O’Leary Column Prompts Telling Response from Sterling Brown

Race issues have been a dominant part of Washington city life ever since the Great Migration of the 1930s and ’40s and the subsequent White Flight to the suburbs. That period is crucial to understanding today’s demographic issues, so I thought it might be useful to take a look at two newspaper columns that appeared a few weeks apart in 1979. On St. Patrick’s Day that year, The Evening Star printed a nostalgic column from Jeremiah O’Leary (right), their State Department and White House correspondent, who reflected on growing up in Brookland. It was filled with stories of young romance, church socials, sledding down Newton Street and other pastimes. O’Leary called Brookland in the ’30s an “Irish ghetto,” and his column has some particularly telling paragraphs:

Our ways were simple, due to the depression, our mothers and our priests. It was not, I have learned in later years, all too different from the way it was in Ireland for our parents or grandparents… It was in every sense an Irish enclave, dominated by the looming edifices of the Franciscan Monastery, CU, St. Anthony’s Church and most of us were as isolated as if there were high walls around the neighborhood. I never knew a black person in that long-ago time, and precious few other exotic species with the exception of a few Italian families who controlled the several shoemaker shops. The Protestants were around because, when in sufficient numbers, they would call us “Cat-lickers.” the only Jewish families were the Muchnicks, who owned the DGS at 18th and Monroe N.E. and a boy named Leonard Sokol who seemed to have acceptance on the playground because he was a good baseball player.

He goes on to describe day-to-day life in the neighborhood:

Brookland was a pleasant place to grow up in half a century ago. As the corporal and spiritual home of the Washington Irish, it lasted only from 1920 to the outset of World War II. It had no such thing as a shopping center but everyone knew the focal points. The Hamilton Bank at Twelfth and Newton had such financial custom as this deeply middle-class neighborhood required. The two movie theaters were the Newton, hard by the bank, and the Jesse – now a porno house – near Eighteenth and Rhode Island.

We patronized Doc Hall’s drug store, Haske’s bakery, the Sanitary and the Muchnick DGS or the groceries known as Heider’s and the Murray, Parran and McMullen store. Dr. Aloysius Gray on Newton street handled every ailment from appendicitis to coronary disease. Moore’s was the hardware store.

O’Leary joined the Marines at the outset of World War II and became a well-known war correspondent. In his column, he refers to that war as marking the end of the Brookland he once knew:

We didn’t know it then, but Brookland’s day was done when the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. When we came back in 1945, we were men of the world and the families went on the move again to greener pastures. It was the end of the last Irish neighborhood Washington ever knew.

Brookland’s day was done? When I first read that in 1979 it rubbed me the wrong way. It also bothered another Brookland resident, the distinguished poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown (right). A month later, he responded with his own column-length letter to the editor in the Star. It’s worth reprinting in its entirety.

I am afraid that my family and I do not share the nostalgia expressed by Jeremiah O’Leary in his essay on Northeast Washington’s Brookland. We have resided in Brookland since 1935, just a year before O’Leary’s anguished courtship of an Irish colleen on 20th Street NE. We do not agree that Brookland’s “day was done when the first bomb fell on Pearl Harbor.” Coming back in 1945, according to O’Leary, the young Irish veterans “were men of the world, and the families went on the move to greener pastures.”

Well, Brookland’s day is not done. The exodus of the Irish and WASPs cannot be blamed on Pearl Harbor. I am afraid that my family was one of the dire causes of white flight. Moving from our previous home when it was purchased by Howard University, my mother bought two lots in Brookland and built one home for herself and two daughters, and one for my wife, myself and our adopted son. When the homes were completed, “For Sale” signs in the neighborhood seemed to sprout overnight.

Across the street lived a venerable Negro who cut the grass and performed other essential duties for his white neighbors. To our east, lived the Petways, whose daughter recently retired as a teacher and librarian in the city schools. In the second house down lived two sisters, long important in the secondary-education section of the then segregated public school system.

Three doors down lived the dean of women of Howard University, and a widely known elocutionist and teacher of speech and drama at Dunbar High School. Other Negro families in Brookland before the white exodus were the Weavers, whose son Mortimer was Phi Beta Kappa and Delta Sigma Rho at Williams College and an M.A. from Harvard, and whose youngest son, Robert, was the first Negro to be appointed a member of the cabinet, serving under Lyndon Johnson. Alston Burleigh, son of the noted composer and himself an actor, singer and teacher, who married into the established, respected Jones family; the Lightfoot sisters, related to the distinguished professor of Latin at Howard; and the family of Sen. Edward Brooke, who spent his boyhood in Brookland before its “day was done.”

“I never knew a black person in that long-ago time, and precious few other exotic species,” O’Leary wrote. Well, I have been a reader of The Star for over 70 years, and I have read many O’Leary articles and understood most, but begorra, and may the saints presarve us, what in the bloody wurruld does he mean by “exotic” and “species?” Jaysus almighty! My Brookland white friend (for some of my best friends are of that exotic breed) does not rebuke me so much for exiling whites as for destroying the hill where our family’s houses were constructed; it was the favorite crap-shooting and card-playing area in the neighborhood.

A less friendly white – I believe he was Irish from his pronunciation – for several weeks drove past in his rickety car, yelling “Naygur, Naygur” at us, louder than the rattling of his jalopy. The word was frequently painted on our steps near the street. Once it was spelled “NIGER,” though my only connection with that country that I know of is my friendship with our former ambassador there, W. Mercer Cook. But what is a single G among friends?

A neighboring woman, who had not been able to get her price, reported us to the FBI as either a house of assignation or a Communist cell. Her evidence was that Negro men would visit with white women. The men were such as Abe Harris, Ralph Bunche, Frank Frazier and Harold Lewis, whose wives were fair-skinned.

But of course whites, male and female; did visit our home. I was on the editorial board of the Writer’s Project and a lover of jazz and our guests included real white friends like Mike Daugherty, Ben Botkin, Angus McDonald, Gunnar Myrdal, Jerre Mangione, John Hammond, Charles E. Smith, Fred Ramsey, Gordon Gullickson and Alan Lomax. As part of the New Deal reawakening, a large number of curiosity seekers, male and female, also came on slumming trips.

To me, Brookland was not, and is not, a “ghetto.” In my block, in our two score years there, our Negro neighbors have included the chairman of the department of electrical engineering at Howard University, a leading gynecologist, a family whose sons are a doctor and teachers (one at Harvard), two prominent ministers, a former instructor in philosophy at Howard, a successful beautyshop owner and manager, a member of The Catholic University staff, a first-rate man in bricklaying and construction, and a host of other good, hard-working people.

Our neighbors behind us have always been white; our acquaintance is of the “nodding variety.” Once, a Catholic University professor, interested in gardening, would chat with my wife, who is the best gardener in the neighborhood. Another professor at Catholic University was more devoted to the document than to oral history, but we had good fences and they, of course, make good neighbors. Now the home behind us is inhabited by a group of young Catholic women. Our only complaint is that on some nights they turn the volume up too loud. They are not playing “Carry Me Back to Old Killarney.”

The report of Brookland’s death is grossly exaggerated. My dear Mr. O’Leary, I feel no nostalgia. I feel no bitterness at the venalities of the past. I am beyond my three score years and 10, over half of them spent in Brookland; I am retired, but these pastures are green enough for me. Deeper than your nostalgia is this prophecy, made by an ancient to a stripling: “Brookland is doing well, and Brookland will rise again.”

However much of a pass you’re willing to give Jeremiah O’Leary because of the times and the social context of his column, there is no doubt that Sterling Brown’s response is brilliant, and telling. Both columns illuminate a Brookland that was often hidden from view. It was good to bring those issues to light in 1979, and no less so today.

Although the O’Leary family lived in a number of different homes in Brookland, Jeremiah spent most of his formative years here, at 1718 Newton Street.
Sterling Brown’s home at 1222 Kearny Street.

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