The interview also touches on her education in DC Public Schools during the early days of school integration, her return to DC after college, and her work on the staff of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. She describes her shift to a rewarding longtime career in social work and explores race and the complex evolution of community life. She also relates experiences raising her own children on the Hill and Libby Sangster’s success as Capitol Hill small business owner over more than two decades.
Interview with Gina Sangster
Interview Date: August 7, 2020
Interviewer: Etta Fielek
Transcriber: David MacKinnon
Editor: Ellen Hirzy
photo by Jacob Hayman
START OF INTERVIEW
This interview was conducted using the Zoom computer application during a pandemic, when avoiding direct contact between people served as a preventative health measure. The Zoom record function was used during the interview, and the resulting audio file transcribed.
A short conversation recorded before the interview was not included in the transcript.
FIELEK: My name is Etta Fielek, and we’re speaking with Gina Sangster, a lifelong Capitol Hill resident, as part of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. I do apologize for that little lapse. Like I say, my app is just acting up a little bit. But I did want to start with just, you know, not necessarily the past, but what we’re going through right now because these are pretty trying times. It is exciting though that we could move forward with the Project with our Zoom technology, as uneven as it’s proving to be for me. Anyway, thinking back to the conversation we had. It seems like so long ago. It was much earlier in March before the world changed. I always count March 19th, I think, [that] was the official day everything started shutting down. Who would have ever thought we’d be August 7th and still not really free to move and reclaim our past lives?
Let’s go back to way in the past before your family arrived in Washington, DC. We talked about this a little bit, but I know it’s an important part of the interview. Tell us about your mother and father. Where were they from? How did they meet?
SANGSTER: Sure. My mother [Libby Sangster] was born and grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, [New York], at the time when that was what, I guess, would have been called a Jewish ghetto. She was the youngest of six. Her parents had immigrated from Eastern Europe. She was the only one of her sisters to leave home unmarried. There was an older brother, an older sister, and then another three sisters. My mother was a bit of a rebel. She kind of stepped out on her own at the age of 18 and ended up in Greenwich Village. That’s where she met my father [Gilbert (Gibby) Sangster]. He was ten years older and not Jewish. So he, by her family’s assessment, had many things wrong with him, many reasons he should be avoided. He at that time was pursuing art. He was a painter and just an artist in general. He was also pursuing a lot of alcohol consumption at the time and a lot of women as well.
My mother worked. There was one job that I remember being told that she had as a hat check girl in a club or bar. She also worked as an artist’s model. I think they made something like a dollar an hour, you know, in the 30s. So that’s how they met and ended up coming to Washington, DC, getting married in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1940. My father got a job with what was then called the Army Map Service here in DC. That’s what brought them here.
FIELEK: That’s so interesting as I was wondering if there was an artist connection to his coming here. Maps may lend itself to art.
SANGSTER: He was a self-taught cartographer. He just had a gift. He never went to college. Neither one of them went to college. So that was what he was hired to do. He ultimately, some years after that, with a colleague from the Army Map Service, they launched their own cartography business. I don’t know how many years that was in operation. But he wasn’t—he was a very gifted and talented person. Not a good business person at all. I don't think anybody knew it was Capitol Hill, right?
FIELEK: So when they arrived, where did they initially settle?
SANGSTER: I believe their first apartment was on Eighth Street [SE] across from the Marine Barracks. I could be wrong about that, but that’s what my recollection is of being told.
FIELEK: How interesting to come directly from New York, married in New Jersey, and they settle immediately on Capitol Hill.
SANGSTER: I don’t think that was a concept the way we think of it. They ended up renting an apartment in Anacostia from maybe 1952 to ’57, which is when they bought a house here on the Hill. They didn’t always live on the Hill.
FIELEK: But you have.
FIELEK: I know your mother was a very well-known antiques dealer. How did she get into—where did that come from? Was it just an interest of hers? Even going back to her Eastern European roots or something she acquired?
SANGSTER: Well, it was something she and my father deeply shared. Part of my understanding of it, it was a blend of an appreciation for the arts and history. She grew up very poor and she had nothing, you know, I mean, she had an abundant family. There was a lot of passion and love in the family, but she had very few material possessions. My father grew up more middle, upper-middle class. I think the combination of both their interest in the arts and also in those years, things were just abundant, you know? I mean, you could find 18th-century artifacts and furniture and paintings for virtually what we’d consider nothing today. Oh, yeah, they just started collecting,
FIELEK: Sounds like they could be described as entrepreneurs with a passion.
SANGSTER: That would be fair to say. Yeah, very passionate about it. Ultimately the apartment we lived in at 1414 V Street SE in Anacostia was just piled high with stuff.
FIELEK: [Did] the antique shop start on the Hill, or did it start elsewhere at another location?
SANGSTER: My recollection of what I was told was that they initially had like a stand in one of the markets. It was the Florida Avenue Market. I’m not 100 percent sure about that. But this would have been some time in the late 40s, 50s. My father made a sign, a wooden sign that he wrote the words “Things Unlimited.” And that was the sign for their stand. Things Unlimited was their first enterprise. Then in 1960 they rented a space in part of [what became] the Hawk and Dove building [329 Pennsylvania Avenue SE]. Of course, it wasn’t the Hawk and Dove. [The] building [was] owned by Stu Long and Henry Lange. [Henry Lange was the sole owner of the building.] They started out with a barter shop. Their idea of how to run their business. I don’t think that concept lasted more than a couple of years, but that was the first shop, the first actual full-fledged shop.
FIELEK: When you say a barter shop, people would bring things in and they would negotiate?
SANGSTER: Well, they set up an exchange system. Yeah.
FIELEK: You make money that way?
SANGSTER: Well, I don’t think that plan lasted very—yeah. My father by that time was also doing renovation work on the Hill, and he would also do a lot of the furniture repair and combining that with the business.
FIELEK: When you say renovation work do you mean of perhaps original plaster trim or architectural features?
SANGSTER: Yeah, woodworking more. He worked more with the woodworking. He worked with gold leaf. I remember that. But he had taught himself a lot of skills that were useful in, you know, the early days of Capitol Hill homes being renovated.
FIELEK: Right. Well, I think many of us who have lived on the Hill for a long time remember the shop at Seventh [Street] and North Carolina [Avenue SE]. When did that shop open?
SANGSTER: When [Michael] Lange [Henry Lange’s son] and Stu Long decided they wanted to open a restaurant in 1967, my parents lost their lease over there. And at that point, my father was quite ill. He had emphysema. So really everything that happens from that point on is my mother because he died in July, July 15, 1967. She was also close friends with Henry Yaffe, who had started Mr. Henry’s [restaurant at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue SE]. She helped him decorate; it [was] called Henry’s Victorian Pub. Some of the artwork that’s still there were things that he bought from my mother. So she helped him decorate that space. He was a much more established business person at that point. I don’t know all the particulars, but my mother didn’t really have a credit history. She didn’t have a lot to work with. So Henry cosigned for her to buy the building at 701 North Carolina Avenue SE. So in a sense, he was—for many, many years, he was a silent partner in the building.
FIELEK: But it sounds like your mother wasn’t afraid to take a risk.
SANGSTER: Right, right.
FIELEK: Yeah, the lack of a credit history for a woman in those days, not to mention to a degree that still exists, I mean that’s pretty impressive. So, it’s a lot to be proud of. Yeah.
SANGSTER: Yeah, yeah. There were people, Henry was one, and some of the early real estate people in the area and bankers. Henry Bernstein—Leo Bernstein, I’m sorry. Leo Bernstein really liked her and found ways to be helpful to her, though. Money was very slim, which is also how my parents bought a house without really any money. They bought their house on Fifth Street for $9,500 in 1958.
FIELEK: Right, and that was the unit block of Fifth Street NE, wasn’t it?
SANGSTER: Yeah. Number 14.
FIELEK: Number 14. I think I mentioned [this] because I live right around the corner. I saw your mother quite often.
SANGSTER: Yeah, yeah.
FIELEK: Remind me. What was the name of the shop at 701?
SANGSTER: Antiques on the Hill.
FIELEK: Antiques on the Hill. Okay. Keep it straight, straightforward. One thing I’m curious about and I’m sure others will be. It’s a time of transition. It’s post–World War II. We’re not into the Vietnam era yet. Were people looking to buy antiques from the past, or were they looking more forward? What was the clientele like? What were they looking for?
SANGSTER: Well, in the 60s and 70s, I mean, of course I was a kid and then a teenager. Business was good. Business was good and it got better and it, you know, it definitely was flourishing. The renovation effort, and some people would call it the gentrification effort, was very robust here in this area. So there were lots and lots of people buying and selling homes. Henry Yaffe was one who bought and sold, would flip houses in a matter of days or weeks. He would buy paintings and furnishings and do a quick showing of a house. Another feature that I think was very, very vibrant in the area in those years was a very active gay population. I think Capitol Hill became a quiet, safe place for gay individuals and couples to live in peace and quiet and to buy homes, to run businesses. As a general—I mean, this is stereotypical, but as a group, they loved antiques. And my mother adopted people. She welcomed people and was very, very nurturing. She loved to cook. So her business, her friendship life in many ways became all blended together.
Libby Sangster outside Antiques on the Hill, 701 North Carolina Avenue SE
(from Washington Star Magazine cover, December 6, 1970)
FIELEK: Yeah, well, as a youngster, and then as a teenager, did you hang around at the shop?
SANGSTER: Yes and no. I mean, it was always a part of my life. But like any teenager, I was much more interested in having a life some distance away from my mother. I came to appreciate what she was doing and what she had built later on.
FIELEK: Back to the issue of the gay community on the Hill. I’ve lived on the Hill more than 40 years. Do you believe that that’s still the case?
SANGSTER: I think so.
FIELEK: The well-established gay community? I think so too. Your perspective is so much more …
SANGSTER: I think so, although, now, you know, I think there are other neighborhoods that, you know—even though I know we have still a long way to go in terms of acceptance and diversity with regard to sexual orientation, race, culture, etc., I mean, there certainly are more neighborhoods where gay people feel welcome. Sometimes I think even the most prejudiced among us have learned, well, if you’ve got money, what are you going to do? You’re going to tell these people, no you can’t buy this, you know, $800,000 house. Doesn’t make sense.
FIELEK: It’s just so interesting, and it’s something I have not heard before, which is why I wanted to get just a little bit more color around that; that we were Dupont Circle before it was Dupont Circle. [laughs]
SANGSTER: In some respects. I think I’ve always felt like my parents brought that sense of diversity with them from New York, having been part of an artist community, which tends to be more welcoming of diversity, that they kind of brought that mentality with them, you know, in terms of sexual orientation and race.
FIELEK: As you were growing up, would you describe Capitol Hill as an artsy community?
SANGSTER: I don’t know, I think my sense of it is that it was more entrepreneurial.
SANGSTER: You know, the little businesses that were popping up. Some that are still with us—Fairy Godmother [319 Seventh Street SE], Clothes Encounters [202 Seventh Street SE]. There are others that aren’t with us anymore. Yeah, but more entrepreneurial. Some of the restaurants that have been around a long time.
FIELEK: I was curious about the changes. The evolution of the business community on the Hill, but I think you’ve already, I think you’ve answered the question that there’s been an entrepreneurial spirit. There’s been evolution, but you have some of the old-timers who are still in place. Does that go for the restaurants, too?
SANGSTER: Well, it’s hard to know right now [during the pandemic] what’s going to happen. But Mr. Henry’s is still there. Tunnicliff’s [Tavern, 222 Seventh Street SE] has been in business probably since the 70s, I think. [Tunnicliff’s on Seventh Street was founded in the early 80s.] Of course, we just lost Montmartre [327 Seventh Street SE], which had been around for 20 years.
FIELEK: Are you an only child?
SANGSTER: Yes, I am.
FIELEK: Because I know in our conversations, I’ve never heard of a sister so you had sort of free reign as a youngster with your parents working. And again, we’ve had some of these conversations before. Where did you go to school?
SANGSTER: I started out over in Anacostia. I went to a nursery school there. I think it was called Randle Highlands Nursery School [now Randle Highlands Elementary School, 1650 30th Street SE]. Then I went to Ketchum Elementary [1919 15th Street SE] for a year or so. I think I may have gone there for kindergarten, but I ended up at Peabody [Elementary School, 425 C Street NE], right on Stanton Park, from I think it was first through fourth grade. Then there was a big movement in the DC public school system for what they called tracking at that time, where if you were a student who had been tested or whose grades were at a certain level, you could be tracked and sent to a school outside of your neighborhood. I ended up going to Amidon in Southwest [now Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, 401 I Street SW], which had a more accelerated program for fifth and sixth grades.
FIELEK: You were at Peabody about the time your family moved to Fifth Street?
FIELEK: Yes, I know it’s been interesting to watch the Capitol Hill schools kind of turn around.
SANGSTER: Oh yeah.
FIELEK: Between Peabody and Brent [301 North Carolina Avenue SE]; I guess Maury [1250 Constitution Avenue NE] is really coming along. It’s very exciting to hear. How about high school?
SANGSTER: After Amidon I went to Jefferson [801 Seventh Street SW], which is now Jefferson [Middle School] Academy. It was a DC public school at that time. Then I went to Western [High School] up in Glover Park, 35th and R [Streets] Northwest, which is now Duke Ellington [School of the Arts].
FIELEK: You started in the schools after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown versus Board of Education. So at least in theory did not attend segregated—schools were no longer segregated.
SANGSTER: No. Right.
FIELEK: One question, it’s probably a little politically sensitive, but, because neighborhood schools were essentially drawing on the neighborhood, the schools still looked segregated.
SANGSTER: No. I have always felt like something of an anomaly among White people because this tracking system was very interesting in that it drew students from all over the city, White and Black. So I went to school, starting in fifth and sixth grade, on to junior high and high school, with multiracial students.
SANGSTER: Many of the Black students that I went to school with were huge academic achievers. So it was a very different experience from what you might think of stereotypically.
FIELEK: Yeah, and perhaps again, this is perhaps politically sensitive, maybe a program like that needs to come back given the changes in the schools, charter schools, the public schools.
SANGSTER: Right. I tend to think School Without Walls [2130 G Street NW], where my son went, and Duke Ellington, where my middle daughter went, are kind of examples of that. That you have to be at a certain level of capability. For Duke Ellington you have to have an art that you excel in, that you’re good at. But both of those schools draw from a multiracial student body.
FIELEK: I think the improvement, the changes in the schools on Capitol Hill have really made a huge difference in terms of attracting young families to stay on the Hill.
SANGSTER: Right. I don’t know though [whether] we’ve conquered the high school.
FIELEK: No, yeah.
SANGSTER: I know that Eastern [High School, 1700 East Capitol Street NE] was beautifully renovated maybe five years ago? But I don’t know if any White families are sending their kids there.
[Section discussing the Zoom session details removed.]
FIELEK: And so many of the children are going to private schools at great cost and getting great educations. But it’s just not widely available to everyone, which is too bad. You mentioned your grown children early on. So tell me a little bit about your coming up. I know you went through DC public schools. What was your career path, your career track?
SANGSTER: Well, in high school, I became very interested in creative writing. Unfortunately, well, I had a very mixed, very spotty academic record through high school. My performance didn’t quite match my abilities. I now as a clinical social worker look back and think, “Well, the girl’s father died when she was 16 the summer before senior year in high school. You think that might have had an impact?” Of course, in those days, you know, nobody talked about grief counseling or anything of that sort and I was in most respects highly functional, but didn’t do well. So, I didn’t really get into college the way a lot of my peers did. I eventually got into American University [4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW], I think because they were doing a kind of outreach into DC public schools. So I did one year there. But it wasn’t really a great fit for me. There’s another whole personal story about how I got married way too young at the age of 19 to someone I met at AU. Eventually I ended up at Rutgers [University in New Brunswick, New Jersey].
FIELEK: Oh, interesting.
SANGSTER: Yeah, where I really got my land legs of academics and education. It started a little bit at American, but I had some really great creative writing teachers at Rutgers. That was a really good experience.
FIELEK: Yeah, yeah. Good for you. Rutgers because you heard of it and applied or…
SANGSTER: My then-husband was teaching there, so I basically followed him, and the marriage didn’t last. But my experience there did last and was very meaningful. Then I went on to get a master’s of fine arts at Columbia [University in New York City] in poetry. So I didn’t find my way to social work until some years after that.
FIELEK: Okay. And when did the children come?
SANGSTER: Not until my first daughter was born in 1982. I had just finished my first year of my master’s of social work program. Then my second daughter was [born in] 1986. They’re to blame for it taking me five [?] years to finish a two-year master’s degree. It’s fine, you know, who cares. Then my son came along almost ten years later. Born in ’96.
FIELEK: Were you back on the Hill by this time?
SANGSTER: Yes, and I think it was ’76 or ’77 that my then-husband Barry [Hayman] and I came from New York, because I met him in New York after I finished my master’s at Columbia. So he was also a New Yorker and we came to DC.
FIELEK: And then became a Capitol Hill resident.
FIELEK: Where were you living at that point?
SANGSTER: Well, there were at that time two apartments above the antique shop. My mother gave us a sweet deal. We did pay some rent. It wasn’t much, but it was one of those sort of serendipitous [things], you know. One of the apartments was vacant, and Barry and I were a little bit unsure of what we wanted to do, whether we were going to stay in New York or not. We weren’t married yet, but we’d been living together, and he was ready to leave New York. So it all sort of came together and he ended up getting some nice opportunities in terms of entrepreneurial things as well.
FIELEK: At one point didn’t you work for the Senate?
SANGSTER: I did, I did. When we came to DC, which was coming home for me, my first job was at the Library of Congress, only for about six months—one of those jobs that sort of sounds like it’s going to be some writing and editing and it turns out to be virtually clerical. I wasn’t thrilled with that, but I was all of what, 24 years old. My mother knew Joe Stewart—he still has a house on East Capitol Street—who had worked for Senator Robert Byrd [D-WV], by that time already for many years. She said, “You know, my daughter is looking for a job. What do you think?” At that time, Senator Byrd was becoming the majority leader and was going to be establishing a Democratic policy committee office with a group of advisors. Of course, you need support staff. So, I became the office manager and did all the typing and filing and organizing and keeping things moving.
FIELEK: Let’s take about a five minute break while I reset and I’ll send you another [Zoom] invitation. Okay?
SANGSTER: Sounds good.
FIELEK: Great, alright. Back in a few minutes.
END AUDIO FILE 1
START AUDIO FILE 2
FIELEK: So we were at a very exciting time in your life when you’re working for Senator Byrd.
SANGSTER: Yeah, it was kind of a fluke for me, Etta, in the sense that I didn’t have a burning desire to be in politics or follow that path at all, but it was a great job. And I met some just wonderful people. I got to do some very exciting travel—two trips, you know, to help support him and his team in the Middle East, and then a couple years later in the Soviet Union. So, you know, no regrets. It was a really, really good experience.
FIELEK: Well, it sounds like it might have been a great stepping stone for you, too. Just in terms of thinking about options in your life.
SANGSTER: Yeah, and I eventually figured out that I wanted to do something in the mental health arena. And that was my next step.
FIELEK: So, social work—is your practice Hill-based?
SANGSTER: Yes. I’m part of a group practice that’s right on Pennsylvania Avenue, although now, we’re all working from home. But the Penn Building [650 Pennsylvania Avenue SE], which as you probably know used to be a movie theater. The office is in there. But I started out as a volunteer at St. Elizabeth’s [Hospital] when I was interested in social work and eventually went to Catholic University [620 Michigan Avenue NE] for my MSW [master’s in social work].
FIELEK: So are most of your clients Hill-based as well?
SANGSTER: There’s a mix, but we certainly serve the community a lot. But, of course, this area is highly accessible to many other areas. And the practice now has an office in Crystal City [Virginia] as well as two offices in Maryland. So we’ve branched out a lot.
FIELEK: So I hear that entrepreneurial spirit lives on.
SANGSTER: It does, it does.
FIELEK: I was curious. Did you ever for a minute consider going into the antiques business?
SANGSTER: No, no, I never wanted to run my own business, and I have a neighbor who was in the antiques business—antiques and home interior design—and she always found it very perplexing that you had a mother who would have handed this over to you. My mother did leave the business to my ex-husband—he was not my ex at the time. But she left him the business because he was very, very involved in the antique business.
FIELEK: How about your children?
SANGSTER: Yes, my eldest daughter and son-in-law have an antique shop in Brooklyn [New York].
FIELEK: Oh, interesting.
SANGSTER: Yeah. My son-in-law Zak grew up in a home renovation family, his dad’s business, so building and repairing and making things is part of his experience. They met in New York—it was full circle. Their business is now primarily on Instagram.
FIELEK: Oh, interesting.
SANGSTER: The shop is closed now but still very, very active on Instagram.
FIELEK: Well, it sounds like New York will be re-opening before we will. So, did your children go to DC public schools?
SANGSTER: Yes, and no. The mix. My two girls—well, all of my kids went to Jenkins Hill Child Development Center, the preschool in the [Capitol Hill] Presbyterian Church [Fourth and Independence Avenue SE]. [The preschool] is no longer there. But it was for many years. And my girls went to Capitol Hill Day School [210 South Carolina Avenue SE] from pre-K through eighth grade. And then my eldest went to the Field School [2301 Foxhall Road NW] for high school. Middle daughter went to Duke Ellington, and my son went all the way through DCPS [District of Columbia Public Schools], from Peabody—School Within a School at Peabody, to Watkins [420 12th Street SE], to Stuart-Hobson [Middle School, 410 E Street NE], and to School Without Walls.
FIELEK: So as a parent, you decided what was the appropriate setting?
SANGSTER: Well, there were different influences, you know, my family was different at different times. [For] my daughter Sally, going to Duke Ellington was a change in plan right at the time that my kids’ dad and I split up. So I had to get real creative, and I did, and a neighbor whose son was very good friends with my older daughter—Bonny Wolf.
FIELEK: Oh, I know Bonny very well.
SANGSTER: Yeah. Her son, Jonathan had gone to Duke Ellington …
FIELEK: I remember that whole story.
SANGSTER: And I think I called Bonny and said, “I need help.” It was August of whatever year that was. And they called a teacher, a Duke Ellington teacher, in from vacation to interview my daughter and take her through the audition process. It was really a tumultuous time.
FIELEK: So what was your daughter’s art? What was her…
SANGSTER: She was in the literary—similar to me, interested in writing.
FIELEK: But she thrived at Ellington?
SANGSTER: She did. It was a wonderful experience. And in terms of the whole Black Lives Matter, and all of our varied experiences with race, you know, it’s a predominantly Black student body, and I believe still is. And they were just welcoming to her. You know, it was a really good experience.
FIELEK: I’m going to get back to Black Lives Matter briefly. So one daughter in Brooklyn, one daughter is …
SANGSTER: No, actually both of my daughters live in the Hudson Valley [New York] area.
FIELEK: Oh, okay.
SANGSTER: One is in Kingston, and my middle daughter and her husband now live in Saugerties.
FIELEK: Okay? And your son is …
SANGSTER: He’s now gone back to Oregon, which is where he went to college. So nobody wants to live in DC.
FIELEK: So is your son living in Portland? Has he been …
SANGSTER: Yes. He graduated from Reed [College in Portland], and his girlfriend is still in school at Portland State, so he went back to Portland.
FIELEK: So has he reported back to you on the protests and the disturbances?
SANGSTER: Yeah we’ve been in touch about it, and they were out protesting quite a bit, first few weeks.
FIELEK: Yeah, I have a very good friend in Portland who said for many, many nights, the disturbances were so localized. Just a few blocks. And then the feds got involved, and all hell broke loose.
FIELEK: I know you mentioned Black Lives Matter in the context of your daughter and how welcome she was Duke Ellington. What do you—I don’t even know how to phrase the question. Where does DC go from here? Is Mayor Bowser—is she positioning us properly? Is it a good direction?
SANGSTER: I generally have respect for her. I am not deeply involved in local politics. I’m not a great civic volunteer. I often assuage my guilt around that by saying, “I see clients 30 hours every week. It’s enough.” But I don’t know. I do think DC has lost what my recollection is, has lost a lot of its strong middle- and upper-middle-class Black community. That in the 60s and 70s I think a lot of Black families moved out into suburban areas because, when I was going to high school, you know, a lot of those kids’ families lived in upper Northwest and those neighborhoods. There are still some. But, you know, DC is no longer a dominant Black city that it once was.
FIELEK: Perhaps that’s a loss.
SANGSTER: I think it is.
FIELEK: Just in terms of diversity.
FIELEK: I know. When I moved to the Hill, I had folks, friends asking me if it was still a dominant African American community, and I moved to the Hill in ’78. And I had to say no, I had to say no. I wasn’t sure, because—short of knocking on every door and taking a census. But I had to say no.
And it’s—just because of the Black Lives Matter movement—I guess one of the things that surprised me about the protest was the degree to which there was some looting and some spot trouble on the Hill in terms of Grubb’s Pharmacy and the CVS losing a window. Were you surprised by that?
SANGSTER: Not really. I guess I don’t tend to focus so much on that. I think, you know, random things are going to happen when you have tempers flared and you know, people feeling desperate and upset. Things are going to happen. But I know I’m working on continuing to educate myself even though I’ve considered myself pretty knowledgeable about race and race relations throughout my life. But you know just to dig a little deeper I’m reading [Ibram X.] Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist and finding it really, really informative and inspiring. Just think about the Black families that lived on Fifth Street. Why didn’t they keep their houses?
FIELEK: Well, I was kind of getting to that, but it’s obviously a sensitive topic, and it’s hard to find the right words.
SANGSTER: How could my mother and father, with no money in the bank, [go] to the bank and work out a sweet deal to buy what they didn’t—I don’t think they fully realized what a valuable property it was going to be. But, why couldn’t the Black family that lived there before them do that?
FIELEK: I don’t have the answer to that, and I don’t think you do either.
SANGSTER: Well, I don’t think they would have been welcome if they had walked into National Capital [Bank] in 1957.
FIELEK: Yeah. So what’s your hope for the future?
SANGSTER: In what respect in terms of race or my own future?
FIELEK: Well, let’s talk about diversity, and let’s talk about Gina.
SANGSTER: Well, I mean, one of the things I love about the clinical practice that I’m in is that it is a diverse group of people. We have a mixed group of therapists in terms of race, in terms of culture, age, and we have a diverse group of administrative staff. The practice is owned by a Black woman, a clinical psychologist. So that’s really important to me. I don’t want to be part of a White organization. So I really like that. I like being able to attract a varied clientele. You know, I do feel a little alienated at times in my own neighborhood, you know, because there’s been such an influx of young White families, and I don’t think as much artistic and entrepreneurial spirit. I think there’s been less of that in the last maybe 10 to 20 years.
FIELEK: Maybe we’re becoming a little bit like an inner-city suburb.
SANGSTER: Well, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the current breakdown of our culture, how we rebuild. You know, I hope it isn’t just corporate America that survives. I hope small businesses can find a way to stay or come back.
FIELEK: What role do you see education playing?
SANGSTER: I mean, I think it’s critical. I think it’s really good that many of our neighborhood public schools have dramatically improved and are stronger. Who knows what that’s going to look like in the next six months to a year or two. What we’re dealing with.
FIELEK: So, do you see yourself staying on the Hill and in the city or moving to the Hudson Valley?
SANGSTER: No, no, no. It’s sort of ironic because I miss my kids a lot. My second daughter is going to have her first baby in February. I’m not able to see her. I’m hoping that we can see each other in November before or after Thanksgiving. But I just said this to my daughter the other day, I’m not ready. I’m not ready to give up my life. Be a grandma in a little apartment somewhere.
FIELEK: It must be so interesting for you, too, to know you have three successful, well-established children who grew up on the Hill as you did. And do you ever think back to what their lives were like versus what your life was like, growing up in the 50s and 60s?
SANGSTER: Oh, yeah, in some ways, it was very similar. There are certain things that, I mean I’ve gone shopping at Fairy Godmother both as a mom and as a grandmother, which is interesting. Or just some of our local institutions like the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop [545 Seventh Street SE]. There are certain things that have persisted that my kids experienced growing up.
FIELEK: Well, but when you were a kid, there was no Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
SANGSTER: No, there was Friendship House [619 D Street SE, now a condo called the Maples].
FIELEK: Oh, okay.
SANGSTER: I remember going there.
FIELEK: What were the activities like there?
SANGSTER: I don’t have a lot of memories. There were some after-school programs.
FIELEK: So there’s a continuum.
SANGSTER: Yeah, and the Corcoran School of Art which doesn’t exist as…
FIELEK: Doesn’t exist anymore, right?
SANGSTER: I went to classes there and my oldest daughter did also.
FIELEK: That’s great. Well, I think we can begin wrapping up. Is there anything—I’m sure there’s a lot that I have missed. I think we’ve covered a lot. Is there anything you’d like to, on your own, introduce or bring into the conversation?
SANGSTER: Sometimes I think it’s—you know, again observing a lot of the changes going on in the community and sometimes feeling that those who establish themselves here, my mother being one of them—how much are their histories and what they contributed going to be known? And maybe that’s part of what the Overbeck Project is about, making sure that this history is available.
FIELEK: It just occurred to me. And in the editing process, I can take care of this. Tell me, your mother’s name.
SANGSTER: First name, Libby.
FIELEK: Libby that’s right.
FIELEK: Sangster, okay, I remember now … Okay, well, have a wonderful conversation with your son.
FIELEK: Someone, not I, will do a transcript of this conversation and I’ll go through it and smooth it out and I’ll be back in touch.
SANGSTER: Very nice Etta.
FIELEK: Thank you for your time. Thank you so much.
SANGSTER: I hope to see you. Maybe we’ll actually have coffee one day outside.
FIELEK: I come past your corner almost every day.
SANGSTER: All right.
FIELEK: All right, great. ’Bye, thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW
Additional material supplied by Gina Sangster after the interview:
Libby Sangster died in 1990. Prior to that, CHAMPS, the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, introduced this award in her honor for Retailer of the Year and presented it to her.
Antiques on the Hill remained open until 2002, run by Gina’s then-husband, Barry Hayman, to whom Libby had left the business. Gina inherited the building.
[BMcM1]Version edited by me, EL, Ellen Hirzy starting with Ellen’s edited file.