Voices from Foggy Bottom's Past

February 29, 2012

Colbert King, Mary Brown, W. David Riley and James Briscoe talk in panel discussion on stage

Columnist Colbert King, left, and panelists Mary Brown, W. David Riley and James Briscoe spoke about their memories of growing up in Foggy Bottom.

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

Mary Brown, a 91-year-old who grew up in Foggy Bottom, recalls a time when the sight of the gaslamp lighter coming down her neighborhood street was the universal sign that children needed to head home.

“If either your mother or your father had to come out, that was bad,” Ms. Brown said, to audience laughter and murmurs of agreement.

Ms. Brown spoke as part of a panel of African American longtime Foggy Bottom residents who shared recollections of their community, their families and the university. The panel, called “Voices: Celebrating the African American Legacy in Foggy Bottom,” was part of GW’s celebration of its centennial in Foggy Bottom.

Ms. Brown was joined on the stage of Jack Morton Auditorium Tuesday evening by W. David Riley, born in Foggy Bottom in 1945, and James Briscoe, born in 1950. Colbert I. King, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and Foggy Bottom native, moderated the discussion.

Tuesday’s event was part of a larger oral history project, in which more than a dozen African American Foggy Bottom residents participated in interviews about their lives. The interviews, conducted and transcribed by GW American studies graduate student Katherine Mead, will become part of Gelman Library’s Africana Research Center collection and will be available to scholars and historians.

“I was able to work with a fantastic and quirky group of people and also learn more about the living history of where I work and study every day,” Ms. Mead said.

After a performance of “Come Sunday,” written by famous Foggy Bottom son Duke Ellington and sung by GW Professor of Jazz Voice Alison Crockett, George Washington President Steven Knapp welcomed the audience—composed mainly of Foggy Bottom residents—and recalled the university’s long history in the neighborhood.

“We came into a community rich in history and diversity and, as you’ve just heard, wonderful music. We’re very proud to be part of this community,” Dr. Knapp said.

The panelists discussed their school years—all three attended Francis Junior High School (now Francis-Stephens Education Campus), located at 24th and N streets—recalling terrible lunches, strict teachers and sometimes harsh disciplinary methods, but high educational standards.

“At lunchtime, we had hot dogs, potato salad and Jell-O. That’s what you ate for lunch—every day,” Ms. Brown said. “We had some very good teachers. Some were very strict, especially for the boys. The shop teacher would whack people who didn’t behave. But other teachers would keep you after school. Everyone who came out of Francis Junior High, I think, went onto higher levels and made good in the world.”

Mr. Briscoe, who attended Francis nearly 30 years after Ms. Brown, had a similar experience.

“They must have been cloning the teachers,” he said. “I don’t recognize the names, but I definitely recognize the same actions.”

Mr. Briscoe said he remembered the school, and his neighborhood, as being multicultural long before that term was ever used.

“There were people from everywhere. We didn’t realize it was multicultural, though. There was a young lady from Jordan, we went to the third through sixth grades together. And a young man from Bulgaria. Don’t get me wrong, this area was predominantly black, so school was predominantly black, but there were people in the apartments around here from other countries, who couldn’t speak good English. But they learned from us and we learned from them.”

Mr. King, who was born in 1939, noted that while Foggy Bottom was never an entirely black neighborhood, segregated schools played a significant role in his childhood. “Our closest friends, two doors away, were white. We did everything together, except when school started. He went his way, and we went our way—not because we took a vote or anything, but because this is how the law said we had to behave.”

All the panelists had jobs as children. “There were always lots of ways for young folks to make money,” Mr. Briscoe said. He and Mr. Riley both “served” newspapers, and Ms. Brown bused tables at a restaurant for her pocket money.

“I served 300 papers on the weekdays, 400 on Sunday,” Mr. Riley said. “I was grateful for that. It taught me a lesson on how to be a manager of money.” He has owned his business, Riley’s Auto Center, for more than 40 years.

Class was more divisive than race in many cases, the panelists said. “The doctor’s kids, the lawyer’s, they weren’t really allowed to play with the so-called poor kids,” even though all these families were black, Mr. Riley said.

Similarly, all the panelists remembered shopping at small Jewish-owned corner grocery stores, without realizing that “Jewish” was a term many people connected to both ethnicity and religion, Mr. King explained.

“At 23rd and L, I remember this [shop] where you could go with a penny and get Mary Janes [candy]. And you could get pickles, and get these peppermint sticks and stick them in the pickles, and he had the coldest, coldest sodas you could find, because he had blocks of ice there. He was the first person to hire me. The first job I ever had.”

Audience members also asked the panelists questions, ranging from whether they had good experiences with GW as children to whether there were a lot of male role models in their neighborhoods growing up.

Mr. Briscoe remembered a group of GW drama students coming to his church, 19th Street Baptist, where his Boy Scout group met, and teaching the children acting. “We were doing plays with the students at GW....That group was really active in getting young African American kids from around the neighborhood involved. It’s etched in my memory.”

But GW also bought a lot of real estate, Mr. King said, and that forced change in the neighborhood, especially for those who didn’t own their homes and rented apartments.

One audience member, himself a Foggy Bottom native, recalled that almost every house had a father when he was growing up, and asked the panelists if that was their experience too.

“Yes, we all had fathers—the mothers saw to that in those days,” Ms. Brown said. “They looked over you like mother hens, and the fathers did the same thing.”

Mr. Riley said that while he didn’t have a father at home—his mother raised eight children on her own—it made him self-sufficient, and he started working at age eight.

“My experience was, I had multiple parents,” Mr. Briscoe said. “I could walk for blocks, and somebody knew my father, knew my mother. That was a big part of the community. Everyone didn’t have a mom and a dad, but the community kind of took care of folks.”