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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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Alice Spraggins

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HEDRICK SMITH: July 29. We have an interview with Mrs. Alice Spraggins. And you are the daughter of Henry Grant, the famous piano player. Tell me about your father, Henry Grant as a teacher. What did he teach who did he teach, where did he teach music?

ALICE SPRAGGINS: Well, my father taught at Dunbar high school. He went there in the year 1917. I think it was as the band teacher. He was the only band teacher in the city at that time and of course he was able to come in contact with so many of the students that eventually they had the desire to take music lessons from him. Well around that time he decided to go over to the conservatory of music at 9th and T streets, Northwest, and be a part of that musical teaching faculty. And that's where he came in contact with so many of the Washington students who eventually became musicians. But don't ask me for names because I cannot recall names. But I know they were quite a few of them in DC who took lessons from him.

SMITH: Tell me just generally as you were growing up and as you watched your father teaching music lessons, was music important to the life of the community? Tell me about how music fit into the life of the community?

SPRAGGINS: Well the only thing I can tell you about that is that at that time every family wanted their children to have music lessons, a little different I think from the way it is now. The children don't want to be bothered. Now I won't say that they were bothered too much then, but the parents insisted that they have these music lessons. And uh well some of them, even into the generation which my daughter came through, they were supposed to be having these music lessons, but they ended up other places beside that.

SMITH: Well I'm thinking more generally. I mean, you mentioned the conservatory, the churches were there. There were church choirs, your father was teaching orchestra, had a band in the high school. Just thinking about I have a sense that music was very important. Not just taking lessons but the whole thing - singing and performances. What was music to the people at that time?

SPRAGGINS: I don't know that I can answer that question satisfactorily but I know it was a great part of the community, piano and voice. The church choirs, yes. And he was the conductor of several of the church choirs around there. And my mother was soprano soloist in several of the church choirs there. But music was quite a part of the community. But now specifically in what way I can't narrow it down.

SMITH: You were talking about the church choirs and your mother singing and your father directing, why was music so important to the people?

SPRAGGINS: Well in our family it was very important because that was our livelihood and it was just a thing that was expected during that generation that everybody would have some type of musical knowledge. And that's the best I can tell you about that. I didn't get into all the homes but in most of the homes it was a piano. If there was not a piano there was a violin. And there was some type of music in each home as I can recall. Mm-hm, even I was in a church choir. Yeah. So that's as far as I can go.

SMITH: Let's talk about the students that your father taught lessons to. Do you remember Duke Ellington coming and getting lessons from your father. Tell me about Duke Ellington.

SPRAGGINS: Well I know that this very tall slender handsome fellow would come for his music lessons, and oh that was way back there in the teens, and upset the neighborhood, especially the feminine part of the neighborhood, to see him there. And he would stand out on the porch and talk with us until my father was ready for him to come in. My father didn't have much conception of time. When he taught a lesson he was going to teach it to his finality. They may have been allowed a half an hour but he would keep them an hour until he felt they had gone through what they were supposed to do at that particular lesson. And Duke would stand out on the porch or sit on the porch and talk with us until my father was ready for him. And as you know, or as you have heard, that Duke had that type of personality. A just beautiful personality where in talking to even the children and they began to just love to see this man come for his music lesson. Of course, Duke was about 10 or 11 years older than I, so my adoration was from the angle of a little girl looking at this fellow who was about 17 or 18 something like that at the time. But he, he was so, well let me see now, I'm trying to get the time frame. You know he left DC in 23 for New York.

But at a later time he came back to get these lessons in harmony because he had started writing music then and he felt that he needed a better knowledge of harmony in writing this music. So that's where the harmony lessons came in.

And then later on he was so grateful that he called and asked papa, I called him papa, if he would like to go on one of his tours with him. You know how the bands used to go from city to city. And of course my father said yes right away and he went on this tour with him, and I cannot tell you how long. I don't know whether it was a month or maybe a little less or a little more. But Duke was so grateful because he gave him these harmony lessons at no charge. So that's how I came in contact with him.

SMITH: When Duke came for piano lessons at your house with your father, he upset the neighborhood. Why did Duke upset the neighborhood?

SPRAGGINS: Well Duke upset the neighborhood because of his appearance primarily. This tall handsome fellow coming there to the house. And all the girls around wanted to come to look at him. At that time they didn't particularly know who Duke was. Just his overall appearance that attracted them. But after he came for several times, then they knew who he was. But you know at that time he was just Duke Ellington not the Duke Ellington of world wide fame. But that's how our porch became quite a popular place at the time that Duke came for his lessons.

SMITH: And what did you think about Duke.

SPRAGGINS: The same as everybody else. I thought here was this man at my house that I wished I was a little older and I could get a little closer to him. And that's how I felt. Mm-hm, but of course, well, as years went on we became very close friends. But nothing else. Because there was an age difference, mm-hm.

SMITH: Your father taught him harmony lessons, is that right?

SPRAGGINS: Yes.

SMITH: Now your father was a classical music teacher. Was he teaching him classical harmony, was he teaching him ragtime, jazz? What kind of music was your father teaching?

SPRAGGINS: My father was definitely not a ragtime person. In fact whenever he would sit at the piano with just the family there and he would try to play this ragtime, it was a joke. Because he was more into classical music. And I might add that possibly, had he not had these four girls whom he had to support, he may have gone into concert work because he was that type of player, concert pianist.

SMITH: Now talk to me about your dad, your father going on the trip with Duke. How did that happen, and how did your father feel about traveling with Duke?

SPRAGGINS: Well my father was quite elated when Duke called and asked him if he would like to go, and immediately he said, of course I would love to go. And as I said, he went, and I cannot tell you how long the tour was. A month, less or more. But when he came back that was his whole conversation. What they did and where they went and who they saw. But, as I said, I was quite young at that time and I can't give you too much in detail. But I can just tell you that my father enjoyed that trip immensely.

SMITH: Now, he had given Duke lessons free. Is that right?

SPRAGGINS: Oh yes, well, my father was that type of person. If you showed any inclination of interest in music he was right behind you. And I would daresay that many of the lessons were free. 'Cause mama used to say "you know Henry, that is our support." But he was that type of person. He was just into music. His father before him was a musician.

SMITH: Do you remember any sense that your father understood that Duke Ellington had unusual talent? Did he see that early on?

SPRAGGINS: Well, I don't know. As I can recall, and this is not from personal knowledge, it's from things that I have read, excerpts from books, that Duke made himself into a musician, that he wasn't particularly talented. Like in his book "Music is my Mistress", Duke decided that he was going to be a musician, so he worked toward that end. And as we all know he accomplished his purpose.

SMITH: But your father spent a lot of time with Duke, isn't that right? I mean, would he have invested so much time in Duke and would he have been so excited to go on the tour if he hadn't thought Duke was pretty good?

SPRAGGINS: He thought all of his students were good, and as I say, it's a little hard for me to pull them out because he had so many students. You see, he had them at home at first and then he went into the conservatory. And he had many, many students in that conservatory. I wouldn't even begin to try to name them. I couldn't.

SMITH: But you remembered Duke because of your own--

SPRAGGINS: No, you see, at one time he lived right around the corner from us. He lived in the 400 block of Elm street which was 2 blocks away from us. And he would drop by the house. And after he went to New York, he would call back just to check, said he just wanted to check. I think he wanted to keep a connection with DC. He had some cousins there, but he would call back periodically just to check to see how the family was doing. And after papa passed he continued to call to see how we were doing, and I admired him. I just have to say I admired him, as a person, as a friend. I wasn't in love with him, don't think that, but I just admired him. Mm-hm.

SMITH: Now this harmony, did your father teach harmony to Duke and to other people?

SPRAGGINS: Oh yes, he had others he taught harmony too.

SMITH: What was it, teaching harmony, what was this about?

SPRAGGINS: What was what?

SMITH: What was harmony, what did he teach when he taught harmony.

SPRAGGINS: I don't know how he taught it because I'm not that well versed in music. But have you talked with Billy Taylor?

SMITH: Yes.

SPRAGGINS: Only thing I remember about Billy coming is that he was so young that his feet wouldn't even touch the pedals. And then I don't remember anything about Billy after that, but I've known Billy all my life, as a person, because he lived in the neighborhood too. All I can tell you is that he taught Billy as a little boy.

SMITH: Billy Taylor told me that when he took the lessons from your father, he didn't want to study the classical stuff. He didn't want to study the harmony and your father talked him into studying the classical stuff and the harmony by telling him that's what Duke Ellington studied.

SPRAGGINS: I see you've already talked with him then. Well there's nothing I can tell you, Billy has told you. Billy grew up with us, he was the same age group as us. Duke was ten years advanced, so we didn't have that...well I don't I shouldn't say that. But we didn't have that same worship, because Billy was just one of us in the neighborhood.

SMITH: Do you remember Duke playing at True Reformers Hall? Do you remember Duke playing at dances as you were getting a little bit older? Do you remember any of his performances, or hearing about them?

SPRAGGINS: Duke played around at different places. And I'll tell you someone else that Duke sort of admired and tried to emulate, have you heard of Louis Brown? Phil Word? I remember those names, and Doc Perry. Well, he used to play around like they did. They used to play for the dances and what not. Up and down U street corridor. And that's what Duke did in his early years. He played around.

SMITH: I've got to get you to tell me about Duke playing up and down U street. That's nice but you were talking about the others and we're kind of focused on Duke here. Tell me about Duke? Where did Duke play and, and do you remember anything about True Reformers hall, and/or the Murray's casino? I can't remember when Lestates came on. Just tell me what you know about what Duke did and where he played.

SPRAGGINS: Well I really don't know. Now, I remember the name "True Reformers Hall." Was it located around 10th and U Streets? Well, that's all I remember, but I have read where he would play at these different parties and small dances and what not, but I really couldn't tell you about that because I'm not very knowledgeable about what he did then.

SMITH: What about your life. When you got older and you went to these dances, what was nightlife like, where did you go?

SPRAGGINS: Well, not too much because my parents were very strict. There may have been times when I slipped around to a night club. There was one at 11th and U, I think it was called the Bengazi or something like that, and I would go there, but we weren't really allowed to go to any of the night spots. So I can't tell you much about that. And as I said, I graduated from Teachers college in 27 and that's when I started teaching in it, sort of became my own person. But I still am not too familiar with the night life there.

SMITH: Tell me about the Howard theater. Did you go to the Howard theater?

SPRAGGINS: Oh I loved that.

SMITH: Well, talk about the Howard theater now.

SPRAGGINS: Well we would go to the Howard theater, the, the younger people in the neighborhood on Saturdays to what they called the supper show which was at 6:00 and as a little aside, that was your punishment, if you had done anything during the week that you were not supposed to do, you were not allowed to go to supper show on Saturday. I guess it was called supper show because of the 6:00. But that's when they had all of the bands coming through. Like Callaway, and the Duke's band was one of them that would come. Oh, there were so many, those bands. I'm sure you've heard of those bands that would come through and then they would have a movie. It was the band and the movie and that was the supper show. Wilberger street was where the musicians would come out for intermission, and of course we would be right there watching to see who we could see and that made life quite interesting on Saturdays. The Howard Theater was quite an institution at that time and I'm just so sorry to see what it has gone down to now.

SMITH: What did it look like, what did it feel like when you went there? I mean you must have been excited. Was the theater beautiful. How was it decorated. What was it like to go there for a supper show at the Howard theater on Saturday?

SPRAGGINS: The Howard theater was decorated but it was very ornate, as I can recall. But that is where you saw everybody on Saturdays so everybody wanted to go to the Howard theater, and it was enjoyable as I can recall. And then the Lincoln theater came along so we had a selection, Howard theater or the Lincoln. And that was our Saturday pleasure..

SMITH: What was the Howard theater like inside, was it pretty, what was it like?

SPRAGGINS: The Howard Theater was very pretty but it was a bit ornate. You know, it struck you when you walked in but we didn't care about that. It was something pretty, but we were going to the supper show and that was our main interest. And, as I said, you saw everybody in the neighborhood, or out of the neighborhood too, that you ever knew. They all came to the Howard supper show on Saturday. And I think the ticket was 25 cents. So but you know we would save our money all the week to get that 25 cents to go to the supper show. Mm hm.

SMITH: Now you mentioned getting autographs on Wiltberger street. Or watching the show, watching the entertainers come out during the intermissions. Do you ever remember Duke and Johnny Hodges and some of the people who played with Duke out there on Wilberger street? Did you ever talk to them out there?

SPRAGGINS: No, I can't say that I ever talked to him, but I remember seeing them out there. We didn't get autographs. We weren't seeking autographs. We just wanted to see these musicians in person. Sonny Greer. And I can't remember the names. I don't even remember Johnny Hodges except reading about him and hearing about him in later life. But I said, I remember Sonny so much because of all of his instruments that he had up there on the stage. The drums and...but I didn't get to know them personally.

SMITH: Do you remember seeing Duke play at the Howard, the spotlights coming up... Can you describe what it was like when the Ellington band came on the stage and what he looked like playing the piano. Can you remember any of that?

SPRAGGINS: I can remember Duke was quite an artist with his hands. Sometimes I wondered if he was playing or if he was just displaying his hand movement. Because, you know, he directed the band from the piano. He didn't front the band. I was able to see Mercer direct his father's band. But Mercer fronted the band and directed it, but his father didn't.

SMITH: Now you described Duke coming to the front porch of your house, and you had big eyes when he came. This tall elegant, 17, 18 year old. OK, now when he's on stage and you see him, what does he look like and does your mind ever flash back to the front porch? I mean, what's going through your mind? What do you see when you see Duke up there, beside his hand going back and forth.

SPRAGGINS: When I saw this same person, I sat there spell bound. That's all I can say. But, as I said, he still came to the house periodically just to visit. So seeing him up there with the band really wasn't anything too brand new to me. But seeing Duke up there, I would just sit there spellbound because this gorgeous man up there that I know and everybody couldn't say 'I know him personally.' It was a nice relationship that Duke had with our family. That's how I remember him.

SMITH: Ms. Spraggins, I want to ask you again about Billy Taylor. Tell me about Billy Taylor coming to your house to take piano lessons.

SPRAGGINS: Well, Billy was a little boy, quite a little boy.

SMITH: Can you give me Billy Taylor.

SPRAGGINS: Oh yeah, Billy Taylor was a little boy and to the point where his feet didn't even touch the pedals when he played the piano. Billy lived in the neighborhood and he was like one of us. And I hear Billy every now and then. His mother and my mother were friends, I never see Billy but I hear of him.

SMITH: But you remember Billy coming to your house, just sort of describe it from the beginning, 'I remember Billy Taylor coming to the house for piano lessons and my father taught him' and then just kind of make a little story out of his coming. The same way you did with Duke. You remember him coming, taking lessons, feet didn't touch the pedals. You tell a nice story. I just need a good little short Billy Taylor story from you.

SPRAGGINS: Well Billy was just one of the kids in the neighborhood who came for these lessons. And, as I said before, Billy Taylor was so little when he came that his feet wouldn't even touch the pedals. But he weathered the storm, he got his music lessons. And he kept in touch with papa for some time. I don't hear from Billy now, but he was always a friend and one of the neighborhood children.

SMITH: Talk to me a little bit about the neighborhood. What was U street, I mean did you go down to U street? Was that the big street. Did you go for a stroll. What was U street like back in those days?

SPRAGGINS: Well U Street was the corridor with mainly black businesses. We had real estate people. We had the bank which is still there, the industrial bank. We had dentists, beauty parlors. A floral shop. You name it we had all those things on U street and those were our big business places. And it remained that way as I'm sure you know until after the riots. And that's when it started to deteriorate. But I understand it's coming back now. I haven't been there recently but I understand U street is coming back. On Sunday after we had been to Sunday school or church, had dinner, then we strolled up U street to see who was out there. And we were allowed to do that, to stroll up U street as far as 14th street and, and come back home.

SMITH: Was everybody all dressed up? Describe what was it like, walking, strolling on U street. Were there young boys in their coats and ties, were the girls in pretty dresses. I mean, we don't have a picture of that. We need you to kind of paint a picture. What was it like and how did you feel?

SPRAGGINS: Well, as I said, you had on your Sunday best, as they used to call it, when you strolled up U street on Sunday to see and be seen. And that's what we did on Sunday afternoon. But well that was our pleasure that's all. Then we came back home and did our homework for Monday morning.

SMITH: So tell me about life, I started to ask you was life hard and you said no. What was life, what did the community feel like? What was it like back then, living in that area.

SPRAGGINS: What's that song? Summertime and the living was easy. Well, that's the way the neighborhood was. Children all playing together. The parents all knew each other. And a lot of them socialized together. As I always tell people, we were not the highest living people but we always had food and clothing and we all were just lived just about the same in our neighborhood. But as I look back on it, I enjoyed my childhood there in LeDroit park very much.

SMITH: Now did segregation bother you? Was segregation hard, Jim Crow.

SPRAGGINS: At that time, when I was a child, I guess I wasn't aware of it. Because, as I said, we were all there in that leDroit park neighborhood. We went down to Florida Avenue, I think you know the boundaries. And we weren't aware of it. And frankly I don't think it bothered me until well into my 20s when I realized that I couldn't go to the theaters except the Howard and the Lincoln and the Dunbar. I never particularly went to the Dunbar ,but the Dunbar was right there across from the Howard. And so then that's when I began to realize when I was in college that I really wasn't a part of the DC living. I couldn't go where I wanted to go. But I think it didn't bother me that much because I knew that there were still places I could go. But, like anyone else, if you wanted to branch out you couldn't. And then as I said, after the riots things changed so.

You know there was a riot before this last riot, in the early days. It must have been either in the teens or the early 20s, I don't recall which it was. That's when I really realized 'well I'm being segregated.' But it hadn't bothered me before that.

SMITH: There was a race riot in 1919 and there was a lot of violence. What do you remember about that?

SPRAGGINS: Well I remember they had it, and there were snipers. I remember my mother had told my father, "You're not going up to 7th street because there's too much going on up there." He said, "But I wanted to go up there and be a part of it." She said, "You're not going out of this house." So he didn't go. But I remember they had snipers up on the roof tops. It was an ugly scene as much as I can remember. And I didn't see any of it because we weren't allowed out of the house during that time. But it was a very unfortunate period just like this last one.

SMITH: Let me ask you if you can tell that story again and begin it by saying I remember the race riots in 1919 and then go on and tell me the rest of the stuff. Can you start that way. OK, so tell me do you remember the race riots in 1919.

SPRAGGINS: I remember those riots in 1919 because my father tried to be a part of it. And my mother told him definitely that he was not going out of the house. He said 'well I want to go up to 7th street and see what's going on.' She said 'no I'd rather you didn't do that.' She said 'you have four children here and you don't know what might happen up there and you're going to leave me with these four children.' So he did not go. And as I said, of course as a child we weren't allowed out of the house at that time. But I do recall hearing them talk about these snipers on the roof tops who were shooting anybody from the Caucasian race that came that way. That's about all that I can recall.

SMITH: And it was ugly?

SPRAGGINS: Very ugly, I would say any riot is ugly.

SMITH: Now did that riot affect the life of the community, did that riot affect your life and how things went on after that?

SPRAGGINS: Well it didn't affect my life because I don't think that I was really fully aware of what was going on. And the community settled down after that but things really didn't change too much after that. There was still that ugly aspect of segregation and as you know that didn't really change until quite a few years after. I guess it's just like a person loses his temper. The pot boils over and you react. And that's what that was.

SMITH: Do you remember any problems for you or your family in terms of going downtown, shopping trying on clothes, eating in restaurants, anything like that?

SPRAGGINS: Oh we had that problem with the department stores did not want you to try on clothes. I went down there once to Kann's which is out of existence now and I wanted to try on a hat and the lady said you cannot try on a hat. Unless you put this something on your head. I said but I won't wear that something on my head when I put the hat on. So she said well you just cannot try the hat on in here. Of course I never went to Kann's after that. But we were not allowed to try on clothes during that period. But that changed very early because they were beginning to lose the Negro business. At that time we were Negroes. We have been everything since that. But we weren't allowed to try on anything then so we just stopped going and that's when the boycotts began, boycotting of the downtown stores. Well when you start losing business, you decide to change your policy and I cannot tell you the year but it was in the early years that they started letting us try on clothes. To get the business back.

SMITH: By the early years you mean like the 30s, the 40s. How old were you when that started to happen?

SPRAGGINS: Well I would say it was in the early 30s. Around that time and in the early 30s, I was maybe about, I don't know. I can't do this adding and subtracting in my head. I would say I was in my 20s.

SMITH: Do you ever remember going to any parties or any events or any fraternity or sorority parties at the Whitelaw hotel? What was the Whitelaw hotel to the community?

SPRAGGINS: The Whitelaw hotel was a quite an establishment at that time. People who could afford it had apartments there. And it was a hotel and an apartment house. I know I went there because my beautician had her beauty parlor in the Whitelaw hotel, and that's how I remember the Whitelaw. You asked me something else?

SMITH: There are pictures of people having black tie dinners, very fancy dinners. There were dances, there were very fancy parties at the Whitelaw hotel. It's a beautiful building, it's been restored, itwent down hill at one point. I'm just wondering whether or not as a young person it was one of the first big buildings built in that area. Do you remember it being built, it being opened? I mean, you would have been a young girl then. I don't know 10 years old something like that. I just wondered whether or not that would have been an event in your life and in the community life.

SPRAGGINS: No, I don't recall ever going to the Whitelaw to a party. Most of our parties were at Murray's Casino.

SMITH: You mentioned the industrial bank. Talk about the bank. Why was the bank so important? I mean, when I ask you about U Street one of the first buildings you mentioned was the industrial bank.

SPRAGGINS: I think the Industrial bank was the only bank that we had at that time. I know my father banked there, and when that bank went bankrupt, or whatever banks do, he lost the few pennies that he had in there. In fact, not only the industrial bank but all banks during some period of that time had a problem.

SMITH: Depression.

SPRAGGINS: The crash, yeah that's it. But as I said, I still patronize the industrial bank, the few pennies I have now are at the industrial bank in the Georgia Avenue branch. Between that bank and the Chevy Chase. If anything happens to them, I'm gone.

SMITH: The industrial bank was important to you. It was important to the community. What was the feeling about a building and a business like the industrial bank?

SPRAGGINS: There was no particular feeling except that that was our bank and we all patronized that bank. The Industrial bank and if there were others I don't remember them but that was the neighborhood bank, the Industrial bank. And as you see, it has survived all these years.

SMITH: You were talking about the boycott before and you were saying that the downtown stores, if they didn't treat you right, they didn't let you try on the hats and the dresses, then you weren't going to go do your business there. I'm just wondering whether or not around U street, when you had the industrial bank, and had Spurlock the photographer, and you had your beautician and the sense that 'these are ours, this is our community and this is where we want to do our business.' I just wonder whether or not there was that sense of social solidarity among people who lived in that community.

SPRAGGINS: We did have business on U street. That was all we had until they decided to open up the stores downtown. At that time you could go to the theater downtown but you had to sit in certain spot in the balcony. But they had boutiques on U street where we could buy clothes and we had there were people who would come around to your home and bring clothes. I remember one person vividly and anybody around my age could remember this one person, Mrs. Goldberg. Who used to come with suitcases of clothes to your home, with gorgeous clothes. And a lot of us depended on her for our outerwear. Then they had people who would come with suitcases of underwear, gorgeous underwear that nobody ever sees but you love to wear it, and they would come with these suitcases of things.We really didn't suffer, but the only thing we suffered was embarrassment and not being able to go downtown and browse.

SMITH: What were the streets like, what were the homes like? You told me at one point you lived on 323 T Street in LeDroit park, what was that like? I drive around there now and some of the houses haven't been brought back, but some of them have been restored and it's a very gracious area. The buildings are handsome. I'm just wondering, as you walked around the streets, as you grew up there, how you felt about the surroundings of the community.

SPRAGGINS: How I felt about them at the time I lived there, I loved it. I loved living there because, as I said, it was so neighborly and all of the children just grew up together. The parents were friendly to the point where you had better not misbehave. The neighborhood reprimands you or by the time you got home from school the teacher had called. And it was just one of those things that different from now. You had to behave wherever you were and it was just like one happy family in that neighborhood.

SMITH: What was it like going to Dunbar high school?

SPRAGGINS: Dunbar, at the time I went there were three high schools. Dunbar, Armstrong and Cardozo, I think. Cardozo was the business high school. Armstrong was the more like a trade school and Dunbar was academia. But there again Dunbar was more like a happy family. I can't tell you too much about Armstrong because I--

SMITH: Just talk about Dunbar when you went there. What kind of teachers were there, what kind of courses?

SPRAGGINS: Dunbar had excellent teachers. I remember that there were numerous PhDs there. And when you finish Dunbar you were well trained. And so many of the fellows who left Dunbar...you know, Charlie Drew was a senior when I was a freshman there. Bill Hastie was a senior when I was a freshman. And so many of those fellows in that senior group went on to accomplish such big things in society. But I always look back on Dunbar as really the basis of my training. And of course I'm not going to leave out Minor teachers college because that was a continuation.

SMITH: There were a lot of famous people in that area. I mean you mention, I'd like to just get you to talk about that for a moment. You mention Charles Drew. There was Paul Lawrence Dunbar himself, the poet. Mary--

SPRAGGINS: Well Paul wasn't there when I was there.

SMITH: No, I don't mean in the school. I was just talking about in the community. Did you have a sense that you had a lot of people in that community who were very talented? I mean Duke Ellington, you had Dunbar you had Drew. Talk about that a little bit. Was this a community with a lot of talent in it.

SPRAGGINS: Well across the street from us was Mary Church Terrell, I guess you've heard of her. Her husband was a judge and she was quite a civic worker. But you know being there on the fringes of Howard we came in contact with so many of the professors at Howard. LeDroit Park just stands out in my mind as a big neighborly community. I was there even when the street car would come through LeDroit Park. You know it was a big circle at the foot of T street, and the street car came right through that circle and went up to about Bryant street which was a terminal. I think it was Bryant street. And somebody might say 'oh Alice got that wrong' but it was up in that area.

SMITH: Do you remember Charles Drew in your high school?

SPRAGGINS: Oh very well.

SMITH: So what do you remember about Charles Drew?

SPRAGGINS: Charles Drew was a senior when I was a freshman in high school. But he was a person who could come down to our level and chat with us, the same as I said with Bill Hastie. And they were also cadet captains, Dunbar was noted for its military training. And then of course I we grew up with Charlie's children. They were younger than I, now we all move in the same circle. But there were so many who came through at the time I did, but I just cannot remember those names now.

SMITH: Do you remember Charlie Drew playing football?

SPRAGGINS: I don't know that I remember him particularly with football, I just remember him, really just like Duke, who could come down to your level and chat with you and still be a senior in high school talking to a freshman. But I wish I could recall all those names and now Robert Weaver who was with Housing here was my classmate. All the way from elementary school, which was Mott school, through Dunbar he was my classmate. And of course you know he became the secretary of housing with which president...But anyway Dunbar put out some very famous people. Very famous people. But as I say, a few of us around now. I'm one of those who's still lingering and I'm not famous. So many of them are gone now.

SMITH: Some people have talked to us about this community in Washington being a very special place with Howard Univeristy, with Dunbar High, with that feeling of community that you've been talking about. I just wonder whether or not you felt that you were living in a very special place, and if so why.

SPRAGGINS: As a very young child, no I did not feel that way, but as I got some age on me and began to know the people who were in the neighborhood that's when I felt 'well I'm in a very special neighborhood here.' And if you would call it special. I don't like to use that word special. But it was a neighborhood that you were proud to be a part of.

SMITH: Because..

SPRAGGINS: Because of the people in the neighborhood. As I grew older I would hear these names and I knew that they meant something. Ernest Just was right up the street from us. You've heard of him. Oh, there were so many of those Howard professors around there. If I can think of them. There was an Alonzo Brown who taught at Howard.

SMITH: You don't need to think of a whole lot. You've already mentioned some. Just think about it for a moment. You've mentioned Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Charles Drew.

SPRAGGINS: Bill Hastie.

SMITH: Bill Hastie. I mean you've mentioned a bunch. So you don't need to add more. You can just mention those same ones again. Let me just ask you that again, you're talking about being proud of this area because of the people who were there, just mention the ones you've already mentioned to me. You don't need a whole long list, but put them kind of all together we can hear it. Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been there and the school as named for him. Mary Church Terrell, you mentioned her. So you've mentioned a bunch of them. All you need to do is just put them together.

SPRAGGINS: You want me to do that again?

SMITH: You did it nicely, but I got it in bits and pieces. I need it kind of wrapped together in pretty package here. So forget the word special. You were proud to be in this area, tell me about that. Were you proud to live in his area, and if so, why?

SPRAGGINS: I was very proud to live in that neighborhood, after I got old enough to realize that I was living around people of some note. Mary Church Terrell was right across the street from us. Then there was Alonzo Brown who taught at Howard, there was Ernest Just in the next block from us up T street. Hm. I can't name them now. After this is over you know that's when I'll think of them.

SMITH: I just want to go back and ask you a couple of questions about your father again and music. You said your father was classically trained and was a classical musician. I just wonder as a classical musician how did your father feel about teaching jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor. What was his feeling about jazz?

SPRAGGINS: Well I don't think my father had any particular feeling against it except that he was just not a jazz musician. When anything he could do to help the fellows put their chords together and what not harmony, he would do. But as I told you once before, he even tried to play jazz but it was a joke. He just could not play the jazz. But he had nothing against jazz.

SMITH: Did he like teaching the young jazz musicians?

SPRAGGINS: He loved anything that was musical. I don't care had they come in there with a tin can and a stick. He would have tried to do something with them musically. He just loved music and he wanted to help anyone who had any inclination toward music.

SMITH: Well when you talk about his going on the trip with Duke Ellington, he must have been very proud. Talk a little bit about his feeling, how did he feel about what he had done for Duke to help Duke get to where he was?

SPRAGGINS: Well, as I said, he came back and that's all he talked about forever was what he did on that trip with them and--

SMITH: You haven't said Duke's orchestra. I need you to say he went on a trip with Duke's orchestra and that's all he talked about, Duke invited him on this trip and this is how he felt...

SPRAGGINS: Well I'll start over. Duke invited him to go on one of the tours with him and his band. Which my father grabbed right away, 'yes I'll be happy to go.' He went with him and stayed either a month or more or less with the band. When he came back everything was Duke and the band, Duke and the band. And to the point where mama said 'why didn't you ask him to find a spot for you on the band since you loved it so much.' But as I said before that, that was his life the music, music. And all his friends were in the music world.

SMITH: So your father was really proud of teaching, having taught Duke.

SPRAGGINS: My father was very proud, and I would say that he was most proud of Duke and Billy because of their success in the music world. But I don't like to take away from the other students he taught, except that I just cannot remember all those names but there were many, many. But until his death my father loved Duke and Billy. And when I say Duke and Billy, I think everybody knows about whom I'm speaking.

SMITH: I've got to have you tell me 'my father loved Duke and Billy' with your eyes open, you said all that with your eyes closed.

SPRAGGINS: Well my father loved Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor and I think it was because of the success that they attained in the music world.

SMITH: How did he feel about his part in their success?

SPRAGGINS: Well, naturally my father was very proud of the fact that he had been part of Duke and Billy's lives and would willingly take credit for part of their success.

SMITH: He would take credit?

SPRAGGINS: Oh yes, oh yes. And he was due some credit because what he did, now I don't know about Billy's music lessons, but I know that most of Duke's music lessons were free.

SMITH: So this was his contribution. I'm going to let you do it Stan.

(switch of questioner)

STANLEY NELSON: One thing I was wondering, when Duke took your father on the tour, why did he take your father?

SPRAGGINS: I think Duke took papa on the trip in gratitude for the lessons that he had given him for which he never charged.

NELSON: You said that when Duke came to take the lessons from your father, Duke was already playing around right. So why did he take lessons from your father if he was already playing?

SPRAGGINS: Duke came to take those lessons because I think he wanted to know a little more about the piano. The harmony, how to put the chords together. Duke had gotten this little band together which was playing around, for at that time they called them little hops, and I think he just wanted to be a little more knowledgeable about music and papa was right there for him.

NELSON: You said that as a young girl the segregation didn't bother you. I don't understand that, how could the segregation not bother you? Make me understand how segregation could not bother you...

SPRAGGINS: Segregation did not bother me because I was such a young child and I don't think I realized what was going on, because, as I said, we lived in that neighborhood which was just like one big happy family. And we were not exposed to what was going on because those of my age were too young and it wasn't until later on that I realized that I couldn't go downtown and to the theater. But as a child, I'd go into the Howard theater as enough for me so that's why I'm sure that I ,as did my playmates, didn't realize the fact that we were being segregated. Which was a nice thing not to know about at that time.

NELSON: Later on you talked about the woman coming with the suitcases full of clothes, why did those woman come, because I think sometimes people may not understand. Why did they come with the suitcases full of clothes?

SPRAGGINS: Well, I think this woman came because she saw the opportunity, the golden opportunity to sell to us because we couldn't go downtown. And she really had a large, what would you call it, clientele. Everybody bought clothes from her in the neighborhood. For years this went on as I can recall. My mother bought from her and when I got old enough and started working, and could go downtown too I continued to buy from her because of the types of clothes that she had.

NELSON: When they wouldn't let you try on the hat, how did you feel?

SPRAGGINS: When I could not try on a hat at Kann's without putting a net or something on my head I felt like anyone else would feel. 'Why am I in this place where I cannot even buy a hat, can't even try a hat on.' So I left. And never went back to Kann's. But Kann's wasn't the only place, but that was the particular place that I went at that time. To get the hat. But then as I said after the picketing and what not and Negroes finding other places to buy clothes, the store, the department stores opened up. I think Hecht's was one of the first ones to open up.

NELSON: I wanted just to ask you about the riots in 68. What effect did the riots have on that area, on U street?

SPRAGGINS: The riots, not only on U street but 7th street, the smaller shops where Negroes lived above those little shops on 7th street. When they had the riot we often said that they burned themselves out on 7th street. U street was just about destroyed too. But you know, that was during the time Marion Barry was mayor and I recall one incident when they were trying to come up 11th street. Just wild and unruly, out of hand and he stopped them down there and said you're not going up town, you're not going up that way.

NELSON: What was the general effect on U street of the riots?

SPRAGGINS: Well, the general effect was that they had destroyed so many of the businesses and as happens with any riot. So I can't tell you any specifics about it except that it destroyed 7th street and it destroyed U street.

NELSON: You saw Duke coming as a young guy, and he's taking these piano lessons. Were you surprised at all that Duke, that this Duke that you knew, this guy you know who lived near you became Duke Ellington?

SPRAGGINS: I was surprised and elated that this fellow that I had seen come to the house whom I admired so much had gone up in the world and become the great Duke Ellington but still had not forgotten the people back home. Because, as I said, he would call periodically just to check on the family. And definitely after my father passed, Duke would call quite frequently just to say 'how are you all doing, just wanted to keep in touch.'

 

 

 



 

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