The house at 1256 Kearny Street NE is a typical Brookland home in many ways - charming and tidy, with a small front porch and a good-sized back yard. For a time in the 1920s and '30s two remarkable women lived there: Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard University, and her partner Mary Powell Burrill, renowned teacher of English and dramatics at Dunbar High and a playwright who influenced many students who went on to make a name for themselves in the Harlem Renaissance.
Lucy Slowe (left) is the more prominent of the pair, and rightfully so. Her accomplishments are really quite extraordinary. Here are some of them: In 1904 she won a scholarship to Howard University, where she was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority for African American women; in 1917 she won the women’s title at the American Tennis Association’s national tournament; in 1919 she became the principal of the first junior high school for African Americans, Shaw, at 7th and Rhode Island; and in 1922 she was appointed the first Dean of Women at her alma mater, Howard University, where she became a nationally-known figure in women’s education.
This post isn’t Brookland-related, but I still think it’s worth noting. A book was recently released about a woman of whom I had only cursory knowledge. As a journalist, I should have known more, and now, thanks to my friend James McGrath Morris’s book, I do.
Let’s go back to 1954 and a presidential press conference with Dwight Eisenhower, who looked annoyed. A feisty African American reporter named Ethel Payne had just asked him a tough question about whether his administration would support the banning of segregation in interstate transit. "The administration is trying to do what it thinks and believes to be decent and just in this country," the president said testily, "and is not in the effort to support any particular or special group of any kind." The president's curt reply drew headlines, and Ethel Payne was satisfied that she had done her job--raising serious questions about thorny problems that the administration would prefer not to answer.
It was the kind of thing Payne had been doing for the Chicago Defender since 1951, and would continue to do there and for other news organizations until her death in 1991. That attitude earned her the title of "First Lady of the Black Press." Payne's rise in journalism had been rapid and marked by solid and sometimes cheeky reportage that pulled no punches. "You are either acquiescent, which I think is wrong,” she explained, “or else you just rebel, and you kick against it. I wanted to constantly, constantly, constantly hammer away, raise the questions that needed to be raised.”