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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
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Charles and Virginia Williams

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HEDRICK SMITH: It's July 15 1999. We're in Lanham, Maryland, and we're talking to Charles and Virginia Williams. And we want to walk down memory lane with you a little bit. Let me ask you, what made Washington such a special place when you were growing up?

CHARLES WILLIAMS: The specialness about Washington was it was a cosmopolitan city; yet, it was a divided city. And that sounds like, you know, conflict there. But it was. My Washington had many things, many interesting things. It was vibrant -- things were going on, sports, theatre, literary -- literary societies, music.

We were a close community really, even though there were different sections of Washington. I lived in Northwest Washington. Then across the river was another vibrant part of Washington, which was Anacostia. But we were all connected. And I think the basic connection was through the schools, which again, was separated.

That's contradictory isn't it. But they were there. And the kids who lived in northwest Washington, the kids who lived in southwest Washington -- black kids we're talking about -- and the kids in Anacostia, we all went to the same high schools, Cardozo, Armstrong, Dunbar. So we always had a connection. There was a rivalry, but the schools did that, not so much the communities.

SMITH: Mrs. Williams for you what was the special feel of the community?

VIRGINIA WILLIAM: Well, for me the special community was brought about, I think, mainly because it was home, it was home to me and I felt just so good. I had a loving family and lots of nice friends and I was a happy child. And I just loved Washington because it was home to me.

SMITH: Just to go on, this was home, but as your husband said it was a divided city. So what was there about your community that made you feel so comfortable and so at home in this -- in the African/American community in Washington. What was there that made it feel like such a community?

VIRGINIA: Well it felt like a community to me. For one thing, I grew up -- what we called up on the hill -- on Kenyon Street between Georgia and Sherman Avenue. And those were privately owned homes up there and some of the people took a lot of care of their homes and we had a lot of children and fun and all. I was right across the street from the school -- the elementary school that I went to.

And it just made me feel like I could do anything and say anything to anyone around. I didn't feel restricted. I didn't feel restricted at home though I had strict rules and all. But you know the morals were so high then. The morals of the children and the parents were high and we knew when to come in, when we could go out. And when mama said come home at 10 o'clock, we came home at 10 o'clock. And so it was just a whole great feeling of people loving each other and having fun as a child, you know.

SMITH: Mr. Williams you said it was a divided city. Talk a little bit about its being a divided city, what that meant, what you could do, what you couldn't do and what that meant for the black community.

CHARLES: A divided city, it was a separate school system, separate entertainment, separate religion. Everything that you did as an individual you did petitioned as black into the black community. So the black community was complete within itself. Excellent schools, absolutely excellent schools. Entertainment was excellent, because we had the theatres along the road, the strip. Starting at 15th Street would be the Booker T. Theatre, then the Republic, then the Lincoln. And then the Howard Theatre.

So, all the good music, all the good shows, all the good actors and good reviews came to Howard. And the young people always showed on Saturday. Saturday was the day for the high schoolers and younger. That's where we were exposed to comedians, to great guys, and musicians. I had a big brother who insisted that I must go to Howard Theatre when Mary Lou Williams came. I guess his connection was because I was a Williams. And I played piano, I had to be there. And Duke was, of course -- Duke was the man. Now, we say -- I say he was the man.

So, everything we had in that separate city was excellent. I wasn't really aware of the fact -- it didn't hurt me, because what I wanted to do, I had it right there, everywhere. If I wanted to go a theater -- first run movies were at Lincoln, Republic and Booker T.

The best music -- of course, that's what we talk about so much -- the best music came to Howard. There were other theaters in other parts of Washington, neighborhood theaters, that were good, excellent. So, I -- I don't know, I'm not a person to ask to go into detail, the sociological part of it. But I had a complete life. It wasn't until I went into the Army that then I realized the things I was missing, you know, the petition, the separate --

VIRGINIA: Overall I think the great prevailing feeling was that we had it all. We accepted the fact that we were separate. Yet, we did have some white friends, but not many. But we had white friends and we would live in certain areas. I grew up in janitor's quarters. My father, he worked in the government. But we lived in a janitor's quarters for housing and we knew all the white folks there, all the people across the way, lived across from us. So, we had white friends too. And then we moved to Kenyon Street. I was maybe 12 years old.

SMITH: Mrs. Williams, did you feel any limitations on your life because of segregation. And, if so, what were they?

VIRGINIA: I didn't feel any limitations, because just as Charles has said, I felt like we had it all. And I suppose, as far as segregation goes, ironically, I never really felt that so much as when integration became the way of life. A when we became integrated, then, in many ways, I felt like we were more segregated. Our children, they were harassed and they were taunted. And we felt like often times the teachers in the schools weren't there for them, where the teachers in our black schools, they loved us. They wanted us to learn, be all we can be. And, so, when we started integration, I think that's when many times, I really longed for segregation. Because I felt like in some ways we were better.

CHARLES: Oh, the saying is the village raises the child, or the children. Well, that was true then, in the 20's - 30's, maybe before that. The neighborhood that you lived in -- everybody in the neighborhood was a part of your family or vice versa, you were part of the other family. And I don't know whether we have that now. I don't know whether we have that sort of thing going on now. I would dare not act up, because anyone who lived in the 1700 block of 13th Street Northwest would report to Mrs. Mary Williams, "Charles is acting out." So, she and that little lady and I would have discussions. She did all the talking and the other stuff. But we don't do that now. I don't think so.

SMITH: Let me ask you, were all kinds of people mixed together, I'm talking about doctors and lawyers and professional people, people working with their hands. I mean, this was an African/American community, but was it diverse in terms of different economic and professional stuff? What was the community like from that standpoint?

CHARLES: The African/American community was diverse. Yet, let's be honest, there were certain areas where certain professional blacks lived, although there were others there. My family wasn't professional. But in the area of Shaw, what we call Shaw now, many or most of the prominent educators, doctors and lawyers, lived in that area. I won't give parameters, but there was a diversity of community.

For instance, where the Duke lived -- that area, T Street, say from 15th Street East to 7th, there were many of the people who were in education, principals. S Street, in the same vicinity, as a child, I went to a lady doctor who had her office at 15th and S Street. Dr. Cowan, who taught at Dunbar, lived on S near 9th. Whitlocks. We could go on and on. But, yet, in the same community -- can we say this -- there were people who lived in alleys. I went to school with kids who went -- lived in alleys.

We didn't -- I didn't know that these -- I knew they lived in the alley, but it didn't bother me. These were my classmates --

VIRGINIA: Yeah.

VIRGINIA: I did in a sense, when I was living in the apartments. We were living in the basement, but my mother would welcome all the children. And somehow they loved to come to our house and I guess it was because of my mother's caring disposition and --

CHARLES: She was.

VIRGINIA: And she was -- we had the storage rooms in the basement. And she would hang sheets up and polish the floor and put down what we called dance wax to make the floor slippery, so that we could have parties. And kids from all walks of life would come to our parties and dance. I didn't matter where you were, we could just have a party and get down and dance. So, there was a class distinction among blacks. Sometimes the color of your skin.

CHARLES: Or profession, father of the house.

VIRGINIA: But, yet, even in that arena, their children came. The children I think were catalysts to keep them together.

SMITH: Now, you both have mentioned music. How important was music to the life of the community and in what ways could you tell?

CHARLES: I would say music was important in that. For instance, Sunday mornings -- you didn't have television, we had radio. So, all through neighborhoods Sunday mornings you'd hear the Harmoneers. You would hear the Southernaires, the music would come up -- the entire neighborhood shared, you know.

Music was important. We had music teachers in all the schools, even in elementary school, junior high. And by the time you got to high school, in many cases, you were performers. For instance, I talk about Armstrong, because that's where I went.

There in my class, the class of 34, Bill Kenny, who eventually sang with the Inkspots, was a student. Eckstein was a student at Armstrong, you know where he went. And there were others who sang and played, but they were prepared along the way. Virginia was at Armstrong where they put on a musical every year. I mean, a fabulous Broadway type thing.

VIRGINIA: And I was in the "Dragon of Wu Foo." [LAUGHTER] I was dressed up in pajamas and everything. It was fantastic. Of course, at Armstrong, they made all the scenery, prepared all the music, they made all the costumes.

CHARLES: All the projectionists in the black theaters came out of Armstrong high school. All the projectionists out of the theaters in Washington, D. C. came out of Armstrong. They were prepared there. Sign painters, you don't have that now. Outside of every theater, the coming attraction -- big poster things -- the entire front.

The young men learned sign painting at Armstrong. So, when her "Dragon of Wu Foo" was put on, the costumes were made, scenes were made, Mr. Amos-- and Mrs.-- what was the lady --

SMITH: You've been talking about Armstrong and there's one name that's missing. Tell me about Armstrong and Duke Ellington, his connection with the school. When you came along as a student, what did it mean, what did they say about Duke Ellington?

CHARLES: I went to high school in 31. Duke Ellington was already an icon in the music world. And as soon as you got in that school, you knew that Duke Ellington had gone there, preceded you there. That when he came to Washington, all good Armstrong people had to be there to welcome him.

And periodically, I think at least once -- I was there three years, of course, and I think he came to Armstrong three times when he was making his tour. I can't honestly say whether he brought any of the band. But he was there. Mr. Amos, of course, never let us forget. Mr. Amos was the music teacher.

SMITH: Mr. Amos never let us forget what?

CHARLES: Mr. Amos never let us forget that Duke was an alumnus of Armstrong. The piano, that big old grand they had in the auditorium probably was the piano that Duke had played on, you know. This was important. Tradition. I was a little guy who thought he could play little bit, so I played the piano that Duke had played. You know, I probably couldn't play worth a lick. I was learning jazz. The first song I ever played was "Black and Tan Fantasy." I saw the chart for it and the piano part. And it was the first time I ever played a tenth chord. And I worked at it. And now -- 60 years - 70 years later, I cannot play without playing tenths, even when I play hymns at church. I convert my chords to Duke's tenths, you know.

Duke was important because when I went in the military, we had -- what do you call, Special Services -- and you get to play and you get to meet other people from other parts of the world. And there was a sergeant I remember I was in school with. And he found I could play. He thought he could sing. The first song that we played -- collaborated on in this army school was the Duke Ellington song "Solitude." And it's funny because I can hear it now in my mind when I think back in the day. Sergeant Gilmore, a nice voice. Pretty good.

SMITH: Mrs. Williams, tell me about when Duke Ellington came to the Howard Theatre.

VIRGINIA: Well, when Duke Ellington came to the Howard Theatre, somehow, some way, you had to get the money to go see them. And that was such an experience. You know when you go to the shows, you always have preliminary acts. They had tap dancers, Christina Banks, there was a chorus line, the longest legs, kicking up,what are girls in New York?

CHARLES: Radio City?

VIRGINIA: Yeah. They kicked higher than those girls. And they'd have maybe a singer or so -- only preliminary. And then the house would get quiet and dark and you could see the sheer curtain and then you would see this --

CHARLES: The "A Train."

VIRGINIA: [Singing] The beginning notes of "A Train." And the stage would move, bringing out the band and as the band rolls out --

CHARLES: Then the curtain came up.

VIRGINIA: The curtain went up and here sat Duke sitting sideways on the piano and playing his "A Train." People [yelling] [LAUGHS] They went crazy at that point. And, so, it was just so exciting. And then he'd play and play and play. Always gave you your money's worth.

SMITH: Well, what was it about Duke, was it just that he was great, was it that he was elegant, was it that he was from Washington? What was it about Duke that made you so excited?

VIRGINIA: I think it was all of the above.

SMITH: You said it was so exciting. What was it that made it so exciting for you?

VIRGINIA: It was exciting for me to hear Duke because I loved all of the songs he had written. And I used to be a person who could learn and sing the songs. So, I loved to hear that, and I was excited, because I knew he came from Washington, D. C., our hometown. That made him so special. And then -- you don't even need to talk about the way he looked. He was so handsome. And his band members were so sharp, they were just clean, just dressed so sharp and all -- oh, that was a part of it for me. I just was so excited when Duke was on stage.

CHARLES: When he'd tell you, "I love you madly."

VIRGINIA: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

CHARLES: He was fabulous.

VIRGINIA: He was.

CHARLES: His presentation -- I always tried to emulate him and then I gave up -- to play sitting sideways at the stool or at the piano. They could do that. His diction -- it didn't sound like it came from Washington, D. C., you know. His diction was absolutely perfect. And he played to the ladies. He had them right in the palm of his hands. Well, he had all of us really. He was the personification of being a Duke, as we knew Dukes to be.

VIRGINIA: And listen, I can't remember. What's the name of his vocalist?

SMITH: Ivy.

CHARLES: Ivy Anderson.

VIRGINIA: Ivy Anderson. We cannot leave Ivy out because she was absolutely sensational. And, of course, I love to sing. I would listen to her and hang on to every word. And, you know, she just stayed with him. She was such a part of his band that you never expected to see Duke without hearing Ivy.

SMITH: What did Duke mean to you? You were a piano player and you were learning the piano, as you were growing up. What did Duke mean to you both as a piano player and also as a human being -- what you could be, what your potential was, what he stood for. What did he stand for, both music and as a personality?

CHARLES: Duke brought class to stage, to Vaudeville, I guess you would call it. That was what they called it then. We talked about the separation. But families were so strong that all young men were supposed to be young gentlemen. So, Duke Ellington brought all that to the finest point. The way he dressed, the way he talked, the way he presented his music, his shows, were always of high caliber.

And I don't know whether many of the musicians imitated him. Because he was so far ahead of most pianists at that time. His style was totally different. At the same time we had Fats Waller, which was a different style of music. But Duke brought his own compositions. I think that was one of the things that made him so great, his own compositions, his own arrangements.

SMITH: But when you're talking about -- you said Duke brought class, what does that mean? What I'm hearing from you, but you haven't used the word, is pride.

CHARLES: Dignity.

SMITH: Well, talk about that. Because he was a great musician and you talk about his compositions. The two of you were talking about how important it was that he was from Washington. But you also talk about, here's this man, what is your sense of pride. Talk about that, what Duke meant to you in human terms.

CHARLES: Duke meant to me, a musician who worked at his craft, knew what he was doing. He knew what the public wanted and he did it with dignity. He wasn't a clown. We had that in some musicians, but he --every presentation was dignified. To me-- I loved his piano playing--but it was the appearance.

The man just was, what would I say, elegant. That's not my word, but that's what he was. He was elegant. And when he came on stage, everything just like -- you just relaxed, because you knew you were going to hear marvelous music and the guy was Washington, D. C.'s own.

SMITH: Did elegance represent Washington?

CHARLES: The elegance represented Washington, D. C., because that separate thing we talk about, that separate city had it. It was a part of your elementary, your junior high, your high school training.

VIRGINIA: Well, you know --

SMITH: Was that elegance typical of Washington, D. C., Ellington being elegant, you also talked about the families. You're talking about high expectations. Talk about Ellington again as a symbol of what this community wanted. Is that right?

CHARLES: Well, I guess-- I would never think of it as a symbol. It was a natural progression of what was going on in the black community. Basically, we were taught to be young men, gentlemen, behave. So, all of this became a part of elegance, as you say, as is being said. Elegance was a part of -- of your growing, of your appearance. Visual, audible, you know -- it's hard for me to -- to define it any more than that.

VIRGINIA: As Charles was saying, we were taught a sense of pride, no matter how much our income, how little our income. We were taught to be proud of ourselves and all about self-pride. And Duke was really a fine example of that. When he would come -- he was proud. The way he carried himself and everything, he was proud.

SMITH: Let me ask you, because your energy and your story telling and your fun -- you're into it now. I want to ask what I asked at the beginning, what made Washington? We're talking about pride, we're talking about dignity, we're talking about elegance, we're talking families working together, we're talking about all this networking stuff. What made Washington such a special place? Do you think all black communities were like this or was Washington special; if so, what was it?

VIRGINIA: Whew, okay. Well, for one thing, we were keenly aware that Washington is -- was and is the nation's capital. So, that thought made us special, if nothing else. And to be a part of the nation's capital made us feel so special. We came from Washington, D. C. Even when I would go away on those trips to New Jersey and stuff -- and people would say, you're from Washington, D. C.? WOW! And I'd say, yes.

And even more surprising that I was born in Washington, D. C., because so many people have migrated into Washington, from the Carolinas and elsewhere. And I say, well, somebody had to be born in D.C.

CHARLES: Right.

VIRGINIA: Both Charles and I were born in DC, native Washingtonians.

SMITH: The national capital, native Washingtonians, but what else?

VIRGINIA: Well, it had everything that a child could want. It had everything, when you were growing up -- again, I guess this is kind of repeating ourselves. But, you know, the theatres, the schools, we thought we had excellent schools, and we did, because the teachers cared about us. And we had a diversity of schools. If you wanted to know business, you'd go to Cordozo. If you wanted to be a technician or a seamstress or whatever, you'd go to Armstrong. And if you wanted to be a business person or a professional, you were expected to go to Dunbar.

But, now, don't let me give the wrong impression, because you got highly trained curriculums even at Armstrong.

CHARLES: And at Cordozo.

SMITH: What made your community so special, that made you so proud?

VIRGINIA: Well, I was so proud to be a Washingtonian. I'm not sure I called myself that back in my childhood days. But I was proud from a little girl up until-- I'm still proud of being a Washingtonian, because Washington's special -- it had schools that cared about you. It had wonderful entertainment. It had theatres and -- dancing. You could just go anywhere -- and have good food, restaurants. And you had such good friends. And it just was sort of special if you came from Washington, D. C., because it was the nation's capital. And I felt good about being a part of that.

CHARLES: I think about Washington education wise. Because no matter where you went to school, somewhere along the line a teacher would say, I taught your brother. So, if your brother went through with flying colors, you had to do the same thing. Elementary school, junior high, high school, I had teachers who had gone to school with my big brother. So, Charles Williams was expected to excel. And it finally reached this point where I just could not go to the same high school, the great Dunbar high school, which was the peer of all schools in the United States, black schools. The people who came out -- researchers can tell you about that. I could not go to that school behind J. O. Williams, I had to score it on my own, so I went to Armstrong.

SMITH: But didn't that worry you, the expectations were high?

CHARLES: Yes, absolutely. Expectations were high, you're part of the family. My best buddy had a sister who preceded him at Armstrong, which was a weight over his head. The instant we came into Armstrong, the principal says, you're Fanny Grantland's brother.

So, I knew I wasn't going to Dunbar to have Dr. Smith say, "so you are J.O. Williams' little brother". The expectations were high, for all of us. No matter what part of town you came from, you had big brothers, big sisters, cousins, who preceded you. Because Washington was small, now that you think about it. If you only needed three high schools--

VIRGINIA: But I want to emphasize again the fact that expectations, high expectations were all around you. The parents expected a lot from you. The teachers expected a lot from you--

CHARLES: And the church.

VIRGINIA: Oh, don't leave out the church. You had to go to church and the church expected a lot of you, attendance, not lollygagging. Speaking of Sundays--you kept the Sabbath. You were cooking on Sunday. You couldn't go to the movies on Sundays. And, so, we dressed up, we went down to the park. And my girlfriend and I would try to have a new dress every Sunday from the sewing machine. She sewed very well. And we would dress up and go down -- walk through the park, to make eyes at the guys or pretend that we didn't see them.

CHARLES: Coquettes.

VIRGINIA: But it was fun. Washington was special and especially because of what was expected of you with the people that have gone ahead, like Duke. He's a perfect example of what excellence Washington produced.

CHARLES: That may have had some effect on Broadway. Duke going ahead. Because there were so many talented young people came out of Washington, D. C.

VIRGINIA: Billy Eckstein.

CHARLES: I can't even remember names, but I can remember faces. I think maybe way back when I first was trying to play in a orchestra that young man, Frank West, was out of Washington. He's a renowned saxophone player, right. And the Duke was the guy who broke all the barriers. These people coming out of Washington must have some talent. There must be something back there. And it's been steadily ever since.

I learned to play jazz with a young man -- the two of us sat at the piano, side by side, at -- Wednesday evenings at Garnett Patterson. The recreation department had a free jazz program, an old timer from Kansas City, Pete Johnson, taught -- and John Malachi and I sat side by side trying to figure out what this jazz thing was worth. You know what became of John Malachi, one of the great piano players.

SMITH: Talk about where you played as a young piano player. I mean, the Whitelaw Hotel, places like that.

CHARLES: As a teenager I played at the Whitelaw. Little gigs, the nice dances. I played at the Majestic Ballroom on U Street, between 17th -- 16th and 17th. The Fisherman's Hall in Southwest Washington -- some oldtimers remember the Fisherman's Hall. I can't even tell you where the place was. But it was one of the prime places where blacks had dances, socials --

SMITH: What was the Whitelaw like. What did it mean to play at the Whitelaw Hotel?

CHARLES: To play at the Whitelaw meant you were getting a good gig. Even though I was not a union person, my gang, we were able to get the nice gigs. And that was one of the good gigs. Because--we'll say a fictitious club would decide to have a formal. And, so, they would have it at the Whitelaw, because it was a beautiful place.

And the ballroom was on the ground floor. And it seemed like to me -- as I can picture it now -- it had double French doors with the glass, where you come in and there you were. And the music would be moving and the people would be beautifully dressed. That was really it. You were doing it when you were going with the tux, you know, taking your lady.

The Majestic was the same type of place. The True Reformer's Hall was where similar type dances were held.

SMITH: Similar in what way?

CHARLES: The True Reformers Hall was where dances were held by social clubs, Morris Casino -- smaller -- had social clubs, had the dances. Offhand, I can't think of other places.

SMITH: Stick with True Reformers. Did you play at True Reformers Hall?

CHARLES: I never played there, as a musician. I played there as an athlete -- as a part of a fraternity league basketball thing, which we had --

SMITH: Did you go to the True Reformers Hall as somebody going to a concert?

CHARLES: True Reformers was where we went to dances. As I remember, they weren't formals. They were what we call semi-formal. Which meant you wore a tie and a suit. And you went up steps. The dance hall was on the second floor, rather than on the ground floor, because there was a business of some sort on the ground floor. So, you went in on the U Street entrance and up the steps. And as you came up, you could hear music and you would come in to dance, to be entertained, have fun. It was nice, it was really nice.

I'm trying to visualize. It seemed like to me there were pillars, like supporting the third floor on the perimeter of the dance floor. Yeah, and there had been a balcony. It's been so long, you know. And it's been changed, I guess. Other place I went to -- Morris Casino, now, I visualize it as on the ground floor. Come in from U Street. And none of these places were dives. These are the places where black Washingtonians went for dances.

And generally if you had a dance hall, somewhere along the line, in the course of the calendar year, there would be formal dances, which meant tuxedos and long sweeping gowns for the ladies. It was wonderful.

SMITH: Classy.

CHARLES: Classy.

SMITH: One more thing about your high school, talk about the drill teams -- have you got something to add?

CHARLES: Lincoln Colonnade. That was the place --

VIRGINIA: That was the place --

CHARLES: The dance hall was under the theatre. The Lincoln Colonnade. Duke didn't come there. I don't remember him coming there. Other bands came. And there was the house band -- was Bill Baldwin.

SMITH: Was there anybody particularly you heard -- You just tell me.

VIRGINIA: Okay. One of the biggest joys in the nightlife was when you went to the Crystal Caverns. This was at 11th and U Street and you go down in the basement. And down there-- whoever was playing at the Howard Theatre -- Count Basie, I remember, would leave after their performance and come to the Crystal Caverns. And many times they would do a little performance there at the Caverns for the guests that were there.

And if you happened to be there that night, it was so exciting. And one of the main people who was there all the time, singing, was Pearl Bailey. She practically grew up in Crystal Caverns. So that was really one unique place and I felt so proud -- even though I was young, I got the opportunity to go to Crystal Caverns. They would call it the cave.

CHARLES: That was the nickname.

SMITH: Tell me about Pearl Bailey, the sense of her being from Washington, did you hear her in other places?

VIRGINIA: Yes.

SMITH: What was Pearl Bailey?

VIRGINIA: Pearl Bailey was really a role model and a sense of joy and pride for us. Because as far as she progressed -- we would say, she's from DC. And that Pearl -- the older she got, the badder she got, you know. Even as a young lady down in the Crystal Caverns, she would just have you in stitches with her talking and singing all at the same time. And telling little jokes. That Pearl was a performer from the start.

And she carried that on with her. And, you know, she would come back. She always came back to Howard Theatre. That was another person -- you would find the money to go see Pearl -- when Pearl Bailey was there. So, she was really exciting.

SMITH: Did you ever hear about Pearl Bailey cooking food for jazz players and hanging around the club next to the Lincoln Colonnade where Jelly Roll Morton had a place?

CHARLES: No, I didn't know about that.

VIRGINIA: No. I wasn't privy to that.

SMITH: One more thing about the high school, Mr. Williams, and that was the Cadet Corps. What was the Cadet Corps, why was it such a big deal at Armstrong High?

CHARLES: The Cadet Corps for the Washington high school kids was an important part of your young man's growth. You were -- you were set apart really. When you went in there as a young man in the 9th grade, you had an option of drilling -- we called it drilling -- very simple -- or if you had a letter from your family, then you could be excused.

But if you were smart, you stayed in. Because then you were attractive to young ladies. You had the uniform on and it was a nice looking uniform.

And in my family, it was traditional that the male had to drill. Not one year. Wasn't no question about bringing a letter. You drilled all three years because the crowning point was to be an officer in your senior year, which meant you had a saber, you had command and you had ladies. The first year you were a private. The second year, if you used your head, you became a non-com, sergeant, corporal, whatever.

And one of the important non-coms was the flag sergeant. Visualize young men in the beautiful uniforms and at the head of a column would be this company flag on this long pole that you carried. Then you took the exam. In your senior year, you became an officer. Now, you gave commands. Now, you were a big man.

And the big day was generally the first weekend, first Friday of June. And it was called drill day. Very simple, drill day. But actually it was a competitive drill for the high school cadets. And, so, you were divided naturally like the army into companies. And each company had a two part program to do before judges.

A close order drill, column right, column left. Or the extended where you pretended to attack a little emplacement. And the National Guard was firing back at you, firing blanks. So, it was very realistic. And it was up to you to develop a program.

SMITH: Take me to Griffith Stadium.

CHARLES: The high point of the cadet year was the competitive drill at Griffith Stadium. The companies each did a program and at the end of the day the winners were selected -- the winner, and the second place and the third place were selected. That was the high point of the year.

SMITH: Who was competing?

CHARLES: The high point of the year was the competitive drill between Armstrong, Dunbar and Cordozo high schools. At the end of the day the best companies were selected, the first three companies. You marched in parade, in review and your fans in the stadium went wild, because for years one school had dominated and then it began to change in the mid-30's.

SMITH: I want a picture, where are we, how many people are there, what's the atmosphere? I mean, this is a big deal.

CHARLES: It is, it was.

SMITH: Mrs. Williams, what was this competition like. You're husband was in, what was it like, where was it, what was the feel?

VIRGINIA: Well, one such thing about Drill Day in DC, all the schools close and let all the children, so they could go to the drill. It was that significant and important. And, so, all the girls, we dressed in our school colors. Blue and orange for me, red and black for Dunbar and purple and white for Cordozo.

And we would go to the stadium and we walk the aisles back and forth looking down on the field periodically to see the guys. But if our guys weren't down there, we weren't interested. But we were profiling so the little boys could see us going off. We'd be giggling and carrying on while the boys would be making remarks at you, et cetera. So, it was like a party atmosphere.

And, so, if you by any chance happened to be, like my sister was one year -- she was the girlfriend of the winning captain from Cordozo. And his name was --

CHARLES: Don't ask.

SMITH: Don't worry about --

VIRGINIA: Okay. So, that night they always had the big dance at the Lincoln Colonnades after the drill. And, so, then we'd dress and the guys would come in their uniforms, bringing their ladies. But if you were the lady of the winning captain, you really were special. And I just experienced it vicariously through my sister, because I didn't even know Charles then.

SMITH: You had an unusual experience in the drill, you marched in Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural parade. Tell me about marching...

CHARLES: Marching in a parade is exciting at best, but marching in the inaugural parade was the epitome of your high school year. And I was fortunate enough to be in high school when Franklin D. came into office. And it's a massive parade, massive. I can't even describe how big it is, because you had people from all over the country, military units basically, and other units.

But the Washington high school cadets were a part of it. And my experience, I was a sergeant when it happened and I remember making the turn off of Pennsylvania Avenue into 15th Street, going North, the usual route of the parade and I heard a voice -- in all of this crowd, I heard my cousin say, "There's Charles." I was that sergeant who was in front. I was a platoon sergeant. And it was great. And then to pass before the President's stand --

SMITH: So, they shouted, there's Charles...

CHARLES: My cousin yelled. I could hear her in the crowd at the curb, when we turned into Pennsylvania Ave -- turned into 15th Street North, "there's Charles, there's Charles." And I was excited because all of those thousands of people --my family saw me.

Then, of course, the final stages were to pass in front of President Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural stand. And that was a thrill. You -- only a few people get this -- you know, maybe in the military, like the army, the navy, the marines, who all were there. But as a high schooler in your cadet uniform...

And eyes left. Eyes left as you passed and there he was, the great man. I can visualize him. I could see him. Because the stand was close --

SMITH: How did he look and how did you --

CHARLES: He looked -- well, I felt very proud because of two things. I was a member of the wonderful 9th Brigade and now I'm seeing the President in the flesh, not in the newspaper, not in the newsreel, you know.

SMITH: You're turning the corner --

CHARLES: I turned West on to Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th, passing the Treasury and then the White House and President Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural stand, where he and his family were standing. All those sons of his were military and it was a thrill, because it was eyes left. And as a flag sergeant, I was in the rank close. I was closest to the curb where he was. If I had been in another part of the company, maybe on the other flank, I wouldn't have been able to see him so closely.

And it was a thrill. It was an absolute thrill because out of how many people, 300 million people in the US, old Charles was there so close to the man.

VIRGINIA: That's another thing that made Washington special. You could not march in the local parade for the President of the United States except in Washington, D. C.

CHARLES: Exactly.

VIRGINIA: So, that was really another special thing about being in Washington, the President of the United States was there at the White House.

SMITH: So, tell me, did Franklin Roosevelt or did Mrs. Roosevelt -- did either come to the U Street area, the Howard, anything like that? Do you ever remember that?

CHARLES: Mrs. Roosevelt to my place of employment in 1942. This was long into their time as presidential people. She came to Freedman's, which is now Howard University hospitals. But Freedman's was a part of the Federal Security Agency. And that was a big deal when the funds were going to be sent -- you know, appropriated up on the Hill. And she came to Freedman's hospital, I think it was Founders Day, I'm not sure.

CHARLES: I had the pleasure of personally shaking hands with Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt and Freedmans hospital on Founders Day. She came to speak. And I was responsible for putting together a choir, a chorus of the employees. And she was warm. I liked her. Many people did. But that was my personal experience with her.

SMITH: Did people have a sense in that community that the Roosevelt with you at all, did you have a sense of that?

CHARLES: Well, it's hard to articulate.

SMITH: Let's forget it.

CHARLES: Because we know that they did things, so many things that are not even pertinent to U Street.

SMITH: Let's go back to the Duke. Duke Ellington had a special role in your lives. What's the Duke's story.

CHARLES: Duke Ellington was the major -- understand the MAJOR importance in my life. Because one day I was Minor Teacher's College and I saw a young freshman go by and I wanted to know who she was. And a friend found out the next day who she was and told me that she sang. So, we went down to the gym, where my favorite piano was. And, so, I said, what do you sing? And we went through the thing that you usually do when you don't know the songs and you can't figure the key. But I said, how about this new song that Duke just published, I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART? She says, I'll try it. And we tried it. I fished around and found the key that was the one that she wanted to sing through. And I said, well, let's try it. And it sounded somewhat like this:

[playing and singing]

SMITH: And?

CHARLES: That song made me know that I had to know more about this lady. After this third -- well, there's a third measure my goose was cooked.

SMITH: Say it again, I knew that song...

CHARLES: As soon as the third measure played, I had played it and the lady had sung it, I knew then that this was the lady for me. And, so, here we are, almost 60 years later, same lady.

VIRGINIA: We're still having fun and still singing all kind of songs. We enjoy it. Happy times.

SMITH: Tell me, Mrs. Williams, what was U Street like during that time when you were growing up?

VIRGINIA: U Street was the place for entertaining. They had everything you needed. It had theatres, it had clubs. It had great places to eat. It had a variety of different hot dog places. There was a place called Tiny-Teeny, I think was the -- Asian/Oriental place. And their hot dogs were different from the famous Ben's Chili Bowl hot dogs that even to this day are well-known everywhere. In fact, I heard that Bill Cosby goes to Ben's Chili Bowl every time he comes here.

SMITH: Get me back on U Street.

VIRGINIA: Okay, we had the theatre -- the Lincoln Theatre.

CHARLES: I told him about that.

VIRGINIA: I know, but this was U Street, you know, Lincoln Theatre, Republic Gardens --

CHARLES: Green Parrot.

VIRGINIA: The Green Parrot where he played sometimes and the Booker T Theatre, all of that was all along the U Street corridor. And, so, any kind of entertainment we wanted was right there on U Street. It was the black social street in DC.

SMITH: What happened on Sundays? Did people walk up and down the street?

VIRGINIA: On Sundays, we walked up and down U Street, but you couldn't shop on U Street, because stores weren't open on Sundays. And we were not allowed to go to the movies on Sundays. But we could stroll U Street. And it was and still is a very impressive place.

SMITH: It was kind of like 5th Avenue was in New York, the promenade. Is that right or not?

CHARLES: That's true.

SMITH: What happened on Sundays, how people dressed.

VIRGINIA: First of all, you would have been to church. And you know when you went to church in those days everybody had to wear a hat. So, when you left church and strolled down U Street, you were dressed in your Sunday best and you had a hat on.

CHARLES: Sunday afternoons.

VIRGINIA: Hi, so and so, how are you, you know. So, it was -- it was just a great place to be and that was a really special part of Washington.

CHARLES: To see and be seen. That was very important. I can remember U Street was the scene when Lewis was the heavyweight champion of the world. When the fight was over, everybody in that area gravitated and the streets were solid -- traffic didn't move, because they were celebrating the victory.

Those things are gone now. Now we got the television, we're deprived of that togetherness. No rowdiness, just pure excitement, Joey won another championship or Joey won another fight.

Halloween, U Street was where you brought your kids in their costumes. No rowdy stuff. It was wonderful. U Street was the hub for Northwest Washington.

VIRGINIA: And it also had a lot of the black businesses there, card shops and florists, as well as other shops and all. So, it was black businesses.

CHARLES: The separate city meant that you didn't go into certain places to eat. But we had Barksdales, which was an elegant dining room. I mean, the last word. So, I must say I'm sort of ambivalent because the things I saw, places I went were high class.

VIRGINIA: And one of the major business we haven't talked about is Sperlock's photographers. Sperlock's took the best pictures of everybody. He took a picture of my mother and we were so proud, because my mother's picture was in Sperlock's window for so long. He chose it as one of the pictures to display in his window. We were really proud when you got your photo taken by a Sperlock. He's been in business for years. His father died, the son took over business. So that was also a part of U Street.

SMITH: Tell me about 12th Street Y, what did the 12th Street Y mean to young boys growing up in the community during that period of the 20's and 30's?

CHARLES: The 12th Street Y was unique in that it was the one place that a young man could go to absorb Christianity in the athletic world. Actually, the 12th Street Y had monster teams in all the different indoor sports and it was a part of a system of black YMCAs.

And, you went there for hobbies, you were taught hobbies, you learned to swim. I mean, a lot of old guys my age who learned to swim at the Y. Because there weren't many places that you could go to learn to swim as a black.

Banneker was relatively new. There was a place. And I don't remember whether there was any other in the city. There may have been. But the Y was the place you learned -- you had older men, older boys. And there was the system, the age system, where you were a little guy in the Y, you learned to play ping pong, you learned to play pool, you learned to swim, you had hobbies, crafts.

And it was a wonderful place. The Y and I hope that they can revive it to where it was before. We have other things now for young people that draws away from it.

SMITH: What did the YMCA mean to you personally?

CHARLES: The Y to me was a home away from home. I didn't go as often as some of the other kids my age. I was a sheltered child. So, that was there the athletes hung out, which my mother equated with tough guys. But it was a wonderful place.

And it was the home where guys were taught hobbies, they were taught games, you went there for hobbies they were taught all the things that a young man would need to grow. The people who were the officials were trained. As I recall now, all the people who ran the Y were, I guess you would call them sociology students. People had degrees in sociology.

It was well run. There were people who lived at the Y, young black people who lived at the Y who worked in the government. There was a church next door which now has grown, 12th Street Christian Church. Started basically -- the ministry and some of the people that founded it were from the Y.

I went there as a teenager, not as a child. I went as a teenager. Because my friends were there, part of the athletic association played against the Y teams. The dances were held at the Y, social events.

But it was an extension -- I think it predated Boys Clubs. What do we have now, Police Boys Clubs, was predated by the Y. But now we have other activities to draw people away from them. I hope that it's -- can recapture some of the things that were there.

SMITH: How do you feel about the revitalization of U Street, how does that feel to you?

CHARLES: I feel like U Street doesn't belong to me any more. I want to live in the past. And when I leave Maryland and go into U Street to just drift around, it's not the old U Street. It's different. I can't put my finger on it, but it's a different U Street. I don't know, maybe my wife can tell you.

VIRGINIA: It's starting, well, I'll say way up maybe -- let's say 18th Street. And it's -- I don't know what--

CHARLES: Gentrification.

VIRGINIA: Oh, okay, that sounds like a good word. Businesses being put into what were big wonderful black homes on U Street and they're -- the businesses are small, necessarily and lots of eating places and they have the little tables outside. But, you know, the sad part in some ways to me is maybe I'm living in the past. Because the businesses are not being owned and operated by blacks. They have Asians and whites, and I feel like, oh, they're taking over U Street and they are drifting down further and further, coming closer.

If you get to the far end starting, say, from 9th -- we still have many black businesses, we still have Ben's Chili Bowl, we still have the Republic Gardens. But I don't know how long that's going to be. I wonder about that--

 

 

 



 

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