A Community Exploring Its Past
While most Americans probably think of Capitol Hill as simply the site of the U.S. Capitol, those who live here know it as an old and thriving residential neighborhood, a small town within a large city. The Overbeck Project captures the history of this community by recording the recollections of its longtime residents and preserving other records of its fascinating past.
Project volunteers collect and transcribe interviews for posting on this site. We also sponsor a highly successful lecture series exploring our city's history. We urge you too to get involved in this exciting effort, sponsored by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.
In Remembrance: Mary Z. Gray (1919-2015)
Mary Z. Gray, the delightful writer and raconteur whose book 301 East Capitol: Tales from the Heart of the Hill made her a celebrity in our neighborhood, died peacefully at her retirement residence in Silver Spring on January 30. At 96, she had just started work on a new book in which she planned to recount the circuitous route by which she became a professional writer.
Volunteers from the Overbeck History Project contacted Gray in 2008 seeking to interview her about growing up on Capitol Hill in the 1920s and 30s. No recorded interview occurred, but the conversations prompted the author and essayist to start writing down memories of a childhood spent in an apartment above the family business, two blocks from the Capitol grounds. The resulting 301 East Capitol was published by the Overbeck History Press in 2012 and became an instant hit among neighborhood residents and others with ties to the community.
In the book, Gray tells moving and often comical tales of a family of musicians and morticians who had lived on the Hill for five generations by the time she was born here in 1919. Gray got her first byline in The Washington Post in 1940 and eventually served as a speechwriter for the Kennedy-Johnson White House. She wrote frequently as a freelancer for The Post, The New York Times and other publications for more than fifty years, and a collection of her essays was published in 1984 under the title Ah, Bewilderness! Muddling through Life with Mary Z. Gray.
301 East Capitol abounds with unforgettable scenes from Gray's early childhood -- being tugged away from Sherrill's Bakery by her family's maid (who would not have been allowed to eat there), frightening a nun at St. Cecilia's Academy with a story about the family business, and being taken to meet Charles Lindbergh, just back from his solo flight to Paris.
John Franzén, who coordinates the Overbeck History Lectures and served as Gray's editor, said, "Mary remained a radiant talent, a delightful companion and a devoted friend of Capitol Hill all the way to the end. We will miss her dearly."
As of November, 2014, four additional transcripts have been added to the Overbeck Project website.
Two of the four interviews were done within the last year and a half: a 2013 interview with Grover Batts, a Capitol Hill resident since 1959, who described his very interesting work for the manuscript division of the Library of Congress and his life in this walkable neighborhood; and a 2014 interview with Albert S. Turner, who reminisced about growing up surrounded by family in the 1200 block of G Street SE in the 1930s and 40s and about his sequential careers with the telephone company and the Capitol Police force.
The other two newly posted transcripts represent much older interviews: a 1977 interview with Dr. Herbert Ramsey, a 1912 graduate of Eastern High School who focused on alumni from that school; and a short summary of a 1974 conversation with Minnie Lee White, a close friend of the woman who sculpted the suffragette statue now in the Capitol Rotunda.
These latter two documents complete our four year effort to make public ten interviews done in the 1970s. We think they are a true treasure: a peek into the lives of people born in the late 19th century or very early 20th century, many of whose families had been in the neighborhood even longer. Collectively, these provide names and addresses all over Capitol Hill because of the deliberate effort in the 70s to focus on all geographic parts of the Hill.
The Overbeck Project realizes we'll never be able to interview all potential candidates, so we're delighted to incorporate other pertinent interviews into our collection; links to material already available elsewhere on the Internet are of particular interest. Readers are encouraged to send us suggestions.
A listing of all 28 transcripts added since May, 2013, appears here. Altogether, 173 full transcripts are available on this website.
Other News and Reminders
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The Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, Washington, D.C.