Their description of life on Capitol Hill and in Washington in the 1940s and 1950s covers their immediate family, with its nine children, as well as an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. The family's long-time involvement with St. Cyprian's Church, the "black Catholic church on Capitol Hill," is discussed in detail, as a reflection of life under segregation and the gradual changes brought about by the advent of integration.
WYRSCH: This is a Capitol Hill History Project interview with Charles Harris and his sister, Mary Harris Freeman. The interview is taking place on August 22, 2005. It’s being held at 2201 Q Street SE, Washington, DC. Mr. Harris, we’ll start with you. Can you tell us where you were born and where you lived in Washington and the date of your birth?
HARRIS: Charles Richard Harris. I was born January 23, 1933 in the house known as 308 Ninth Street SE. I was the third of nine children. My oldest brother was born at the hospital. The rest of us were born at home with a visiting doctor and visiting nurses taking care of the medical needs.
WYRSCH: Mary, where were you born?
FREEMAN: I was born at home, 308 Ninth Street SE. Dr. Penn was the delivering physician.WYRSCH: What was Dr. Penn’s full name, do you remember?
FREEMAN and HARRIS: Spurgeon Penn.
FREEMAN: And he lived not too far away, in the 1200 block of C Street SE.
WYRSCH: And what number are you in the family? Where do you fit, Mary?
FREEMAN: I’m number seven.
WYRSCH: And what is your date of birth?
FREEMAN: My date of birth is July 20, 1941.
WYRSCH: Either one of you, tell me your parents’ names.
HARRIS: My father’s name was John Henry Harris. He was a senior because his firstborn son was named John Henry Harris, Jr., and our mother’s name was Anna Ford Harris, Ford being her maiden name.
WYRSCH: And how long had they lived at 308 Ninth Street SE?HARRIS: Mary, would you know that? Seemed like forever.
FREEMAN: Since about 1926. Because John was born in 1925, and he would have been 80. And they moved shortly after his birth.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project Charles R. Harris and Mary Harris Freeman Interview, August 22, 2005
WYRSCH: I see. I’d like to spend some time talking about your parents. Were they Washington residents for a long time? Where had they grown up?
FREEMAN: My mother grew up in the home where we were born and where we lived after—308 Ninth Street SE.
WYRSCH: I see. So the house was in her family a long time.
FREEMAN: That’s correct.
WYRSCH: How long before 1926 was it in her family?
HARRIS: I don’t know. There was some paperwork recently pertaining to the date and time [laughs]. I’m not too good with the specific dates and times. Mary is more adept at fine-tuning history.
WYRSCH: What is the approximate year that you think your mother’s family moved in to 308 Ninth Street?
FREEMAN: Well, let’s see, because our mother was born in 1905 and was raised in the home, it had to have been before that. But I’m not exactly sure of the exact date.
WYRSCH: How did your parents meet, either Mary or Charles?HARRIS: That’s a good question. I haven’t the faintest idea, to be truthful.
FREEMAN: It’s my understanding that they met at a ball game, and when he proposed to her they had gone on a boat ride to Curtis Bay.
WYRSCH: Where is Curtis Bay?
FREEMAN: It’s near Baltimore. It’s on the outskirts of Baltimore, in Maryland. And when my father proposed to her, their favorite piece—I don’t know if it was playing at the time—but it was “It Had to Be You.” So that was their song [laughs].
WYRSCH: What year were your parents married?
FREEMAN: They were married in 1924.
WYRSCH: What did your father do?
HARRIS: My father worked at the Bureau of Engraving on the night shift. That I do remember. What his specific tasks were, I don’t know, even though we visited the Bureau of Engraving several times.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project Charles R. Harris and Mary Harris Freeman Interview, August 22, 2005
FREEMAN: And he had other employment that he used to tell us about when we were growing up. One job was to chase cows for five cents a week.
WYRSCH: So your father had a full-time job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and other jobs to supplement his income.
FREEMAN: Well, it wasn’t to supplement, it was just as the years went by, he got different employment.
WYRSCH: Oh, I see. Tell me about the chasing cows.
FREEMAN: Well, we would laugh at that. He said he was getting five cents a week, which we thought was hilarious. And then he also worked for a window shade company. Remember Mr. Kleeblatt, what’s his name?
HARRIS: Oh, I remember he also worked for a funeral parlor. The Betters Funeral Parlor which was located on the 1200 block of Walter Place SE [laughs].
WYRSCH: Can you tell me a little bit more about where your father might have chased cows? Where was that job?
FREEMAN: That’s a good question, because he was born in 1901 and I really don’t know where he lived prior to “hooking up” with our mother [laughs].
WYRSCH: I’d like to ask now about schools. Why don’t we start with Charles and then go to Mary. Where did you go to school, Charles?
HARRIS: One block from home there was a convent—St. Ann’s Convent. At 310 Eighth Street SE. It was also St. Cyprian’s School.
WYRSCH: So in the same building was St. Ann’s Convent and St. Cyprian’s School.
HARRIS: And the grades went from first through the ninth. You stayed in one room all day and got all of your different subjects from the same nun. And the nuns lived on the upper floor of this one large structure which had two playgrounds, one for boys and one for girls.
WYRSCH: Mary is showing me a picture now of the school. Let me ask you something, Charles. Did the school have classrooms for grades one, grade two, grade three—that’s what you meant by “you were in the same room?”
HARRIS: Right. Different room for each class, but you were in the same room all day. Same teacher, different books.
Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project Charles R. Harris and Mary Harris Freeman Interview, August 22, 2005
WYRSCH: And so the two names were the place where the nuns lived, St. Ann’s Convent, and they also had a school, and they lived upstairs.
St. Ann’s Convent and St. Cyprian’s School, 310 Eighth Street SEHARRIS: Right. The order of nuns that taught there was the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
WYRSCH: Were the sisters a Negro order? An African American order?
HARRIS: African American order with the motherhouse, or the headquarters, located in Baltimore,
WYRSCH: And so, Charles, you went all through grade school at St. Cyprian’s school, one block from home.
HARRIS: One block from home.WYRSCH: Mary?
FREEMAN: I went to the same school, the address 310 Eighth Street SE, taught by the nuns, but when I was enrolled in the school, it only went to the eighth grade.
WYRSCH: So you didn’t have very far to go.HARRIS: One block from home [laughs].
WYRSCH: Did you go home for lunch?
HARRIS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
WYRSCH: Then where did you go to high school? Charles?
HARRIS: I went to Cardozo high school for the first two years. That was located on Rhode Island Avenue NW, between Seventh and Ninth, two blocks from the Howard Theater. And for my senior year, Cardozo High School was moved to its present location, at 13th and Clifton, because it covers the entire block between 11th and 13th, Clifton Street and Florida Avenue.
WYRSCH: I see. Mary, where did you go to high school?
FREEMAN: I went to high school at St. Cecilia’s Academy. The boys went to public school and the
three girls went to Catholic girl’s school.
WYRSCH: Where was St. Cecilia’s Academy?
FREEMAN: St. Cecilia’s was located at Sixth and East Capitol Street SE.
WYRSCH: Was it also a school run by African American sisters?
FREEMAN: No, this was a school that was run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
WYRSCH: And was it an integrated school?
FREEMAN: It was an integrated school. Our oldest sister, Joyce Ann, was the first African American to graduate from St. Cecilia’s Academy.
WYRSCH: What year was that?
FREEMAN: The year was 1954. It was during the time before Brown v. Board of Education, where the
schools were integrated.
WYRSCH: So your sister, the oldest sister, Joyce Ann Harris, was the first African American graduate.
FREEMAN: Right. Others had gone, others had attended; however, they didn’t graduate. And she started in 1951 at the behest of the pastor of our church. During the time the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal O’Boyle, was integrating behind the scenes before the other schools started. So she was really like a “tester.”
WYRSCH: How did it go for her?
FREEMAN: For her to go to the school, it was very trying for her, very emotional. But our mother, being a strong woman, was behind her all the way, but our sister had to put up with a lot of unfriendliness, including from the principal of the school.
WYRSCH: Would you say that the Cardinal and your parish priest were the ones behind it?
FREEMAN: I would be inclined to say yes, because the parish priest was working “behind the scenes.”
WYRSCH: What was the name of your parish priest?
FREEMAN: His name was Father Neary—as close as I remember. I’m not sure of the spelling, but phonetically it’s Neary.
WYRSCH: What was his first name?
FREEMAN: I can’t remember. Back then, we called the priest Father Neary, usually by their last name,
as opposed to “Robert Neary,” and we never really knew.
WYRSCH: So, just to recap, your sister went to St. Cecilia’s Academy from 1951-1954. And so, Mary, when you went there, when was it?
FREEMAN: I started in ’55, graduated in ’59.
WYRSCH: Since that was not too long after your sister was a tester, how was it for you?
FREEMAN: The girls would be friendly with you during school, but if they would see you away from school, there weren’t any pleasantries exchanged or anything. But there were more African Americans there when I graduated. But with Ann being the only one, it was really hard for her.
HARRIS: I forget what it was, but I remember taking some pictures of Ann and her classmates when she was at St. Cecilia’s. They had this musical production—I forget the name of it. But I didn’t have any problem with anybody posing for these pictures, which I still have around here somewhere.
FREEMAN: And then our sister Roberta also went.
WYRSCH: Before you, or after?
FREEMAN: She was before me—she graduated in ’57.
WYRSCH: I see. So while Joyce Ann—or Ann Harris—
FREEMAN: The family calls her Ann, because of the middle name, which she doesn’t like.
WYRSCH: —she was the tester, but not long very long after, Roberta went, and then not very long after, you went.
FREEMAN: And I went in ’55. Roberta’s deceased, she died in 1977. Breast cancer.
WYRSCH: You’ve mentioned the priest, Father Neary, and the church. Starting with Mary this time, can
you talk a little about what the church was like? St. Cyprian’s Church?
FREEMAN: Our church? Our church was a very close-knit community, family. Everyone knew everyone else during that time. St. Cyprian’s Roman Catholic Church. It was 13th and C Street SE.
WYRSCH: And was it an African American church?
FREEMAN: Yes it was.
HARRIS: More specifically, it took up half of the block on the north side of C Street between 12th and 13th. On the corner with the church, there was a space and then the rectory, another space, and then the parish hall, where they had events—plays, concerts, movies, spring festivals, all of that. That was a half a block of church property.
St. Cyprian's rectory and Church, on C Streets SE, at the corner of 13th Street
(photo by Mel Goldberg, taken at the time the buildings were being demolished in 1971)WYRSCH: So what was the area covered by St. Cyprian’s? What was the size of the parish?
HARRIS: The diocese, you mean?
WYRSCH: No, the parish.
St. Cyprian's Parish Hall, in the 1200 block of C Street SE (church rectory is at right in photo)
(photo by Mel Goldberg, taken at the time the buildings were being demolished in 1971)
HARRIS: Well, that’s a good question. Because we were sitting located between Holy Comforter, which was basically white, located on the corner of 14th and East Capitol, and at Second at C SE, you had St. Peter’s. And in the middle of these two, predominantly white—well, St. Peter’s was a little more mixed than Holy Comforter—but St. Cyprian’s, which my grandfather helped to build—that was visited and patronized by all the blacks in the area, and other parts of the city as well. Masses were always crowded.
FREEMAN: And then St. Peter’s has a little background also. African Americans weren’t welcome there. If you came to the church you had to sit in the back. Except our mother, who refused to sit in the back.
WYRSCH: So what would your mother do? She would go to St. Peter’s ...
FREEMAN: ... and go up front. And the usher told her that she was to sit in the back. But she said, “I
didn’t know we had a black God and a white God.” Our mother was a very strong person.WYRSCH: I see. So she stayed in the front of the church.
HARRIS: She was bullish [laughs].
WYRSCH: Mary, tell me a little more about St. Cyprian’s. You said it was very close-knit—why was it close-knit?
FREEMAN: Because everyone would attend who were from the neighborhood. We didn’t really have too many Baptist friends. All of our friends went to St. Cyprian’s. And there were a lot of Catholic families in the area. And they all just attended. And for things like May procession, Christmas Eve Mass, Midnight Mass, they would really come from far and wide—former parishioners—to attend Mass. Mass would get so crowded, you actually had to have a ticket to get in to the service.
HARRIS: Some of the services.
FREEMAN: Well, this was for Midnight Mass. And you had to get that previously, prior to the Mass, from the rectory. And if you didn’t have a ticket, you had to wait to see if there were any more space available.
WYRSCH: I see. It was predominantly African American.
HARRIS: Oh yeah.
WYRSCH: Were your priests African American?
FREEMAN: No. They were white priests, from the Society of St. Joseph.WYRSCH: And what is the Society of St. Joseph?
FREEMAN: At that time they worked mainly with Negroes and Indians—the Indian missions. And they didn’t have too many young men who were members of the priesthood.
WYRSCH: African Americans.
WYRSCH: What was your grandfather’s role in building St. Cyprian’s church?
HARRIS: Well, when the church was built—which was way before I came along—I’ve read a published a history of the church, and it tells the years and exactly when the church was built—but it was built by the parishioners themselves, over a period of time.
WYRSCH: What did your grandfather do? Was this your maternal grandfather, or your paternal?HARRIS: Paternal.
WYRSCH: What did he do?
HARRIS: To tell you the truth, I don’t remember.
FREEMAN: He was mom’s—he was the maternal grandfather.
WYRSCH: So he was your maternal grandfather. And you were aware that he helped build the church.
FREEMAN: Right, because Mama told us, our mother told us. And he also used to start the furnace for the nuns every morning. He would go there and do that. So we were close to the nuns.
WYRSCH: I see. I’d like to ask you about some significant events on Capitol Hill. You were growing up during World War II. What do you remember about that? Charles?
HARRIS: There’s one thing during that period that stands out in my mind. My oldest brother, John, it was an established fact that he was mother’s pet. Nobody questioned that.
FREEMAN: But there was no jealousy.
HARRIS: Right. It was just like breathing. We all knew it and accepted it. But anyway, during that time, the war in the Pacific was a virtual bloodbath. The Marines were taking the islands one at a time, but they were paying a price in blood. And this one day the mailman brought a draft notice for John Harris, telling him that the Marines wanted him. And I remember my mother sitting in a rocking chair all night long, crying, rocking, holding this telegram in her lap.
WYRSCH: So how old was John at that time?
HARRIS: Well, let’s see. This was ’43, and John—he was probably about 18 or 19.WYRSCH: So he was a young boy.
HARRIS: Oh, he was draft age, and that’s what they were reeling in for service at that time.WYRSCH: Mary, did he go? Did he serve?
FREEMAN: I was only two—I was one.
HARRIS: Interesting footnote: He took basic training down at Parris Island, South Carolina, which is where Marines still train today. But because of the fact that he could type, he spent his entire tour of duty at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And to show you how much of a charmed life he led, his first sergeant used to do his laundry— including ironing his shirts [laughs].
WYRSCH: And do you know why?
HARRIS: That’s just the way people clicked. The first sergeant used to come home with him on leave on
several different occasions, and he acknowledged this fact.
WYRSCH: Now, was this an integrated unit, or an African American unit?
HARRIS: No, this was a black unit, because I saw the company picture—you know, they had the Marines pose for the pictures—when they’d finished basic training. And like I said, this first sergeant used to come and visit our house at 308 Ninth Street, and he became just like a member of the family.
WYRSCH: Oh that’s great. What else do you remember about that time?
HARRIS: I remember when Franklin Roosevelt died, and everybody was so sad. And then when Harry Truman became President, he used to take walks around the White House like Bill Clinton used to jog in later years. Harry would walk around with his cane and his brisk walk, followed by two Secret Service agents. And on one occasion, I was lucky enough to get a picture of him. Picture this: an open convertible going down the street, with the president and the vice president sitting side by side up on the back of the convertible waving to the passersby. I got that picture.
WYRSCH: Now you were just allowed to take that picture?
HARRIS: I was on the sidewalk and I had the camera at the time. It may have been a parade, but it was
still a good shot.
WYRSCH: Do you remember, Charles, where you were when you heard that the president had died? President Roosevelt?
HARRIS: No, that was during my formative years, and stuff like that, you know—that’s heavy politics, and for a kid, 10 or 12, which I was at the time, it really wasn’t as significant at the time as it was when I read it in later years. When I read up on it.
WYRSCH: What about other events on Capitol Hill? Fires, natural disasters—any big memories that you have?
FREEMAN: Well, our memories about the fire department are personal, because our father loved the fire department.
WYRSCH: And why did he love the fire department?
FREEMAN: Well, he wanted to become a firefighter, but someone said well if you stammered when you talk, you couldn’t become one.
WYRSCH: And did your dad have a stammer?
FREEMAN: He did. But what’s really ironic is, Frank Wise had a stammer also.WYRSCH: Frank Wise was a neighbor across the street?
FREEMAN: He was a member of the fire department.
WYRSCH: He lived on Ninth Street, and he got to be a fireman, but your dad—FREEMAN: —despite the fact that—
WYRSCH: —he had a stammer, and your father had a stammer.
FREEMAN: ... and then really probably for our father, it may not have been possible, looking at it realistically, because our father was a very intelligent man. He wasn’t an educated man. He only went as far as fifth grade in school, but he was very, very, very knowledgeable.
WYRSCH: And how did you know that he loved the fire department?
FREEMAN: Because, he would go to the fire house, and they would let him handle the calls, and they— “they” meaning the other firefighters—would go about other business, but he would be on the desk, waiting for calls to come in.
WYRSCH: So your father was sort of a volunteer at the fire department?FREEMAN: No, he was just someone who liked the fire department.WYRSCH: I mean, he wasn’t working there. He would go by, and—FREEMAN: Right, this was just on his own. Just visiting. Right.
HARRIS: You could probably call him a hanger-on, because even though the fire department during my early years was basically white, my father knew everybody from the fire department chief to the battalion chief. He could rattle off the names, one after the other. And a block and a half from the house we lived in was a firehouse, Engine 18. It was on Eighth Street SE between D and E. And every time the horn on the house would sound, my father, if he was in the house—I don’t care what he was doing—he would run outside and look down the street to see which way the fire truck as going. And every once in a while the fire truck would come roaring up Ninth Street past the house, and dear old dad would be doing cartwheels
in his mind [Mary bursts out laughing], because he was in hog heaven when the truck passed. He would be sitting down eating dinner, he’d hear that siren, that horn on the house—he’d go right out there to see which way that fire truck had gone.
WYRSCH: So he loved the fire department, he loved the trucks, and he would go down to what is basically a white station and visit and answer the phone, and—
FREEMAN: The main one that he would go to also, remember Engine Seven. That was the one that had the black firefighters, that was down Ninth Street. See, there was no integration then.
WYRSCH: So tell me about that. There was a white fire company on Eighth Street, between D and E ...HARRIS: Engine 18.
FREEMAN: —and it’s still there.
WYRSCH: And where was the black fire company?
FREEMAN: It was Engine Seven, and that was Ninth Street, just above the Navy Yard. But it was down, on the right hand—but it was before you get to M Street. Just below the Marine Barracks. But it was on Ninth Street. They did away with that one.
WYRSCH: Can you tell me a little bit about how that worked? How did the black firefighters get used, as opposed to the white firefighters? How did they know?
FREEMAN: How did they know ... what?
WYRSCH: The question is, if there was a black fire company and a white company, did they serve two
customers? Two sets of customers?
FREEMAN: No, it’s mainly where the fire—
HARRIS: —was located.
FREEMAN: ... was located, right. And it’s done the same way now, you know, they have areas that they’re responsible for.
WYRSCH: I see, so it’s just a matter not of the customer, but the living arrangements.FREEMAN: Right.
WYRSCH: What other significant incidents do you remember?
HARRIS: Fire-wise, I remember one time St. Peter’s Catholic Church caught on fire.WYRSCH: What year was that?
HARRIS: I really don’t know. I just remember walking to the scene, because back in those days, this was before television, and stuff like that close by, naturally you’d go to the scene. And I remember standing across the street from St. Peter’s Church at Second and C SE, and seeing water running out of the building and down the steps like a small Niagara Falls. And then a different, another time, two doors from Engine 18 at Eighth and D SE, there was this large furniture store—William E. Miller Furniture Store—it took up the whole building for the longest time. It was about four or five stories tall, and maybe three stories wide, or whatever. But they had a huge, horrendous fire there one time, and I remember after the fire, for about two days, they was throwing burnt-up and charred furniture down this delivery shoot that ran down the side of the building. That was another humongous fire.
FREEMAN: You know what another irony is of the fire department, and our father’s love for it? My husband became a firefighter. And of course my father loved him dearly. He joined the department in 1965.
HARRIS: Her husband and my brother James—Jim—when he retired, he was working out of the very fire house a block and a half from 308 Ninth Street SE. He drove Engine 18. And I used to tell him that every time he pulled out of the station, blowing that horn, clearing the way, his father was hanging from the back, grinning from ear to ear. [Pause] [Singing] Those were the days ...
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 1 TAPE 1/SIDE 2
WYRSCH: I’d like to ask you some questions about Dr. Spurgeon Penn. Dr. Penn practiced from his home at 1200 C Street SE?
HARRIS: Yup, I forget his exact address, but it was in the 1200 block of C Street, down the street from St. Cyprian’s Church.
WYRSCH: And was Dr. Penn an African American?
HARRIS: He was.
WYRSCH: And so his practice was predominantly African American?HARRIS: I would say that it would be all African American.
WYRSCH: And so he came and delivered all of you except your first —HARRIS: —the oldest brother. The firstborn.
WYRSCH: And why was that? Why was John born in a hospital?
HARRIS: Well, firstborn, you’re not accustomed to dealing with such things, and probably the wise individual would not take any chances. Once you get that first birth under your belt, that makes you a seasoned veteran, so to speak.
FREEMAN: And then also, Mom and Daddy lived on Kentucky Avenue with Mama’s Aunt Teeny, and so they were living someplace different. They had gotten married. And that’s why John wasn’t born at the home. But then our grandfather became ill, and the family was going to lose the house, so they asked Mama, Mom and Daddy if they would move back to help. So that’s what they ended up doing. So they had just the one child. And they moved back to 308.
WYRSCH: So your mother and dad, then, moved with your brother, their firstborn, into 308 Ninth Street with her parents ...
FREEMAN: Right, her Dad was ill.
WYRSCH: And who else lived in the house?
FREEMAN: Mama used to cook for 22 people a day.
HARRIS: Grandmother, two uncles, three aunts, and the Harris family—these were all Fords.
WYRSCH: Your mother’s name was Anna Ford Harris.
HARRIS: —that’s her maiden name. But her grandmother’s name was Ford, and her children were there. Two of her daughters and three of her sons as well as the Harrises all lived in this little house.
FREEMAN: Right, but when they first moved back we weren’t born yet, so it was just mainly her brothers and sisters that were still living there. And they were grown, but they still lived there.
WYRSCH: So during the time that you grew up, Mary, how many people lived in your house? How many families, how many people?
FREEMAN: It was all the same Ford family, but my mother said she cooked for 22 a day, because there were 11, although the older ones—John was in the service—but it’s 20 years between Jim, the youngest, and John, the oldest.
WYRSCH: And how many bedrooms in that house?
HARRIS: There were four. A three-story dwelling with four bedrooms.
FREEMAN: But we had the top floor, and there were only two bedrooms upstairs, and our whole family lived there—the girls used to sleep in the room with our parents. We had this old service bed that was put together. It had a hump in the middle, and the three girls used to sleep in that bed. And then the boys were in the back one, but they weren’t bunked. And then we didn’t have bathrooms—we didn’t have indoor plumbing then, on beautiful Capitol Hill. We didn’t get plumbing ’til I was in about the seventh grade.
WYRSCH: So what year would that have been?
FREEMAN: That would have been ... I was about 12 ... so it would have been in ’53. We didn’t have
plumbing indoors, and we had an outhouse.
WYRSCH: You had an outhouse.
HARRIS: The two houses did, 308 and 310.
WYRSCH: What was the relationship between 308 and 310 Ninth Street SE?FREEMAN: Our brother lived at 310.
HARRIS: No, at first we had neighbors who were alcoholics living in 310. And the Fords and Harrises lived in 308, and on the weekends, the next-door neighbors would get verbally abusive, and several times we almost had a physical confrontation. So what happened, the man that owned 310, he was an easy- going guy, and I think he wanted to shed his hands of the problem. So he sold the house to me and my brother in the early 50s, and after my second brother Joseph, about the time he was going in the service, he had one child and his wife was pregnant again with the second child, so my brother and I who had signed the papers for this house for which we were paying perhaps $29 a month, we signed the house over to my brother, who has since died. Joseph—Joseph W.—that became his house, for him and his family. We bought the house primarily to get rid of the alcoholic abusive neighbors before things could progress any further than they had.
WYRSCH: So by the 1950s, the Harris-Ford family was living in adjoining houses on Capitol Hill, on Ninth Street. Did anybody else live on the street, in your family?
FREEMAN: In later years, our Aunt Elva Yates, bought “the Wise house,” which had been the home of the Wise family at 315 Ninth Street.
HARRIS: —which was her second house, because she owned a house at 265 Kentucky Avenue, where I first lived when I got married. That was always an interesting house to be in because the first thing you saw when you went into the house and you turned into the living room, there was this huge mirror covering the walls from floor to ceiling, staring at you. To me, that was always a touch of class.
WYRSCH: I would like to ask now about the seasons—summer, winter—and what you did for fun. What did you do when you were young? How did you handle the heat? Did you do different things in the summer than in the winter?
HARRIS: Recreation-wise, in the summertime, we played games out front. As long as we stayed within sight of the house, we could go out front and play, run up and down the street. There was a little game we played where one person would stand at one tree and the next person would stand at another tree, and the third person would run between the trees, while the two would throw the ball. And the object was to get from tree to tree without getting tagged with this ball. That was quite a popular game, and we used to play cards.
FREEMAN: And on the other hand, for the girls, you know how the kids would put on clothes in the evening, then in the evening you’d freshen up with the powder on and whatnot. We would hold hands and walk around the block [laughs].
WYRSCH: So the rules were different for the boys and the girls?
FREEMAN: Oh, you know, mothers will protect their daughters and the brothers will protect their
sisters. But this is what the girls did.
WYRSCH: So was this your mother’s rule—the girls had to hold hands?
FREEMAN: [probably nodding] ... and walk around the block. We laugh about it even now. You know, we’d be neat and clean, with the baby powder, but we didn’t really do much. We didn’t have much activity. The family was really close. But we could play Pokeno, and those kinds of things.
P-O-K-E-N-O. It’s a game similar to Bingo. You have boards, but instead of numbers on the boards, you have different cards. It was very popular.
HARRIS: You’d put pennies and nickels and dimes and whatever and you would have, you know, penny-ante bets.
WYRSCH: Let me ask you about the heat. You know, it’s hot today—what would you do in such heat, with so many people in the house? Would you sleep outside?
HARRIS: We would go down to the corner of Ninth and South Carolina Avenue where there’s the triangular park. And we were allowed to sleep out in the park on blankets. We would even walk up to Lincoln Park, which was about four blocks from home, and sleep up there at night. You know, that was fun for us back then, but I wouldn’t let my kids do anything like that in this day and time.
WYRSCH: How old were you when you did that?HARRIS: Oh, we were what—eight, ten, twelve?WYRSCH: And how many of you would go up there?HARRIS: Oh, it varied.
WYRSCH: Was it only the boys, Mary?
FREEMAN: I never went. We would put a pallet on the porch—my mother would do that—and we
would lay on the porch, just the highest porch.
HARRIS: It was probably the porch near the steps going up to the second floor landing, where the living room was.
FREEMAN: And no matter how hard it got, our mother would still do the ironing, because she always said she was as cool as a cucumber. She would do it on the basement level with the door open in the front and back, with a little breeze blowing through. But on the hottest days she would iron, if that was her ironing day.
HARRIS: It’s amazing to think of the fact that back in those days, there was no such thing as air conditioning. Well-off people had the oscillating fans, or floor-fans, to cool them off. But all the rest of us had was screens in the doors and windows to keep out the flies and the mosquitoes, and you did not have to worry about somebody coming in, or cracking your skull, or raiding your larder, or anything of that sort. It just was unheard of during that time.
FREEMAN: And then we would always attend the church functions—the church always had something going. We would have, in particular, a carnival, and on the opening day of the carnival, the band would start at—what was it?—Sixth and L SE. They would march up through the area, they would go out C Street and of course there was this great crowd following the parade, and they would go to the church for the opening night of the church carnival.
WYRSCH: So they started at Sixth and L. That’s way down by the Navy Yard.
FREEMAN: Right. Lincoln Playground.
WYRSCH: Now that’s all gone, is that right?
FREEMAN: I know there’s a high rise, but it’s—
HARRIS: —different neighborhood now.
FREEMAN: Yes, everything has changed. But the projects, you know—they took the playground away.WYRSCH: And so the church parade would start down by the Navy Yard.
FREEMAN: That was so much fun.
WYRSCH: And can you just briefly describe the route?
FREEMAN: I don’t know where they came from, because we had to wait until they came, up closer to us. But it was probably up Eighth Street, I would imagine, and then up to C, and then out C Street and then everybody would follow the parade. But that was really big fun.
HARRIS: Big time.
FREEMAN: But we could never go to the carnival on the opening night.
HARRIS: Too much of a crowd.
FREEMAN: Yeah, Mama wouldn’t let us.
HARRIS: Too many people.
FREEMAN: It would be like, um ... [noise]
WYRSCH: So just to finish up, you did things at the school and at the church, and so on, but, for instance, did you go to movies?
FREEMAN: Oh yes, we would go to movies, but we had to ride the streetcar to the movies. Because we couldn’t go to the Penn Theater.
WYRSCH: Because it was not integrated.FREEMAN: Right.
WYRSCH: Where did you go to the movies?
FREEMAN: There was a theater called the Academy. It was down Eighth Street. It was like the 600 or 700 block of Eighth Street, across from the Marine barracks.
WYRSCH: I see. And you rode the streetcar down.
FREEMAN: No, we walked to the Academy. But there were other Negro theaters up on U Street
WYRSCH: When did you first go to an integrated theater? When could you go to the Penn Theater?FREEMAN: These things changed in ’55—no, it was ’64, when the Civil Rights Act was passed.WYRSCH: Did you go to the ballpark? Did you go to Griffith Stadium?
FREEMAN: Yeah, I’ve been there a couple of times, but it wasn’t for a game. I went to see the Cisco Kid. Aunt Frances bought us tickets—this is my Aunt Frances, she was Roberta’s godmother. She used to like for us to do cultural kinds of things.
WYRSCH: Now you were ill as a child. Can you tell us a little bit about that, Charles?
HARRIS: Now, I wouldn’t say I was ill, but I had a “physical mishap.” At St. Cyprian’s School, the girls played at recess in one yard, and the boys had a separate play area that was away from the girls’ play area, and as previously stated, the grades went from one to nine, and everybody had recess at once, and the eighth and the ninth grade boys would play football, or whatever they wanted, running at “free,” so to speak, and you either got out of the way or you got zapped. And one particular day, I was hit by upper classmates playing football, and I was hit and knocked into the fire escape of the building, and at the time it was not known, but my hip had been knocked out of place. And about a week or ten days, maybe two weeks later, when they noticed me limping, they took me to the doctor, and that’s when they found out that I had a dislocated hip with an abscess. And I spent the best part of one year up in Freedman’s Hospital, which was there way before the new Howard University Hospital ever came to see the light of day—
WYRSCH: What was the address of Freedman’s Hospital?
HARRIS: Freedman’s Hospital was 601 Bryant Street NW, and it ran from Sixth Street over to Fourth Street. And the building is still there today. It’s used by Howard University, but not as a hospital facility. Probably classrooms or administrative, or whatever. But I spent the best part of a year with a plaster cast from my waist all the way down to my toes on my right leg, and down to my knee on the left leg with a
stick plastered between the two to keep it stationary. And over the period of time I was there, I was allowed to come home for different periods of time.
WYRSCH: But then you had to go back.
HARRIS: Then I had to go back.
WYRSCH: So how long were you in the hospital?
HARRIS: I’m not sure exactly, but it was at least a year, because I had the cast changed three or four different times.
WYRSCH: What about things that were going on at home? How did you find out about them? Did people come to see you every day?
HARRIS: My mother never missed a visiting on Sunday. When she couldn’t come, my father came. In fact, I remember quite well, during the time that I was in the hospital there was a baby born, and they brought the baby up—they couldn’t bring it into the building, but they brought it to the window, and I was able to look out and see. Even today when I drive through Bryant Street between Sixth and Fourth, the building still looks the same, and the driveway there, and the first wing to the right, that’s where I was on the ground floor. That was Ward Seven. Never will forget it.
WYRSCH: Do you remember much about the doctors who took care of you?
HARRIS: One of my doctors was Charles Drew, who later discovered plasma.
WYRSCH: What was Dr. Drew like?
HARRIS: Oh, he looked professional—tall, distinguished gentleman, fair of complexion, smooth of hair, and whenever he came, he was always trailed by a host of interns and other hospital personnel.
WYRSCH: But he would come and check on your cast?
HARRIS: He was one of several doctors that I had during my stay there. In fact, I remember during the time that I was in Freedman’s Hospital, that polio was still a major concern for people. And during the time I was there, I met this man named George Brian. And he had been at Freedman’s Hospital for 13 years with polio. They had done over time half a dozen different articles about him because of his longevity in the hospital. And he knew everybody in the hospital from the administrator on down to the lowest peon, and we were quite close.
WYRSCH: Mary, were you the baby that was born, or was that someone else?
FREEMAN: [To Charles] You were about ten when you were in the hospital?
HARRIS: I was about ten, yeah. Because I was in the fifth grade. No—I’d be about 12. We were seven
when we went to school, right?
WYRSCH: So you’re not sure if you’re the one or not.
FREEMAN: [To Charles] So you were 12 when I was born.
WYRSCH: Let me ask you a little bit about Ninth Street. So you were an African American family on Ninth Street. What was the rest of that block like?
HARRIS: It was mixed.
WYRSCH: Was that usual, was that unusual?FREEMAN: Usual for the area.
HARRIS: I used to serve newspapers around the area of 12th and Pennsylvania, 12th and K, and around through there. That was another mixed area. But the interesting part about it was the fact that when they started to change and they developed the neighborhood, we were not just surprised, but shocked, by the number of people who had to move, because all the time we thought they were buying, they had been renting. And when the people sold the property, they didn’t have any alternative but to vacate.
WYRSCH: So a neighborhood which was mixed became unmixed because of a rise in prices?
HARRIS: No, just that, like I said, for whatever reason, people had been there so long, you just assumed that that’s home. Just like we were home. And you’d think that they were either buying or already owned the property, but, like I said, after a long period of time, quite a few of them had to pack and move because their houses were sold right out from under them.
FREEMAN: And also, the area, although it was mixed, when the white families started the exodus from D.C., that’s when more black families moved in. But then when Capitol Hill became the place to live, those who didn’t own had to leave.
WYRSCH: What were the years that that was happening?
FREEMAN: I’m trying to remember, because all the families there—in fact where you lived, 320—they were all black families. It was mostly black. And then it changed, I guess really again in—when Capitol Hill got to be more prominent ... .
WYRSCH: Mary, did you have a job during school, or what did you do after high school?
FREEMAN: After high school, I went to work that September at the Department of Agriculture for a 90-
day appointment that spanned 30 years.WYRSCH: So you became a government worker.
FREEMAN: I became a government worker. We didn’t go to college, the girls didn’t. Because here in D.C., you could get a decent job without college education. And we received the beautiful background— you know, the educational background—from having gone to the Catholic schools.
WYRSCH: Did you have jobs during school at all?
FREEMAN: No, because our mother just wanted us to concentrate on our studies. She said, “I don’t want you to have to do it”. And she would do the laundry and everything, because she just expected good grades, and she didn’t want us to say, “I didn’t pass the test because I had to wash my clothes, or I had to iron my clothes.” So she did everything.
HARRIS: And back then you were considered a “success” if you had a high school diploma, whereas these days, you’ve got to have a college degree plus. But back then, it was almost guaranteed if you had a high school diploma that you could get a government job. And if you could type, you really had it going on.
WYRSCH: You were talking about newspapers—what kind of jobs did you do? Did you have other jobs?
HARRIS: I used to serve—back in those years, Washington, D.C. had three newspapers: The Washington Post, The Times Herald, and the Daily News. And I used to serve the Washington Post. Back in those days, the newspaper boy served the paper, did the collecting, and the station manager as they called it, you paid him first, and anything else that you collected was yours, but these days they have people who deliver the paper and you never see them because you pay for your paper service by mail. And it’s all done nice and quick. But back in the day, the people that were the slowest to pay wanted the best of service. “Put my paper in the screen door, or under the mat, or do this, or do that.” And they see you coming, and if they open the door, they tell you, “Come back tomorrow,” or “Come back next week,” and that got to be a drag.
WYRSCH: Tell me about where you shopped. Where did you go to the store? Where did you buy your food ... ?
HARRIS: Well, as far as food went, down at the end of the block, on the corner of Ninth and South Carolina was Cuozzo’s Grocery Store. They were Italian—the father, the mother, three brothers and a sister. All of them worked in the store. And I don’t know when it started, but our family had a tab or bill, or whatever you want to call it, and the interesting thing about that to me was the fact that when I started working at the post office about four or five months after I graduated from high school, and I became a wage-earning member of the family, that’s when I first learned that a chicken has more to it than a neck and a back.
WYRSCH: I see. So your mother was very frugal.
HARRIS: Oh yeah. We ate—we were never hungry, but the adults got the cream of the crop—the best stuff, the best of the eats. The kids got, in the summertime, mostly we had sandwiches and lemonade. Which is good, but like you were referring to earlier, in the heat, instead of firing up a stove to cook something, nice baloney and cheese or peanut butter and jelly, that was it. We were happy with the whole thing.
FREEMAN: When I was little, I wanted to go to the Safeway so badly. But we had to go to Cuozzo’s where they would put everything in the little basket. I felt like Little Red Riding Hood with the basket that we would have to take to the store with a note from Mama.
WYRSCH: So you had a basket that you took and your mother had a note ...
FREEMAN: The note would be in the basket, to tell them what we wanted. You know, we wanted to go to the Safeway and pick off the shelf what we wanted. But it was like Little Red Riding Hood. And then on Saturday our mother would go to the store and she would sit with Mr. Cuozzo. And then the sons would fill her order—
HARRIS: —the big order, for the weekend—
WYRSCH: So she would sit and visit with the storeowner—
FREEMAN: Right, he would be there in the store, Mr. Cuozzo. He was a kindly gentleman. And the sons would fill her order, and then it would get delivered to the house.
HARRIS: They would put it in the truck and bring it on up to the door.WYRSCH: Where did you go shopping for clothes, and things like that?
FREEMAN: You’d look in the pile of hand-me-downs that someone had given to the family, basically. But as I got older and my sister Ann was working, she would buy things for me. That was once I started working. And in our family the godparents played a big role because Aunt Frances, who was Roberta’s godmother, would buy her everything she needed. So we did get help from some of our mother’s brothers and sisters, but a lot of it was hand-me-downs.
HARRIS: Uh yeah. Hand-me-downs were quite a part of life. Once in awhile you’d get something new, but basically it was something that had been worn and outgrown, or whatever. And you accepted it, because that’s the way it was.
WYRSCH: Let’s go back to your father. He worked for a while at the Bureau of Engraving, and he did other jobs. Did he go from job to job? Did he do things for long periods of time?
HARRIS: His main job was at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and he finally retired from that because he had a heart condition. So he retired on disability from that.
FREEMAN: He was in his 40s.HARRIS: He was young.
FREEMAN: He was in his 40s, he had heart disease, and they told him he could never be able to work again.
WYRSCH: That’s difficult. And how old was the youngest then?
FREEMAN: The youngest, Jim, was I think two. The ironic part was that our mother had a stillborn baby
two years after Jimmy. Jim was the youngest. He was born in ’45, and it was two years after that.
HARRIS: But by then, my oldest brother was working. He was a mail carrier for the post office. And then, of course, the second brother—“Daddy Willy,” as we called him—he had his own family to deal with, and then I became a breadwinner, and things kind of improved considerably.
FREEMAN: And seeing that our brother Will died at 35—he had Hodgkin’s. [pause]
HARRIS: You were asking about shopping a moment ago. Shopping was not a problem because we did have stores within walking distance on Pennsylvania Avenue and Eighth Street, and downtown we had these two large department stores, Lansburgh’s and Hecht’s. And the one thing I remember about Hecht’s—Hecht’s was at Seventh and F Street NW at the time, it took up about a half a block and it was
eight stories tall—black folks could shop in there back in the day, but you could not sit down to eat at the lunch counter. Even if there were seats available, you had to stand up and eat your burger, or whatever it was you brought. And I think back then there may have been a thing about people trying on hats, or whatever, but you were definitely aware of the fact that you were a second-class citizen.
FREEMAN: Especially at Garfinkel’s, also. Blacks couldn’t try on the clothes—you couldn’t even go into Garfinkel’s.
WYRSCH: You were just asked to leave, or ... .?
FREEMAN: Well, you knew, you know, being from D.C., you just knew—because of segregation.
HARRIS: You got the message. D.C. did not have the white-only black-only signs that I saw when I went down to Louisville, Kentucky on my way to Fort Knox, but you knew there was places you could not go, like the Penn Theater, or the Avenue Grand on the Avenue—in those days, the only integrated theater was the Dupont Theater down on Connecticut Avenue, and they showed mostly foreign films that black, white, polka dot, anybody could attend.
END OF TAPE 1/SIDE 2 TAPE 2/SIDE 1
WYRSCH: This is tape three [ed: tape two] of an interview with Charles Harris and Mary Harris Freeman about their time on Capitol Hill in the 40s and 50s. I’d like to ask maybe Charles first and then Mary second to talk a little bit about your aunts and uncles that you lived with, or didn’t live with. You came from a large family of your own, but you had people around you, living with aunts and uncles, godmothers ... what was special about some of them?
HARRIS: Well, there was a special lady, her name was Frances Bernadette Dyer. She was one of my aunts.
WYRSCH: Was she your mother’s sister?
HARRIS: Mother’s sister. And how she sticks out in my mind, she did all she could to help us over the years, during our formative years especially. I remember she used to take us to the theater on Sunday, just for the sheer joy of treating the kids to what we called a treat.
WYRSCH: Did she have children of her own?
HARRIS: She had no children. Her extended family was us.
WYRSCH: And where did she live?
HARRIS: She lived at 1320 C Street SE. At the four-unit apartment, like the building we’re sitting in. And her apartment was on the ground floor. And what made that so nice, she was one of the first ones in the neighborhood to get a TV when TVs first came out. And back during that time, Joe Louis was the champion. And every time Joe Louis fought, she would have a house full of spectators every place you could fit, stand, lean, and they even had them standing outside looking in the window on the ground floor to enjoy the spectacle of Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, every time he stepped in the ring. And that’s just one of the many things I remember about her.
WYRSCH: So her name was Frances Ford Dyer. And was she married to Mr. Dyer?
HARRIS: She was married to Ellsworth Dyer. The less said about him, the better. But Frances Dyer, when we were growing up, every movie Esther Williams made, we went to see it. Every movie Gene Kelly made we went to see it. Everything worth seeing, culturally, Frances Dyer, Aunt Frances, or as I called her, in later years, “Fairy Godmother,” took us to see it. And I remember this one in particular, where she must have had five or six kids trailing behind her—back in those days, the theaters used to be crowded. And we got there, and the house lights had gone down, and everybody found a seat except Aunt Frances who was pretty broad in the beam. And she was fumbling around trying to find a seat, and somebody hollered, “Somebody give that fat lady a seat!” And I thought that was the funniest thing, [laughs] I never will forget that. But she had a heart of gold, and anything I could do for her, whenever, it was my pleasure to do it. And what made it especially sweet, when Pope John Paul II visited Washington, DC, my brother took her to see the Pope. And before the Pope came, I told her, “You’re going to get to meet him.” And the Pope put his hands on her, and that was her crowning moment.
WYRSCH: That’s wonderful. And what year was that?
HARRIS: I don’t remember. ’72, I think, or somewhere around there—the first time Pope John Paul II came here, because the second time, he didn’t come to DC, he came to Baltimore. But I’m thinking it was around ’72. [ed: John Paul II visited Washington in 1979.]
WYRSCH: What memories do you have, Mary, of your aunts and uncles—your mother’s extended family?
FREEMAN: Aunt Frances was the one who mainly did things for us. And I remember her taking us to New York for the Easter Parade, which you walked up and down Fifth Avenue—we thought we were going to see a regular parade ... But then, even as I grew up, she made sure we got to see the musicals, and those kinds of cultural things. And she would tell us the way ladies acted, or “Ladies don’t say this,
ladies don’t say they’re hot, they say they’re warm,” you know, she made sure we knew about the cultural side of life. It had an impact on us.
WYRSCH: You had talked about taking the streetcar to the movies. Other than the Academy Theater, which was on Eighth Street, you had to take the streetcar to go to movies which would admit African Americans. When you rode the streetcar, what was that like? Did you have to sit in a certain place?
FREEMAN: No, not on the streetcar. Not when I came over.
HARRIS: No, the streetcars were always first come, first serve, sit where you want. And the way it worked, when we were young, you could buy a streetcar pass that would last you a whole week, for a dollar and 25 cents. And the adults used the streetcar pass going to and from work, Monday through Friday. But you would buy it on Sunday, and the kids would take the streetcar passes. I used to take rides from one end of the line to the other. But we lived one block from the #92 streetcar line, which went straight up Eighth Street, left onto Florida Avenue, and right along U Street to the end of the line with the Calvert Street Bridge. And you’d pass the Howard Theater, the Lincoln Theater, the Republic Theater, and the Booker T. Theater, all in the span of six blocks on this same street. And that was the Mecca, that’s where black entertainment was, and that’s where most of the black community congregated for entertainment purposes.
FREEMAN: Also with the streetcar pass, after paying $1.25, one adult could ride with two children on this pass, so Ann, the older sister would have the pass, then Roberta and I would go along with her, and we’d go to the Zoo, we’d go, again, just riding up and down on the streetcar. That was really a big deal.
HARRIS: That’s how I learned the city—riding streetcars. When I was about eight or ten, I used to sit down in the park right there at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the streetcars go by. And one day, this guy turned out to be a streetcar conductor, and he asked me, come on and ride along with me and for awhile I used to ride free on the streetcar with this guy. I’d catch him after school, and his run was Navy Yard up to Calvert Bridge—no, the #90, he would go up from Barney Circle up to Calvert Street Bridge, because the Barney Circle went up Pennsylvania, around Union Station, up New Jersey Avenue, and along U Street the same way the 92 ended. That went on for a good little while. I don’t remember his name, but he was a prince.
FREEMAN: But streetcar riding was very entertaining.HARRIS: Oh yeah.
FREEMAN: And then Sunday, it wasn’t too crowded, it wasn’t as crowded as it would be during the week, but it was very entertaining.
WYRSCH: Did you all ever go to the Capitol? Did you spend any time up near the Capitol?
HARRIS: Oh yeah. It was within walking distance, and every time I go by the art gallery today, and I have people in the car, especially tourists [referring to passengers in his taxicab], I’d tell them how I used to go in there when I was a kid, and the one thing I remember most about the art gallery was the fact that, back then, the soles of your shoes were leather. And those floors in there were marble—anyway, they were quite slick. And I used to wonder then how in the world these guards managed to stand up without slipping down half a dozen different times a day. I still grin about that to this day.
WYRSCH: Did you go to any inaugural parades, or any big parades that were in Washington?FREEMAN: I did. I remember going to a parade with Harry. And I remember the ... .WYRSCH: Harry would be your uncle?
FREEMAN: Oh my uncle Harry. Harry Ford. I remember his boosting me up in a tree. But that must have been Truman’s parade... ’48. Yeah, I was really young. But I remember going with him. [See Overbeck Project interview with Harry Ford.]
HARRIS: The Fairy Godmother used to take us to parades when I was ...WYRSCH: This would be your Aunt Frances Dyer.
HARRIS: Aunt Frances. Right. And after I got out the hospital, I walked with a limp. I remember this one particular time, we rode the streetcar down, and she took a fold-up chair along for me to sit on. And when I got down to the parade, I sat down on this chair about two minutes. And this white man was standing there beside me with his wife, and he told me, he said, “ Son, I’ll give you two dollars if you let my wife sit in that chair.” And I took his two dollars and ... [laughs]
WYRSCH: And you let his wife sit in the chair?
HARRIS: No, but see, my Aunt had carried this chair halfway across town for me to sit in. Looking out for my game leg, as it was, and this man waves two dollars under my nose, and all her efforts went to naught.
WYRSCH: Do you remember what the parade was for? Was it just a regular ... what kind of a parade was it?
HARRIS: DC used to have several parades every year. In fact, that tape right there, it starts with a little bit of a parade going up Constitution Avenue, with a couple of streetcars running back and forth.
WYRSCH: And what was the parade shown in the tape?
HARRIS: It might have been—there were a lot of military marches, then—so it might have been
Armistice Day or the Fourth of July. But we used to have several parades annually.
FREEMAN: I remember my dad taking us to the Armistice Day parade. And what would really crack us up when we were children, when the flag would go by he would take off his hat and put it over his heart, and we thought that was the funniest thing.
WYRSCH: And you didn’t understand it; you just thought it was funny.
FREEMAN: We thought it was funny because he would take off his hat and hold it over ...HARRIS: ... that it was something unique with old pops.
FREEMAN: ... but he loved parades, and we would go—this is what I remember mainly doing with him. Because our dad, although we knew he loved us, he wasn’t a very demonstrative person. I don’t even remember his even kissing me. I would kiss him, but I don’t even remember ... or even getting a card, a birthday card, from him. Momma was great for that, but I don’t remember ...
HARRIS: So was Aunt Frances. Every birthday. Don’t care how small of a trinket it was, somehow or another she would recognize your birthday and make you aware of the fact that this is your day.
FREEMAN: Mm-hmm. But that’s what I remember, mainly—going with our father to the parade. But our mother was mainly the one who ruled the roost.
HARRIS: I’d like to tell you about two instances over the years. The first instance was when JFK was assassinated. His body was lying in state in the Capitol building. And I went down there with some friends at two o’clock in the morning to get in line. The end of the line was right beside the Supreme Court, which was right across the street. But the line went away from the Capitol, down to 13th Street— 13th and East Capitol—and then it turned around and came back. At two o’clock in the morning, that’s how long the line was. And I don’t know how long it took to get to the front, from the back to the front of that line. But at the time, time was not an issue.
WYRSCH: Were you successful in getting to see the casket?
HARRIS: Oh yeah. And I was down at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. I went down there with a group, the same group that I stood in line at the Capitol with. Well, we marched up Constitution Avenue, singing and chanting, “Before I’ll be enslaved, I’ll be buried in my grave,” and all of that, and when the man did his thing, I was standing to the left of the fountain, facing the Capitol, under some trees, and I remember this one instance where somebody bumped me, or somehow or another I lost my balance and I took a step back, and when I stepped back, my heel went right into the instep of a young white girl standing behind me. And I could see her foot shaking down in the grass, and I’m being very apologetic—“Oh, I’m so sorry!”—and she’s grabbing this foot, and I could see the pain in her face, and she was saying, [through gritted teeth] “It didn’t hurt, it didn’t hurt!”
WYRSCH: Let me ask you a little bit more about the Ninth Street neighborhood around there. It’s close to Eastern Market. You said you went to the Cuozzo’s all the time, you didn’t go to Eastern Market?
FREEMAN: We didn’t have a book. There was a book where we would get our food “on tick,” as our father called it.
HARRIS: They’d give you what you want, but you would—FREEMAN: —you paid for it later. It was “eat now and pay later.”
HARRIS: At the end of the week, when payday came or whatever, that’s why I was telling you earlier when I became a breadwinner, and I started with my first paycheck, I gave just about all of it to my mother, and they went down there and took care of this humongous bill—balance—that was due with Cuozzo’s. And after that, I was king of the roost.
FREEMAN: But see, that’s why I wanted to go to the Safeway, but we couldn’t go because it was a money issue.
HARRIS: It required cash and carry.
WYRSCH: The Cuozzo grocery extended your family credit.
FREEMAN: Right. Extended credit. Right. They had a little green book with lines and they would put down whatever we—I won’t say purchased—whatever we wanted—because purchased would be the exchange of money! [laughs] But that wouldn’t come until later.
WYRSCH: I see. What about other stores around—even though you didn’t go to them, because they didn’t have “the book.”
FREEMAN: We would get things from Eastern Market, but not on a regular basis.
HARRIS: I remember they used to have live ducks and chickens in crates. And you go out and pick out the one you wanted, and they would zap it, because back then you didn’t go to the store and get stuff that was already wrapped and clean and nice, and all of that. We used to have chickens in the backyard, really, when we were growing up, and I remember going out and getting the eggs in the morning. A couple of times, I’d just watched while somebody chopped the chicken’s head off with a hatchet, and the chicken would be running around the yard, flapping, blood shooting out of that stalk, wings ... .
WYRSCH: So you had your own chickens, and you had your own eggs sometimes.
HARRIS: We also had our own peach trees that were in the backyard. Three peach trees. And the family behind us, they lived on Tenth Street their backyard faced ours, they had pear trees in their backyard. So we got along good.
FREEMAN: The peaches were nice, too. When we’d get punished, we’d have to go out and get a switch off the peach tree [laughs] and get our legs smacked. Now that’s cruelty to children.
HARRIS: But the Eastern Market was an interesting market because of all the different smells, and all these freshly killed hog heads, ribs, anything imaginable. Ducks ...
FREEMAN: And then, being Catholic, we’d eat fish on Friday. So Mom would get the fish from the market. We would go there, but not on a regular basis.
HARRIS: It was always a treat.
WYRSCH: Charles, one time you were starting to tell me about your grandmother, and High’s ice cream
HARRIS: Yeah, well, you know, like I said, we were one block from one High’s store, and quite often during the summer, we would get an ice cream treat for everybody. And my grandmother, she could not tolerate milk. So while everybody else got ice cream, they would get her a pint of sherbet. Evidently that was made differently, and she could have that. So that’s how that went. Usually an orange sherbet for her, and whatever flavor anybody else wanted.
FREEMAN: I was one of my grandmother’s favorite grannies [grandchildren] because (I was a spoiled kid) whenever I would want anything, or if I wanted to go to the movie, I would stay in at the bottom of the step and cry, and then grandmother would say, “What’s wrong with Winnie?”
HARRIS: Oh Lord.
FREEMAN: And then she said, “Come on, I’ll give you the money.” I would also go to Cuozzo to pay her bill for her. But she was ill at the time, she had cancer, and she would sit at the window, you know, just to look out. I was ten when she died, but I remember very vividly how I would get my way with her, so I just learned how to cry.
WYRSCH: So your grandmother lived with you at 308 Ninth Street SE.
FREEMAN: At 308. Right. She died in ’52.
WYRSCH: From the time your parents moved in in the 20s to her home, until she died.
HARRIS: From the time we entered the world, until she died, we all lived right there in that house.WYRSCH: I see. And did they have the second floor? You said your family had the third floor.
FREEMAN: Right. By then, though—let’s see, I was ten when she died—and you were older—so the bigger boys had either gone in the service and there weren’t as many there, but on that second level there was the living room, and then the room next to that was my grandmother’s bedroom. And then after that was another bedroom where Harry and his brother Butch stayed.
WYRSCH: That would be your uncles.
FREEMAN: Right, they’re my uncles. But then, a city ordinance was passed whereby everyone had to
have indoor bathrooms, that’s when we had to negotiate to have the bathroom put in.
FREEMAN: Took half of the back bedroom and made a bathroom. But prior to this we had to go outside and take baths in the tin tub.
WYRSCH: You took baths outside?
FREEMAN: No, the bathroom was outside, but the outhouse—WYRSCH: —the commode, the outhouse. Right.
FREEMAN: But you took baths inside in the tin tub.HARRIS: Sitting right next to a—in the wintertime—FREEMAN: —a potbelly stove. A woodstove.
FREEMAN: They would have to heat that water on the potbelly stove with the wood and the coal, and then one would get in, and the next one would get in the same water—you know, you’d put a little hot water in. But again, I didn’t get the bathroom. I was 12 or 13 before we got the indoor.
WYRSCH: So that was in the early 50s.FREEMAN: Yes.
HARRIS: They passed that ordinance that said, either have indoor plumbing or we tear your house down. We didn’t have no choice.
WYRSCH: Did that go for both of the houses?FREEMAN: Yes.
WYRSCH: Your uncle Harry, who lived on the second floor for a period of time, he had pigeons. Did he always have the pigeons?
HARRIS: Always. Not just pigeons. For a long time, he raised collies, he bred them and sold them. And what happened with the pigeons, with the grain and all of that, that draws rats. So this particular time, he had penned the dogs up and put some poison down to knock the rat population down, and one of his friends came along and didn’t know about the poison, and let the dogs out, and they ate the poison and died.
WYRSCH: So in this household which had so many people, there was also all this other activity of raising birds, raising dogs ... .
FREEMAN: Right. But see, with Harry, even though he had moved away, he had still kept his dogs and his pigeons in the back yard. He felt it was his “right,” because this was his brother’s house, to keep the pigeons and the dogs in the backyard.
WYRSCH: So lots of activity at 308 Ninth Street SE.
HARRIS: It got to be real interesting in later years when the newly arrived, new, mostly white neighbors objected to these pigeons and there was a long, drawn-out court battle over whether or not they were going to stay or go.
WYRSCH: But for the time that you were growing up, for maybe ten, 20 years ... 30 years ...FREEMAN: Well really, not until too long ago.
HARRIS: That’s what I said. The whole time we were growing up.WYRSCH: They were homing pigeons?
HARRIS: He would take quite a few other guys, I don’t know how many they had in this club, or clique, or whatever, but they would all take their birds to a certain point and release them at the same time and time the arrival of the first bird back to the coop. And several different times, at least, when Harry’s bird didn’t perform to his satisfaction, he would go right in the pigeon coop and wring their neck, on the spot.
WYRSCH: Did you want to talk a little bit about your Aunt Elva, who would have been Harry’s sister?
HARRIS: I know she was a fine-looking woman when we were coming up, and she was quite popular with the fellows. And there was this one individual that she was associated with—it was the talk of the town, really—I forget exactly when it came out, but there was this book called the “The Washington Confidential.” And in this book, it mentioned a gentleman by the name of Paulie Brown. And this Paulie Brown was some kind of reputed gang lord, or whatever. But at the time this book came out, Elva was going with Paulie Brown, and I remember one night Paulie Brown came by 308 late, turning up however late it was, and handed our grandmother a shopping bag full of greenbacks. Evidently she was the only one he would trust to hold on to this money. And she put it over in the corner, and when the man wanted it, he came back and got it, and that’s the way it went. But old Auntie was something else. She was a character.
WYRSCH: Now, all of you went on to work in Washington. What did some of your sisters and brothers do?
FREEMAN: My sister Ann, Joyce Ann, went to work for the CIA at age 17. At that time there weren’t too many African Americans working there, either. But it’s ironic because she worked there for about 35 years and then she ended up working for a contractor for the agency. She’s now 68, and she has put in a lot of time, you know, having worked there, and she’s now retired. She’s been retired now about five years.
HARRIS: And they got a magnificent house out in southeast Maryland. Her and her daughter and son-in- law share this beautiful building. New house.
FREEMAN: In Clinton. And then our sister Roberta worked at the Agriculture Department. In fact, she and I worked together. She’s the one who died at age 38. That was very hard, because she and I would eat lunch together every day. And our kids were going to school together.
HARRIS: And she had a painful death because she had bone cancer and in spite of the morphine, she was in constant pain. Every time she heard my footsteps or the sound of my voice, she would scramble and spruce herself up. Never will forget that.
[break in tape]
FREEMAN: Capitol Hill has just gone from one extreme to the other during our time. When I was growing up, when I was younger, it was mostly a white area, you know, speaking of the area where we lived, and then to have African Americans living there, just renting. And then now it has evolved back to the way it had been, with the whites taking over—I won’t say taking over, I don’t like that word—
WYRSCH: —Becoming the predominant—
FREEMAN: —becoming the predominant race who lived there. And then to have the rents and cost of
housing, this has escalated so, and then when our grandparents bought the house—was it $2,500?
HARRIS: For a three bedroom—
FREEMAN: It was about 308—308 was between $2,500 and $5,000 for the house.
HARRIS: They were cheaper back then. Because I told you that when they bought 310, the house note was $2,900.
FREEMAN: Right. And for it to really go back to the way it was then ...WYRSCH: Well, the other thing is that 308 Ninth Street is still in your family.HARRIS: It’s still empty. It’s been empty since ’97 when my mother died.WYRSCH: It’s empty, but—
HARRIS: —still in the family.
WYRSCH: So, from 1905, which was when your mother was born, and you know she lived there, maybe
earlier, to 2005, which is a hundred years.FREEMAN: A hundred years.
HARRIS: She would be a hundred years old—
WYRSCH: Your mother would be a hundred ... the house is still in the same family.HARRIS: Yep.
WYRSCH: All right. Anything else?
HARRIS: Oh. When we were growing up, the area for Capitol Hill was considered everything below East Capitol Street on the Southeast side over to 11th Street SE. Now, over the years, the realtors have extended Capitol Hill all the way out to the Armory and as far north as Maryland Avenue NE. So, just for the sake of saying “this is a house on Capitol Hill,” for sale for X number of dollars. That’s an interesting change as well.
WYRSCH: What did they call the area that was towards Maryland Avenue. Did it have another name?HARRIS: Stanton Park. It’s still called that. Because that little park right there between Sixth and Fourth,
Constitution and D NE, that’s Stanton Park right there. That area’s Stanton Park.
FREEMAN: But everything is Capitol Hill. But that pushes the price, pushes the price up, no question.WYRSCH: Thank you very much.
HARRIS: Enjoyed chatting with you and taking a trip down memory lane.
END OF INTERVIEW