The Corner Forum
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2004
Issue #62

It Was Rough Back Then

By Chester W. Hunter, 1310 Emerald St. NE

In this conversation he had on Jan. 30 with Marc Borbely, 536 13th St. NE, Mr. Hunter shares some memories about growing up on Emerald Street.

10th Street's got a hill, and we used to go sledding there when we were kids. On 10th Street, that hill was smoother than Maryland Avenue, and we just walked on over to 10th and sledded down there. Times have changed, but I'm old — 71. But I get along all right now. I don't have the strength I used to have so I can walk like I used to walk — although I do take my walks. The doctor said, "Don't worry about that, son, your strength'll come back."

Are you eating okay?

Mmm hmm. I'm eatin' good. I'm gonna cook tonight. I got me some short ribs. I cheated — I wanted some string beans, I got me some canned string beans! And I got me some smoked turkey. And potatoes.

Yeah, I've been putting a lot of food in here [in the house.] [laughs] At this time of year, you don't never know what happens. You remember last year? You couldn't hardly get out for a couple of days. That's how D.C. is.

But I remember one year — I must have been about 10 years old, because we moved here when I was 12. I was living on Bladensburg Road, and the first day of spring, we had snow that deep, but we had to go to school. It's not like it is now, where kids don't go to school, because of snow days. We didn't have any. I remember I had them knickerbocker pants on — that's what all the kids used to wear, back in them days! [chuckles].

I remember walking down the street, going to school, and the first day of spring — all that snow! Things have changed now. If it snows that much now, kids don't go to school. Back in them days people were tougher. They were used to a hard life. Only thing we used to like to do was get our sled, and sleigh-ride! [laughs]

When you went sledding on 10th Street, you were already living here, I guess?

Yeah! I was living down the street, at 1324 [Emerald]. Yeah, I was 12 years old when I moved there. Three black families was living on this street then. Maybe it was four.

It was your family, Mrs. Spencer's...?

Not Spencer, her mother. Her mother was here. Her brother and I used to be buddy-buddies, we used to hang around here. Mary Francis. I remember when she was a baby. I went away when I was 17 — I went away for three years, in the Army. That's when I noticed Mary Francis — when I came back. But her mother had 10 kids. Big family. The guy that I was buddy-buddy with — him and I joined the Army together, matter of fact. But he died about five or six years ago. He had cancer.

What was his name?

Earl Roberts. And his brother died right after him. His brother was a little older than he was. He died about 9, 10 months after Earl.

Who were the four families?

People across the street named the Sturtevants. Mary Francis. I'm not sure about Mrs. Calloway, all the way down the street. Because it was just about three or four families. That was rough, back in them days.

Why? How?

We used to play with white kids — you know, kids could play with kids — and we could hear the mothers calling `em in there: "Come here!"

And we could hear what they said. "Told you not to play with them goddamn n******!" We could hear [stuff] like that. But the kids come out, when they come back out, we would play together.

After school, they had game stuff at Kingsman, for the kids after school. We couldn't go. We would all go together. The counselors would say, "You people have to go up to Lovejoy. Can't come in here."

We'd look at each other. But you know what? My mother always told me, "Now you know some people stupid. Don't you hate anybody because they hate you, you understand?" And I think most of the black kids' mothers would tell them that. These people, they got a problem, you know?

But the kids would always get together and play! Although their mothers and fathers — well, mostly the fathers were in the Army, during World War II — we'd get together and play.

You're talking about this street, here? So there were parents who didn't want the kids playing with you guys.

Mmm hmm. But some of them didn't care. Some of the white kids' parents didn't care. But that few — always gonna be that few, though, calling you "n*****" —

I used to work at that store [at 517 13th St. NE]. I'll never forget that old man's name. He worked for the D.C. Transit. He was a motor operator on one of the trolley cars.

Old Man Clark, he used to come in there, especially at Christmas time, and he ordered them nuts — "Give me a pound of them n***** toes!" Old Man Simon, he was Jewish — he looked at me. He said, "Mr. Clark, these are not n***** toes. These are Brazilian nuts."

He said, "Let me tell you somethin', Simon! Ma pa called `em n***** toes! And that's what I'm-a call `em: n***** toes!"

I just walked on out the door. I was humiliated. Walked out the door. Old Man Simon knew why I walked out that door.

After I came back in, he said, "You all right, Billy?" "Yeah, Mr. Simon, I'm all right." That was a terrible time, growing up here black. §