My Mother’s City

Life in Washington D.C., America’s Jim Crow capital city



A young African American domestic in Washington D.C. during the 1940s. Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photography Division (Public Domain) — Photo taken by Roger Smith

Washington D.C.

In 1933, my grandmother and mother, who was just three years old, boarded a train somewhere in South Carolina, and came to live in Washington, D.C.

My mother was born in a small African American community in South Carolina called Santuc. The railroad tracks are just up the street from where she was born on a sharecropper’s (her grandparents’) farm. On the other side of the tracks was Union, South Carolina, the big city where the whites lived. In coming to Washington, my grandmother did not escape that segregated Jim Crow world. However, there was work for African Americans in Washington, and the city, full of Black professionals and strivers, was a good place for Black people in 1933 despite the Jim Crow realities.

The city was racially segregated. Uptown was dominated by whites, while my mother and grandmother, like many of the African Americans in the early 1930s, arrived and took their place downtown in the U Street corridor. My mother would not move from that neighborhood until the 1950s, but some African Americans, somehow, were able to move uptown a little earlier. That is also part of the city’s story.

A Poet

In 1935, the poet Sterling A. Brown purchased a house uptown at 1222 Kearney Street NE in an area called “The Little Vatican” by locals today. This is because of the many Catholic churches and organizations there. The neighborhood is also called Brookland, and it became one tiny enclave of some equality in the city, especially for African American professionals.

Sterling A. Brown holds a special importance for many African American poets and ordinary people in Washington. In 1987, when I arrived back in the city from college in western Maryland and I declared I was a poet, I immediately became yet another poet who focused on Brown’s work and his example of the poet life. Everyone I knew who was a poet in the city knew about Brown. Some had even been invited to his home to sip bourbon and listen to blues recordings by Ma Rainey and other masters of the form.

I had heard of Brown before that also. My father, uncle, and older cousin all had attended Howard University and had taken…




barrister for the damned. born in a city made of chocolate