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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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Ed Smith

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RICK SMITH: Let me ask you, Professor Smith, historically what has made the African American community in Washington a special community? I'm thinking back here now, the early decades of the 20th century and up...

ED SMITH: I think the history of it has to go back even further than that. From the very beginnings of the city's history, back in 1800 when we became the nation's capital, remember that Benjamin Banneker helped L'Enfant in laying out the plans of the city and did some of the surveying work. There was always a large population, relatively speaking to other communities in the South, of free blacks, Banneker being one of them, who are not only just freed but never were slaves, and who were well educated, and took a great deal of pride in being in the nation's capital. Many of these people were not only well educated, they were craftsmen, they were very skilled, highly respected by members of their own community as well as members of the white community.

And so by the time you get to the 1920s and the 30s and of course in the 40s, during the era in which I was born, all of those blacks who were living and achieving are simply building on a foundation that started way back more than a century and a half before. By the time I come along in 1943, the richness of this history, 143 years old, I am able to participate in it and draw from it. Of course, it affected not only me but a lot of other people as well.

I think in terms of the specific aspects making Washington different than, say, Atlanta, or even Richmond or many other southern cities is the immediate post civil war period. The fact that you create Howard University in 1867 just two years after the war ends. No other city that has a black community can claim a Howard. They come a little bit later. But Howard comes very soon after the war. And in fact that the Washington DC by virtue of the federal government beating the states in the civil war, it means that Washington now has become the nation's capital in the truest sense of the word. And the blacks who helped achieve that victory who then stayed here in the city and established homes and helped build up these communities, they're building on this tradition that was already there, even though many of them may not have been neighbors of the city.

RICK: In an article that you wrote for the Washington Post, you referred at one point to the African American community in Washington as self sufficient and self contained. I'd be grateful if you would use those words, and then explain what you mean, that this was a self contained and self sufficient black community.

ED: One of the aspects of the Post Civil War period is that it unleashed in the black community this latent talent that had always been there but had not been manifested in so many different areas of activity. And even during my youth, I can recall very few black people living on any kind of public assistance. People were working, doing some kind of job that was useful to the community. Either they had barber shop or a for women a hair styling salon, or they were their own doctors. They were craftsmen, like masons, carpenters, and so forth. We had our own banks. We had our own stores. The Shaw neighborhood in which I grew up in was not a very large neighborhood compared to many other neighborhoods in other cities but it was self-sufficient to the extent that the money that was earned in the community remained in the community. It was circulated to all the different shops and proprietors who lived off of us.

Of course we were visited by whites, who always found coming into the black community to be interesting. Some even found it exotic. They knew that some of our restaurants were superior to their own. One of the interesting things is that whites discriminated against blacks. Blacks never discriminated against whites, and so they were always welcome. And the people who did have the courage or the interest to come, certainly enjoyed all that we grew up with on a day to day basis. I want to re-emphasize what I mean by self contained. It's hard to describe now because the community is so dismembered. One of the prices that we pay for integration was the disintegration of the black community.

When you were growing up in the 30s, 20s, of course the 40s, all black people at least in the Washington DC area were required to live among themselves. So we were separated from whites by race but we were integrated economically and socially and intellectually among ourselves. So I'm a young boy in the 1940s growing up, seeing Ralph Bunche on a regular basis, seeing Duke Ellington on a regular basis. We know that these people are famous. They're living in the same community as we live in. They go to the same stores and shops and churches that we do. They are part of our world.

RICK: You've just mentioned a couple of celebrities. You've got Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Mary Church Terrell, you've got General Benjamin Davis, you've got Duke Ellington and you've got Charles Drew. I wouldn't mind hearing a number of those names. But one of the things that interests me is the fact that this city, thinking really again the first 3 decades of this century, this community was such a fertile ground for nurturing talent. I wonder if you'd talk about that. Is that true? Was this a fertile ground, and if so why. What were the ingredients that enabled so many people of talent to arise from this community?

ED: You have to go back to the giant of all giants, and that was Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was born on the eastern shore of Maryland. He made Washington DC his home for many, many years. That home that he has over in Anacostia is as close to Monticello as any black American has ever come. He saw himself as the sage of Anacostia. He becomes the president of the freedmen's bank. He's a board of trustee, a member of Howard University. This is a man who believes that anyone could rise from the lowliest social status and achieve greatness.

And he used his own life as a model for that. So, anyone who knew anything about Douglass knew that here was the example everyone was expected to emulate. Here was a man who taught himself how to read and write, ran away from slavery in 1838 and winds up dying over there in 1895 having achieved during his own life time. Even though he dies in 1895, the tradition of accomplishment, in spite of all opposition and all odds, that Douglass establishes just carries over throughout the entire community.

RICK: So people like Duke Ellington or Charles Drew who grow up in this environment are then surrounded by both support and high expectation.

ED: Well, Duke Ellington was born only four years after Douglass died. He was born in the lower Dupont circle community on Ward Place; where I lived from the time I was 9 years old until the time I was 23. Ellington went to New York in the early 20s. He was a product of Washington DC. He was much nurtured and much noticed as a prodigy. He played in many of the wealthy mansions that are in the Dupont circle area, that today are now embassies or museums or private clubs. And this was the Washington that made Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington. I mean, Duke Ellington doesn't name himself. He's nicknamed by his friends because of the manner in which he dresses, the manner in which he presents himself. He embodies all of that aristocratic tradition that made Duke Ellington noticed as a member of some kind of aristocratic class.

So the traditions that were solidly based, all of us could draw from them. I mean, Benjamin Davis, the first black general, coming out of Dunbar high school. And of course Benjamin Davis was just one of many. The community put such a premium on success. And you had no excuse to blame racism or discrimination as a reason why you couldn't succeed. Douglass once said that there was no such thing as luck, that what we call luck is that moment in life when preparation and opportunity converge. And our job was to prepare ourselves to take advantage of those opportunities whenever they came our way.

RICK: In what sense was Duke Ellington a product of this Washington community?

ED: Duke was a product of the Washington community in the sense that he was born here, was raised here. He matured here and when he left here he was a fully-grown man. He was the product of Washington in that genealogical sense, but he was also a product of Washington in the cultural sense. You have to understand that to be a black person living in Washington was as special to black people who lived here during the turn of the century as being a Yale man or a Harvard man. When you went to Yale or Harvard you got more than just a book education.

You were introduced to an entirely different world than what you came from, even though you may have been the fourth generation member of your family to go to one of those Ivy League schools. Well, Washington DC was a Ivy League city. And when you came here or whether you were born here, the city itself had such a reputation for accomplishment among blacks that it drew out the very best that you had to give to the city. And it encouraged you. And you were rewarded by that encouragement.

RICK: So, Ellington, if you look at his particular talents, the way he composes music. He was a good businessman, he was a good organizer, he was a disciplined band leader. He was gregarious, he dressed elegantly. I mean all those things. Talk about some of the specific Ellington qualities. How was the Washington black community reflected in Ellington's specific behavior?

ED: Think about it. Elllington was a much more talented painter, and intended to be an artist long before he became a musician. He cuts his musical teeth in the True Reformers hall. And after he is tutored, only rudimentary learning on how to compose music, then he becomes a musical writer. Now Ellington never graduated from high school so when you speak about his success as a musician, his success as a businessman, his success as an organizer, the city was his tutor. All of the people here who had achieved success themselves or knew how to go about it, they were that treasure chest that Duke Ellington and any number of other people could draw from.

Now, it would be impossible to find such a consortium of talent. In any other city in the country during the early turn of the century period, all the way up into the pre World War II period. So that's what I mean when I say that Ellington was able to be a product of Washington in the truest sense of the word, where he said "I'm going to let the city form me." And the city did.

RICK: Ellington was and is cited by many people today for his elegance. The word elegance comes up many times. Talk for a moment about dressing, because it was clearly important. We've seen any number of photos at the Whitelaw hotel, at the Lincoln Colonnade, at True Reformers Hall, of people in black tie and formal dresses, and the Skurlock pictures that you see of people. Dressing well was really important to African Americans in this city. Talk about that as a phenomenon and why it was so important.

ED: There's a way in which you can look at clothing as your outer skin. And because you were discriminated against because of your complexion, the way in which you could overcome that was through the way in which you presented yourself with your clothing. The best example that I can give for you would be seeing photographs of men who in the 20s and 30s who were ditch diggers during the regular work day and then on Saturdays and Sundays you would see them in their Masonic garb or going to church as a deacon. And here is this man who has been in muddy boots all day long, riding public transportation back and forth to work. And on Saturday and Sunday this ditch digger through his clothing becomes a legitimate dignitary. Where everybody in the community knows he's a ditch digger from Monday through Friday but on the weekends, he's seen as something very special. Clothing was a very important aspect of Ellington's life. It was a very important aspect of all of our lives.

When you went into the public, you were supposed to make a proper presentation of yourself, and Ellington of course was by far the most noted person. And he's imitating those who came before him. And, of course, during his lifetime many imitated him as well.

RICK: I want to just be sure I got that first point. I think you're making a very important point and I'm wondering if I can get you to make it just a little bit more head on. If I hear you right, what you're saying is Jim Crow was telling blacks they were second class citizens. But blacks were dressing well cause they're saying 'I am somebody'. I mean to put it in Jesse Jackson's terms. So let me just ask you again, hit that point just as clearly as you can. Tell me why in this community, dress, particularly Duke Ellington's model, was so important to people.

ED: The Jim Crow tradition was supposed to instill in black people an innate acceptance of their social inferiority. And the way in which blacks during the turn of the century emancipated themselves from that psychic slavery was through the way in which they dressed, and so their clothing was a manifestation as outward as it could possibly be that I'm not your inferior. I'm not only not your inferior I'm your equal. In many instances I may even be your superior. And that was something that was reinforced. Do you realize, I can think of no one that my grandparents knew, that told me stories and that I experienced myself, had any sense of social inferiority growing up in segregated Washington. None whatsoever.

And when you would walk on the Howard University campus all the professors were dressed in suits and ties, and most of the students were as well. And so dress was our personal emblem of saying we are equal. If not better.

RICK: One of the things that's interesting to me about this community compared to Harlem. A lot of Harlem which blossomed was owned by whites. And a lot of the entertainment, including at the Cotton Club, was for whites. I mean, Ellington had a few nights when he could bring his own family there, but otherwise the clientele was white. The Whitelaw hotel is built on money raised by blacks, often very small contributions. Talk a little bit about the business base. You started to talk about it a bit earlier, but I'm thinking the Industrial bank, the Whitelaw hotel, Scurlock you name it, whatever it is. And the fact that it was black owned, black built, black managed, black architects, it seems to me a very important element of the history. To you as a historian, how important is this sense of ownership that blacks had about their own community in defining this community, and how is it manifested?

ED: Well I have to go back to Douglass again, and here is where the chronology is very helpful. I mentioned a few moments ago, Douglass died in 1895. He outlasted the civil war by 30 years. He dies 5 years before the turn of the century. There are no leaders at the time that look like they're going to succeed him. Of course, there is a young gentleman by the name of Booker T. Washington who has been preparing himself for that role. In 1895 he gives a very famous speech in Atlanta, Georgia which is known as the "Great Atlanta Compromise Speech," where he says in no uncertain terms, if white people are going to discriminate against us, that's their problem. Our job is to develop our skills, make ourselves useful. Buy into our own businesses. Support our own communities. Do everything that we possibly can do to upgrade ourselves through self help. And that's the foundation of that ownership. A lot of people today look at Booker T. Washington as a Uncle Tom as a sell out to his community. That business tradition that you see celebrated today and BET and any number of successful black enterprises, it starts off with Booker T. Washington.

Before Booker T. Washington, we have small business owners but we do not have a philosopher of black entrepreneurship and that's what Washington was.

RICK: It the Washington African American community, how do they follow up on Booker T. Washington's philosophy?

ED: In the African American community, particularly during the period that we're discussing the turn of the century to the 30s and early 40s, that kind of philosophy of business enterprise is manifested, starting out with small ownership of businesses, things that are necessary to the community. Food places, small rooming houses, the beginnings of theaters, restaurants, the culinary tradition in Washington DC that we inherited from the Carolinas and Georgia was outstanding. Many of the master chefs in the South, both the upper South as well as the deep South, were blacks and many of those people came here to Washington DC and opened up establishments. Very, very few of them have survived. But they certainly were very prominent. There was a hotel, a black owned--

RICK: I think I directed you in the wrong direction. I want to fix it. I'm not really looking for a listing. I'm really looking for the overview. That's your great strength for us. There were the newspapers, the Bee, the African American journal. Tick off one or two but I'm not looking for a whole thing. It's just this notion that this was black owned, black built, back to the self-contained, self sufficient community idea. I guess a simple way to put it, what was the Washington African American community able to pull of what Booker T. Washington recommended?

ED: The African American community in Washington DC was the greatest laboratory that Booker T. Washington could have conceived of. He died in 1915 so he didn't' have a chance to actually see what he had started, he dies 20 years after he gives his famous 1895 speech. But the Washington black community was able to succeed beyond his wildest dreams. I mean, we had our own newspapers, our own restaurants, our own theaters, our own small shops, our own clubs, our own Masonic lodges. Everything was there.

There was no expectation that the white world was going to help you achieve these things. There were some kind white people out there who provided a loan here or there, or a little bit of land. But Booker T. Washington and his followers knew that they were going to have to draw from their own resources and they knew that the larger white world was looking at them, every day, closely monitoring them. 'Are these people going to pull this off?' And so that sense of urgency, that sense of accomplishment, that sense that we cannot let our race down was one tremendous motivator.

RICK: Let me ask you about this guy, this famous high speed typist--

ED: Cortez Peters.

RICK: Cortez Peters. Wasn't he one of the folks who had a business, a typing school here? Talk to me for just a moment about that because I think you said to my colleagues that he couldn't have done it anywhere else, that there were special circumstances here. Just tell the story about him and his school and why it worked here.

ED: The typing school that Cortez Peters established in the Shaw neighborhood on U Street and Vermont avenue is one of the most remarkable institutions in this city. Sadly, it's in a deplorable state of ruins. There is no plaque there to tell anyone what actually went on in this building. But Cortez Peters was at the time the fastest typist, and he was given typewriters by some of the major companies at that time. I guess that probably would be Smith Corona and Remington and a few others. And he established a school. Now the reason why a school was successful is because Washington DC federal government office complexes are beginning to expand, bit by bit, and you need more and more people in these buildings to do rudimentary clerk typing work. And so Cortez Peters made a wonderful business decision. He saw where growth was going to take place. The companies that were manufacturing the typewriters knew they had a bona fide Michael Jordan-type typewriter expert. So the forces came together and he produced this school and produced some of the most fantastic graduates that you could imagine.

One of his most successful graduates happens to be a woman in Washington DC, like myself a native, by the name of Carmen Turner. She has the only metro substation that's named after a person. It's the Smithsonian metro subway station. She came out of his school and went into the government as a GS 2 clerk typist. She then becomes the head of metro and then later, before she dies, the undersecretary of the Smithsonian institution. That career starts on Vermont avenue and U street in the Cortez Peters typing school.

RICK: One last question cause I know your time is tight. I've heard the term used recently that I'd never heard before, I've heard people refer to Ellington as a race man. And I've heard other people referred to as a race man, in a very complimentary way. That is, that this is somebody who took it on as an obligation to be an honor to his own race. And that presenting the best possible face was part of it. Can you talk about that, is that a term familiar to you? Because it is so different from what you hear today. Was Ellington a race man, and what did it mean to be a race man? And what does that say about the kind of community we're talking about here?

ED: Remember that Ellington is living during a time when there are many blacks who have slipped into this pattern, particularly the light complexioned ones, that are passing. for white. Or who have chosen not to associate with darker complexioned blacks. And when you say that you are a race man, it means that you embrace the entire black community regardless of the hue, whether somebody is very light and could pass for possibly white or someone is very dark. And that you see those differences in coloration not any fault of theirs. Obviously it's all this mixture that they had no control over. And so it's the total embrace of the race. And that's what they mean when they refer to Duke Ellington as a race man, and that would apply to anyone else.

RICK: One subject we haven't touched on is Jim Crow and segregation itself. How painful, how onerous, how much of a burden was this to blacks and how much did they feel it growing up? Again I'm still talking about these first three decades. To a certain extent, we've heard people say "you know we've lived inside this cocoon and we didn't feel it." Talk about it as a historian. How heavy was it? Because it's no question that discrimination, going back in the 1890s and forward, was getting worse not better. And there was the 1919 race riots, and so how bad and how much of a burden was segregation?

ED: Segregation was a burden for many blacks, because the end of the civil war and the amendments added to the constitution elevated expectations beyond reality in some respects. That kind of social progress is very, very slow, as we all know. There were many blacks who were entirely, and I'm not exaggerating, almost unaffected by segregation. I mean, they lived in a world that I've tried to describe as best I can, that was self sufficient, that was self contained. Only when they would have contact with whites would they begin to realize that there is this big dislike of us. This discomfort being around us but as long as they were in that very large self contained community.

You have to remember during the turn of the century the black community of Washington starts down where the Kennedy center is located today. It expands all the way up to Howard University and the environment that's around there. That would include the Dupont circle neighborhood, much of Georgetown, Logan circle, Shaw. You're talking about a very large community that was, as I said, self-contained. My interest in history became developed by listening to older people talk about their life experiences. Then you go out and read books about it, and make sure that the old people are not telling you things that can't be validated.

And I never heard people speak about segregation as some great cross that they were bearing. They just went on about their lives. Some of them had good contacts with white people that they were serving in someone's home. Sometimes those white families almost effectively adopted you. As if you were a member of the family. If I heard things about segregation, it was generally favorable comments with regard to the white people that treated them with dignity and respect, as opposed to the ones that didn't. We didn't have any Ku Klux Klan in Washington DC. There was no White Citizens Council. I mean, there was just this vast separation that you didn't have any kind of contact with until you went beyond the boundaries of your community. You could live within your community for months. And have no contact with them. And as long as you had these beautiful school buildings, these wonderful churches that were built by your people, all these places that you could go to where you would be able to relax and enjoy yourself. You were entirely unaffected by it.

RICK: Great. We could go on for another hour.

RICK: When you were talking about integration, you said it caused the disintegration of this community. I'd like you to go back and kind of frame that whole thought. Pick that whole thought up again and then what I need you to do is to add to that what you mean by the 'price of progress.' You know, should we be going back? Was segregation a golden age, for all its disadvantages. So let's talk about, 1950s come along, Supreme Court decision, Brown v. the board of education and a whole lot of other things that essentially were symbolized by that decision. What happens to this cohesive, coherent self-contained, very successful black community when integration comes along, and is it better or is it worse?

ED: When I mentioned the price that we pay for progress, and we talk about this self sufficient, self contained kind of cocoon-like community, all of that is said with the greatest deal of pride and respect. The problem with the coming of the 50s and the 60s, with the emergence of integration is that integration principally speaking is the right way to go. People should have the choice to be able to live where they want to live, go to school where they want to go to school, marry whoever they want to marry regardless of what their complexion is and so forth. But when you allow people those choices, then what happens is they're going to take those choices. And one by one you're going to have the disintegration of this community that was in many ways contained because it was forced to be contained. It could not break out. These out of boundaries enclosed it. And once those boundaries are down and people can now emerge into a larger society you're going to have the disintegration of that community.

For example in the 1940s and 50s there is no doubt that Howard was the black Harvard. That's not the case any more now. Howard is still a great school. But many of the great faculty members that would be at Howard today are now at Harvard and Yale and Princeton. All this comes as a consequence of affirmative action and the admissions policies that encouraged blacks to enroll in the Ivy League schools. The irony of it is that affirmative action was first articulated on the campus of Howard University, when Lyndon Johnson gave his commencement speech there in June of 1965. Little did he know that uttering from his mouth were the very words that were going to in a few decades contribute to the demise of this very institution.

There are many black people today in my age category, early 50s, mid 50s who speak somewhat nostalgically about the pre integration days. And I know it confuses white people, particularly those who were in the civil rights movement, because they're going to want to ask wait a minute do you want to return to separate but equal, white only. Water fountains.

They don't mean that at all. What they are looking back nostalgically at is the loss of a sense of community, and that's gone. The black community now in many ways divided itself the way the larger white community divides itself, over class issues. And that race is no longer the bond that it once was. That's one of the prices you pay for progress. Someone once said that he wanted to make an omelet but he decided not to crack any eggs. You can't do that.

RICK: So you're not saying we need to go back to a golden age of segregation.

ED: No, no we're going to have to live with the new age we're in. And that's going to require compromises and all kinds of adjustments that blacks will have to make with other minority groups.

RICK: I need to get a clear statement from you. Either yes, I'm saying we got to go back to the golden age of segregation or no, I'm not saying we're going to go back.

ED: No, I'm not saying that we need to go back to the golden age. That was back then. That was a golden age of that period in our history. There is a possibility we can have a new golden age. We'll have to come up with resources to make that possible.

 

 

 



 

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