Letter to the Editor
from Sterling Brown
(At left - photograph of Sterling Brown in 1979)
Brown's letter was published under the heading
"Blacks in Brookland" in the old The Washington Star:
(April 18, 1979)
I am afraid that my family and I do not share the nostalgia expressed by Jeremiah O'Leary in his essay on Northeast Washington's Brookland (March 17). We have resided in Brookland since 1935, just a year before O'Leary's anguished courtship of and Irish colleen on 20th Street NE. We do not agree that Brookland's "day was done when the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor." Coming back in 1945, according to O'Leary, the young Irish veterans "were men of the world, and the families went on the move to greener pastures."
Well, Brookland's day is not done. The exodus of the Irish and the WASPS cannot be blamed on Pearl Harbor. I am afraid that my family was one of the dire causes of white flight. Moving from our previous home when it was purchased by Howard University, my mother bought two lots in Brookland and built one home for herself and two daughters, and one for my wife, myself and our adopted son. When the homes were completed, "For Sale" signs in the neighborhood seemed to sprout overnight.
Across the street lived a venerable Negro who cut the grass and performed other essential duties for his white neighbors. To our east, lived the Petways, whose daughter recently retired as a teacher and librarian in the city schools. In the second house down lived two sisters, long important in the secondary-education section of the then segregated public school system.
Three doors down lived the dean of women of Howard University, and a widely known elocutionist and teacher of speech and drama at Dunbar High School. Other Negro families in Brookland before the white exodus were the Weavers, whose son Mortimer was Phi Beta Kappa and Delta Sigma Rho at Williams College and an M.A. from Harvard, and whose youngest son, Robert, was the first Negro to be appointed a member of the cabinet, serving under Lyndon Johnson. Alston Burleighson of [UNDECIPHERABLE] who married into the established, respected Jones family; the Lightfoot sisters, related to the distinguished professor of Latin at Howard; and the family of Sen. Edward Brooke, who spent his boyhood in Brookland before its "day was done."
never knew a black person in that long-ago time, and precious few other exotic
species," O'Leary wrote.
Well, I have been a reader of The Star for over 70 years, and I have read many O'Leary articles and understood most, but begorra, and may the saints preserve us, what in the bloody wurruld does he mean by "exotic" and "species?" Jaysus almighty! My Brookland white friend - (for some of my best friends are of that exotic breed) does not rebuke me so much for exiling whites as for destroying the hill where our family's houses were constructed; it was the favorite crap-shooting and card-playing area in the neighborhood.
A less friendly white - I believe he was Irish from his pronunciation - for several weeks drove past in his rickety car, yelling "Naygur, Naygur" at us, louder than the rattling of his jalopy. The word was frequently painted on our steps near the street. Once it was spelled "NIGER," though my only connection with that country that I know of is my friendship with our former ambassador there, W. Mercer Cook. But what is a single G among friends?
A neighboring woman, who had not been able to get her price, reported us to the FBI as either a house of assignation or a Communist cell. Her evidence was that Negro men would visit with white women. The men were such as Abe Harris, Ralph Bunche, Frank Frazier and Harold Lewis, whose wives were fair-skinned.
But of course whites, male and female; did visit our home. I was on the editorial board of the Writer's Project and a lover of jazz and our guests included real white friends like Mike Daugherty, Ben Botkin, Angus McDonald, Gunnar Myrdal, Jerre Mangione, John Hammond, Charles E. Smith, Fred Ramsey, Gordon Gullickson and Alan Lomax. As part of the New Deal reawakening, a large number of curiosity seekers, male and female, also came on slumming trips.
To me, Brookland was not, and is not, a "ghetto." In my block, in our two score years there, our Negro neighbors have included the chairman of the department of electrical engineering at Howard University, a leading gynecologist, a family whose sons are a doctor and teachers (one at Harvard), two prominent ministers, a former instructor in philosophy at Howard, a successful beautyshop owner and manager, a member of The Catholic University staff, a first-rate man in bricklaying and construction, and a host of other good, hard-working people.
Our neighbors behind us have always been white; our acquaintance is of the "nodding variety." Once, a Catholic University professor, interested in gardening, would chat with my wife, who is the best gardener in the neighborhood. Another professor at Catholic University was more devoted to the document than to oral history, but we had good fences and they, of course, make good neighbors. Now the home behind us is inhabited by a group of young Catholic women. Our only complaint is that on some nights they turn the volume up too loud. They are not playing "Carry Me Back to Old Killarney."
report of Brookland's death is grossly exaggerated. My dear Mr. O'Leary, I
feel no nostalgia. I feel no bitterness at the venalities of the past. I am
beyond my three score years and 10, over half of them spent in Brookland;
I am retired, but these pastures are green enough for me. Deeper than your
nostalgia is this prophecy, made by an ancient to a stripling: "Brookland
is doing well, and Brookland will rise again."