated DC Public Schools. It was also the first time I’d lived away from Pittsburgh or the New York City area, meaning that I had a new city to get to know.

The trip truly involved my past, present and future, all at once. I spent my first five days visiting with my friend Laurell and her family in Arlington while looking for some temporary housing of my own. I’d eventually run into two Pitt friends and two Carnegie Mellon friends while in DC, and develop at least one new friendship between February 2 and March 24. I talked with my favorite teach in Harold Meltzer during that trip, learning more than I ever wanted to know about some of my classmates and Mount Vernon High School in the process.

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (http://maps.google.com).

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (http://maps.google.com).

Mostly though, I split my Washington mission into three phases. Phase one was to find a cheap place to stay. After a day of dealing with Howard University professors-turned-slum-lords in LeDroit Park, I went through the Washington Post to find a series of rented rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Finally, I found a place in Shepherd Park, two blocks south of the DC-Silver Spring, Maryland border. It was a three-story house in a decent neighborhood on 12th Street, NW, with Blair Park, the Silver Spring Metro, and a corner KFC within walking distance. The landlord seemed decent enough, and my basement room came to $95/week with a $100 deposit. Those were the days, before gentrification and the housing boom sent the cost of shelter through the roof!

Phase two of my trip began Wednesday, February 8. I organized my schedule based on going to a number of archives and collecting materials first. I started with the Moorland-Spingarn Collection, which had been picked pretty clean by Henry Louis Gates (via buying collections) and by other, less reputable researchers (many who stole materials). I got to meet and talk with the archivist Esme Bhan about my research, which was wonderful. Still, I wondered how much longer Moorland-Spingarn could stay a reputable venue for scholarly research, with its lack of funding and lack of security from vultures emptying records.

The following week I split between the Columbiana Division at DC Public Library’s main branch, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library between Chinatown and downtown, and the DC Public School Archives on 17th and M. The DCPL portion of my work was an experiment in filtering out the smells and the sights of the homeless and mentally disabled. Not to mention the ability to not use the bathrooms in the building for eight hours at a time. The men’s stalls didn’t have doors, by the way. I spent only three days there, and rushed through gathering background on interviews of Black Washingtonians that the library had conducted back in the early 1980s. It didn’t help I had to deal with a peeping Tom at the old Hecht’s department store, where the bathrooms were much nicer.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (http://dc.about.com).

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (http://dc.about.com).

I found a gold mine of materials on formal and unofficial education policies regarding DC Public Schools during the Jim Crow period — especially between 1920 and 1950 — at the DCPS archives. But because they didn’t have a working copier, the archivist there allowed me to take original records going back seven decades to the Sir Speedy on M Street to make my own copies. This was in contrast to my three days Presidents’ Day week at the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, where security was tighter in ’95 than at most airports in 2015.

The Library of Congress part of my data gathering was intriguing. If only because their rubber chicken lunches were expensive ($7), and because I found more material on W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell there than I did at Moorland-Spingarn. Finally, I ended phase two with the Columbia Historical Society in Dupont Circle and a two-day expedition of finding nothing at the National Archives in DC and in Greenbelt, Maryland.

I spent most of March figuring out what to do with two big boxes’ worth of new materials and writing what would be parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of my dissertation. In between, I did find time to hang out. With my new friend Marya, who was from DC, but was working on her history doctorate from the University of Michigan. In addition to being plied with vegan options for my delicate gastrointestinal tract and talking about our research, we did joke a bit about the idea of my Joe Trotter and her Earl Lewis actually being friends in any real sense of the word. There was also time to go out to dinner with Laurell, take in a couple of bad movies with my Carnegie Mellon friend Tracie (like Losing Isaiah), and even have a quick lunch with Trotter during his own quick visit to DC.

Terrell Owens hauls in 'The Catch II' from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

Terrell Owens hauls in ‘The Catch II’ from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

After seven weeks of living in DC, I took the train up to New York to go visit my family in Mount Vernon for a few days. What was great about those two months was how peaceful everything was. I was three weeks away from becoming a Spencer Fellow and somehow earning the ire of my doctoral advisor. My family was a month away from becoming homeless for the next two and a half years. My borrowing to cover the costs of this first major research trip, I’m probably still paying interest on today. But without this trip, I wouldn’t have begun the process of questioning the direction of my career and life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to finish my doctorate. Being single-minded about a mission isn’t bad or good. It just means ignoring small stuff, some of which can occasionally turn into a festering cesspool.


My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included

March 10, 2012

Ballston high-rise (on right), Arlington, VA, where I stayed with "V" and her roommate during first DC area visit, June 26, 2008. (http://therealestatedirt.com).

I’ve lived in the DC area now for nearly thirteen years, but it was this time two decades ago that I came to the DC area for the first time. This was my first vacation ever as an adult, and the first time I’d gone on a vacation of any kind since my mother took me and my older brother Darren on a day trip to Amish country in Pennsylvania at the end of third grade, in June ’78. The visit had as many layers to it as a Vidalia onion, as it involved my past, present and future, and all at once.

At the center of my visit was spending time with my Humanities classmate and friend “V,” the valedictorian of Mount Vernon High School’s Class of ’87. I crashed at her and her roommate’s place in the Ballston section of Arlington, Virginia for a week during my spring break in March ’92. As I said in a previous post (see my “A Friendship Changing Lanes” post from October ’11), I’m not sure how our acquaintanceship ever became a friendship. Somewhere between having circumstances in which our fathers weren’t around consistently, or at least being able to relate to Billy Joel, or both of us scoring “5”s on the AP US History exam.

Healey Hall (front gate perspective), Georgetown University, Washington, DC, September 19, 2010. (Daderot via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The fact that we went our respective ways, to Pitt and Johns Hopkins, helped. The fact that we wrote each other about some of our social triumphs and challenges helped more. Most importantly, it helped a lot that we both were more honest about our family troubles. Everything from my mother’s need to divorce my idiot ex-stepfather and the issues with my younger siblings to V’s mother’s health issues and her struggling with burnout trying to watch over her family while going to school. So, by the time I began my second semester of grad school, we’d become fairly close.

I hadn’t seen V since the day before New Years Eve ’88, the last Friday of that year. I hadn’t planned to visit V at the start of the year, but by the middle of February, I needed a break from Pitt and graduate school (see my “Paula Baker and The 4.0 Aftermath” post from January ’12). As I knew that I was two months away from finishing my master’s, I had begun to check out some alternatives to doing my history PhD at Pitt.

Key Bridge, connecting Georgetown area with Rosslyn section of Arlington, VA, at sunset (picture taken from west), September 18, 2008. (Jersey JJ via Flickr.com). In public domain.

Through Dr. Transatlantic Studies himself, Marcus Rediker — he was a Georgetown University history professor who somehow had been given an empty office in Pitt’s history department — I made arrangements to do some informational interviews at Georgetown during my early March spring break.

As soon as I told V of my opportunity to check out Georgetown, she offered me a place to stay for the week. I made arrangements through a couple of friends driving to Virginia to have them drop me at V’s that first Saturday in March.

The trip was a whole series of firsts and seconds for me. I rode Metrorail for the first time, went to Capitol Hill for the first time, and visited Howard University for the first time. I also spent one full day hanging out with V at Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where she was a first-year math teacher. Other than a couple of rowdy students, V was a very good teacher, and not just for a rookie.

My meeting at Georgetown went pretty well also. I managed to get a sweatshirt out of the deal, one that I still wear to this day. Aside from that, finding out from a then second-year grad student (and now and associate professor in African American history at Georgetown) that his annual stipend was only $7,500 a year in expensive DC made my decision for me. I decided that despite the name recognition, Georgetown wouldn’t be where I’d earn a PhD.

I also visited with V’s sister and mother toward the end of that week. V’s sister was in the process of transferring to Goucher, a far cry from the rising high school freshman I’d last seen a week before my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. V’s mother seemed happier in Virginia than in New York, but medically speaking, she had gotten worse since ’87. Her speech was slower and more slurred, and her upper body motions were even more limited than I last remembered. It was a reminder that as much as things had gone well for V over the years, she also faced the intense pressure of trying to care for a slowing dying mother and her sister, and all at twenty-two years old.

What I came away with from that week as my friends picked me up the following Saturday afternoon were two things. One, that I really liked being in an area with great diversity, with Whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians from all walks of life, but without the rude chaos and energy that was and remains New York. Two, that V and I had truly become friends, as adults in our twenties, mostly unattached from how we saw each other when we were in Humanities and high school.


A Friendship Changing Lanes

October 3, 2011

Changing Lanes (Movie, 2002) Screen Shot, March 2008. (Source/http://swedenborgiancommunity.org).

Part of the problem of being me is the fact that my close friends change as I change. Meaning that there have been transitional periods throughout my life that my old friends fall away. Oftentimes I make new ones, and sometimes, like during my six years in Humanities, my best friend was my imagination. Ironically, the best friendship I had from my Humanities days came with a classmate that I hadn’t become close to until my last couple of years at Mount Vernon High School. More ironically, that friendship didn’t truly become such until we both went away for college in ’87.

I’ve written about her before, the valedictorian of my class, whom I called “V” in a previous post (see Valedictorian Blues from July ’09). To be honest, I’m not sure how our acquaintanceship ever became a friendship. Somewhere between having circumstances in which our fathers weren’t around consistently, or at least being able to relate to Billy Joel, or both of us scoring “5”s on the AP US History exam.

But really, it might’ve just come down to both of us not belonging, or facing a small degree of ostracism from our Humanities and MVHS classmates overall. I wasn’t Black and cool enough, and V, well, she was a classic White nerd, a grinder who had the gall to finish ahead of our Black male salutatorian, at least from the perspective of some authority figures and the school’s popular crowd.

The fact that we went our respective ways, to Pitt and Johns Hopkins, helped. The fact that we wrote each other about some of our social triumphs and challenges helped more. Most importantly, it helped a lot that we both were more honest about our family troubles. Everything from my mother’s need to divorce my idiot stepfather and the issues with my younger siblings to V’s mother and her health issues and struggling with burnout trying to watch over her family while going to school.

So, by the time I began my second year of grad school, we’d become fairly close. I visited her and her family in the DC area eight times during the ’90s, and went to her mother’s funeral and wake in ’96. V came to my PhD graduation ceremony the following year. By ’97, me and V had been friends for ten years, and known each other more than fifteen. For more than six years, she’d really been the only person from my Humanities and high school days with whom I’d been in regular contact.

Changing lanes, Las Vegas Strip, December 12, 2010. (Source/Bjørn Giesenbauer - http://Flickr.com).

Who knew that within four years of marching for my doctorate that our friendship would become a distant one? I think that our approaches to life was so different that we couldn’t help but become distant friends. I am one who refuses to take life on its own terms. If I had taken V’s approach, I’d still be living in Mount Vernon, New York, only with a nine-dollar-an-hour job sorting mail or flipping carcinogenic burgers. V’s was based on some sort of realism that mixed with a sense of eugenic inevitability. That one’s slot in life should remain such, and if one does make it, one must do so without ruffling any feathers.

Besides that, it was obvious that things about who we had been since the early ’80s had evolved, and was changing even more rapidly as we reached our late twenties. I was no longer the blank-faced, closed-mouthed, socially-awkward kid I was in ’82. V was no longer responsible for watching over her mother and her younger sister. We agreed to disagree on so many things. Our politics diverged. Our views on race and racism were growing further apart, as if I was Michael Eric Dyson and she was Ann Coulter.

But even with all of that, I think the seeds of it began when I started dating my future wife at the end of ’95. Something about being in a serious relationship has changed the dynamics of every friendship I had then and have now. I never thought that my friendship with V would be affected. But of course it was. We live in a world where a man and a woman can’t be close friends without it being made into something more than friendship.

Like the seasons, people change, and even if they change for the better, our change will cause our friendships to change as well. It’s just too bad that V couldn’t adapt to all of the good changes in my life like I adapted to hers.


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