Once known as Chocolate City, D.C. became home for me and my family in 1965. After graduating from the eighth grade at Central High School near Goldsboro, North Carolina, my uncle was there to drive me to be with my family.
My family had moved to D.C. a few months before my graduation. After begging my parents, who were both Pentecostal preachers, to allow me to stay long enough to graduate, they finally agreed. Though my parents had been farmers, and work dried up, sleeping over at someone else’s home was out of the question. But as one of the top 10 students in my eighth-grade class, I convinced them to let me stay behind so I could participate in my graduation and give my first public speech.
I stayed with my homeroom teacher, who lived in Goldsboro, the city where Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is located. I was a country girl, and I wasn’t very shy, inexperienced. I didn’t like life without my family, so at the end of my visit, I did not say goodbye to my teacher when I left. She and her husband were very kind to me, but it just was not a good experience. I was lonely for my family and delighted to finally go home.
My uncle drove us into the city, and we arrived in D.C. on the same day of my graduation. Our home was a three-story row house on Rhode Island Avenue NE, with a basement and two upper levels, filled by a family with eight children (a ninth had married already and moved to New Jersey).
It was so different from any home my family had ever lived in! The sound of the city — traffic, buses, police sirens, fire engines and trash trucks in the alley. Back home on our farm, life was quiet. We lived on 70 Highway, which was a busy thoroughfare, but compared to life in the big city, it was nothing.
Here in Washington, little Black children played in the streets, front- and backyards, which were very small and fenced in. Mostly they played along sidewalks. We were allowed to roam around and visit the homes of our neighbors. There was no danger back then. There were no other races of people in my Ward 5 community. Because I had only lived in North Carolina, on farms, and had only lived around more Black people, it was my belief that there were many more of us Black folks in the world, especially since all we saw here in Washington, D.C., were Black people, everywhere! The city was indeed a “Chocolate City.” There were white people back home, but here in Washington, D.C., back in 1965, it was rare, especially on our side of town.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, having taken office in 1963 after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. First lady Lady Bird Johnson undertook a beautification project in our city, planting young trees that now stand very tall. I remember when they were first planted over 50 years ago. Trees and flowers were planted all along the sidewalks and in the mediums of the street.
“Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool,” she wrote in her diary on Jan. 27, 1965. “All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local.”
Come back next week for more on my experience of gentrification in Washington, D.C.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrantshow.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.