Now to my favorite part: the conversations I had with folks who actually attended the the original March On Washington, many of whom were from my place of birth, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Needless to say, I don’t have to see Lee Daniels': The Butler (It’s a long one. Sorry.)
First, though she wasn’t at the March in ’63, I interviewed my grandmother, Frances Butler, who was in DC at the time. This was about eight years after she graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School there, the first Black public high school for Black in the nation. Her class of ’55 was the last segregated class to graduate from there. I got some of her thoughts:
My grandmother, Frances Butler dancing at my cousin (her grandson) Jared’s wedding. That’s Jared’s wife, Courtney behind her.
As the 50th anniversary of the great March On Washington approaches, one might take a look at if it’s goal of equality between the races was achieved. Blacks fought for integration in hopes of creating a level playing field for all Americans regardless of color.
However, while strides have been made since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, social ratios are still off-kilter. For example, the black unemployment rate (like it was in 1963 when the March took place) is practically double that of whites at all levels of education.
More disturbing was a study conducted by Northwestern University’s Andrew Sum finding that blacks with even associate’s degree or some college experience experience higher unemployment rates than white high school drop outs. These findings were reinforced by Princeton’s Devah Pager’s study where she sent black and white applicants to different jobs. Among the applicants, she scattered a few with criminal records. She found that the black applicants with no criminal record had a harder time getting hired than white applicants with felonies.
These findings support the notion that the playing field is not level. One person, who knows this first-hand is retired teacher and Darby Township resident, Frances Butler. Butler was a member of the final, segregated graduating class of the storied Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, the nation’s first, black, academic public high school in 1955. She credits the experience for her success in life and that of her peers, “I don’t think segregation should be imposed. If someone wants to go to another school, they should be able to do that, but I would’ve stayed right where I was.”
Butler graduated alongside Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton as well as comedian Dave Chappelle’s mother, Yvonne Reed, who went on to be a professor at Howard University and the University of Maryland. Other notable alumni include Dr. Charles R. Drew, blood transfusion pioneer, Edward Brooke, the first black post-Reconstruction senator and Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the armed forces. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Week also served on Dunbar’s faculty. Butler credits the holistic approach to education that the teachers took with them, a liberty that they don’t have in integrated classrooms. “The teachers were freer to say what they needed to say to give us the guidance that we needed as black children. They really worked with you as a whole person,” she described. “They talked to you about the way that you carried yourself, your clothing, the way you spoke, your character. Everything that made you, you and they would tell us that we had to be better, not just as good, but better than others (to make it).”
She felt that the teachers felt more attached to the students, “They were just so interested. It was important for them to see you progress; each individual student and they gave you individual care.”
After graduating, Butler married Robert Butler and went to work for the CIA as a typist. Tragically, in 1957 after Robert died in a car accident. Widowed with two infant daughters, the resolve instilled in her from her Dunbar experience drove Butler to obtain a degree in education. After teaching briefly in DC, she moved with her daughters to Darby Township and she began teaching at Add B. Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia. She saw a real change from her school days. When I came here and taught in Philadelphia, it was totally different. The school was black, but the children’s self-esteem was low, they didn’t know anything about Black history and teachers didn’t either and didn’t care a lot. It just was very different.”
She tried her best to recreate the Dunbar experience in her classes by teaching black history and even making her students sing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” at the beginning of the day, but she saw a real decline since desegregation. “It caused the black children to backslide really. They didn’t have the push, they weren’t being made to feel worthy or that they were capable of doing the best of things. It was just like that plight was always in front of them and they aren’t being encouraged like we were.”
She went on to explain, “Our self-esteem was boosted then. We felt more worthy; we didn’t have to compete in an arena that you knew you weren’t going to win. We did win and the teachers did everything that they could.”
She also added, “We were so directly involved with things to be proud of. Seeing good examples of people right in your neighborhood, like right on your block. There were people that weren’t the best characters, but I didn’t feel involved with those people.”
With the employment statistics mentioned before and the recent actions taken to restrict the voting rights of minorities and the fact that the income rate of black households still pales in comparison to that of whites, another March on Washington may be right on time.
Longtime Darby Township official, Lee Taliaferro standing outside of the town’s library recently named in his honor.
Commemorators from around the country are prepping to convene on the Washington Mall for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. As people look to relive that glorious day in 1963, some local people reminisce about attending the actual march all those years ago. Local men, Lee Taliaferro, longtime Darby Township official and Chester’s Ronald Wesley, a retired human services are two of those people.
Both men recollected memories of early racism while serving in the armed forces. Taliaferro reflected on a time in while serving in the Air Force in 1954. “I’d never really run into anything of any kind of discriminatory nature until I had went into the Air Force. I was on a train and we (black and white servicemen) changed trains in Little Rock, Arkansas. At that point, the black soldiers were told that we could not go with the white military people. I’ll never forget it. It was an old wooden coach that all the black military people had to get on. It was all black folks period. That gave me a little taste of the South and my first real dose of discrimination.”
Wesley remembered a time while stationed in El Paso, TX, trying to get home to Chester. He was forced to land at a North Carolina military base where he hitched a ride with white fellow, who happened to be headed to Vietnam. On their ride, though Wesley wasn’t hungry, they stopped at a diner for some food. The driver went in and ordered two hamburgers and two coffees. The proprietor gave him one burger and a cup of coffee. When he asked where Wesley’s food was, he remembered, “This white guy who’s store it was said, ‘I’m not serving that nigger in here.’” Upon further protest from his driver, Wesley remembered the owner saying, “’I don’t give a damn about that nigger’s food.’ And I saw a gun in his drawer. I ran out of there so fast. I thought he was going to shoot me.” Te driver gave Wesley the food, but Wesley ended up getting out to hitchhike at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where he discarded of it in disgust, “I got out the car and threw it down there.”
Both of these experiences led each man to attend the March on Washington. They both marveled at the plethora of marchers from all over the nation, some having signs indicating their locale. Wesley said, “(It was impressive) Just seeing the little kids looking out of these little houses and families from all over the United States. They had people on crutches.”
Taliaferro reminisced, “It was a wonderful experience just being there among the thousands and thousands of people; just being part of the group. Just the idea of being there with all the people, all the marching and the singing, it was just a great experience.”
He remembered the muddy conditions, due to rains that preceded the day. “It just rained, rained, rained. There was just mud everywhere.” He also remembered the shantytown-esque set up of cardboard shelters and people cooking out in pots and pans. But he, 19-years-old at the time, was determined to partake in the experience. “I wanted to go. I was a kid myself. I wanted to be adventurous. I was just trying to be a man and experience life.”
Though the commemoration of the March is sure to be memorable, the experience of participating in the original March was a once in a lifetime event. To both men, simply being there spoke volumes. Wesley expressed, “Just like the Million Man March, it’s hard to explain unless you were there. It was so uplifting (and) at the same time, it made you feel so humble.”
“When the March came up, you feel as though you want to be a part of it no matter what. You’re not doing anything, you’re not saying anything, but your just there yourself in the number, in the crowd,” said Taliaferro. “You don’t have to be an outspoken person. Just be a part of the movement and there to support
Rev. Jay Ted and Alfreda Reed seeing Chester March On Washington Commemorators off.
Chester couple, Rev. Jay Ted and Alfreda Reed were a part of the throng that attended the March on Washington 50 years ago. Though they did not board bus provided by The National Council of Black Women, Chester Democratic Party, Local 413 and the office of Thaddeus Kirkland to DC, the Reeds rose at the crack of dawn to see the Chester commemorators off.
In those days, both were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 18, Mrs. Reed (nee Charlton) served faithfully as a member of the Chester NAACP’s Youth Council and rode down to DC that historic day on a bus provided by Westinghouse, one of many corporate buses that left Chester that day. “Really, (the March on Washington) was for everyone, but for us as Black people, this meant so much, because as a result of that, you might as well say the world, especially the United States, (was soon to be) changed for us,” expressed Mrs. Reed.
Reed had whet her appetite for revolution locally, playing an integral role in a righteous assault on the infamous Great Leopard Skating Rink in 1962, when the Chester youth grew weary of only being allowed to skate there on Wednesday nights, which rink owners called, “Sepia Night (‘sepia’ is defined as ‘a reddish-brown color’).” Mrs. Reed gave the root of the problem, “All the young people were in school, so most parents wouldn’t let you go because the next day you had to go to school. We had to fight so that we could go on the weekends.” Seeing the Youth Council’s passion and dedication, the adult membership of the NAACP joined in, taking legal action, according to Mrs. Reed who remembered, “We even had to go to court.”
Documented in John Morrison McLarnon’s Ruling Suburbia: John J. McClure and the Republican Machine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, newfound Chester NAACP leader, Stanley Branche, revered for his unshakable nature evidenced in his previous work to desegregate Girard College in Philadelphia (yet described by then Philadelphia Daily News senior editor, Chuck Jones as “a sepia-toned Jack Armstrong, the black all-American boy grown to shrewd manhood”), led the first legislative charge with George Raymond, enlisting Swarthmore College students to “demonstrate in the courtroom.” However, that tactic backfired, as the presiding judge, “annoyed with the demonstrators,” ruled in favor of Great Leopard. The ruling was labeled as “the first time in memory, the NAACP lost a case.” and Raymond was stuck with the bill.
Redemption came later that summer (according to the August 18, 1962 edition of The Afro American) the protestors prevailed: ‘Responding to an appeal from the NAACP youth here, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission last week ruled that the Great Leopard Skating Rink, “shall admit colored customers in the future without discrimination.”
A few years older and confused as to the best course of action to take to combat the oppression of the day, Rev. Reed lent his ear to more militant groups predating the notorious Black Panther Party, seeking an alternative to the popular, Ghandi-inspired passive non-violent strategy practiced by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. “Few people don’t say much about that, but that was a challenging time for Dr. King’s leadership, because the violence in the early and mid-60s had escalated to a point where other voices in the Movement were challenging non-violence,” elaborated Rev. Reed. “People were very weary and forlorn about ‘will this work?’ because in ’63, we didn’t know it would work. We had hope that it would work. Originally, there was a lot of hope.” He said that rare, violent, Black protests did occur, but never “bore any fruit.”
His journey down to National Mall was a quest to find a remedy the societal ills, conducive to the Jim Crow Era. “At that time, I thought the March on Washington was pivotal because young people in our age group were questioning how long we could endure non-violently,” he reminisced. “I do remember standing on the Mall saying ‘I sure hope this works.’”
Both youngsters were impressed by the events of the day. “It was the most wonderful experience in the world,” Mrs. Reed reflected with optimism. “It was awesome! It was unreal to see all those people of all nationalities gather for the same purpose.”
Like most young people of that age, the Reeds were awed by celebrities of the day such as Major League Baseball color-barrier breaker, Jackie Robinson, legendary actress, Dorothy Dandridge, and (white) film/TV stars, Burt Lancaster and Tony Franciosa who intermingled with the masses. “For me, as a young person, I went down there and got star-struck,” remembered Rev. Reed. I never saw these people up close, you know, and there were a lot of them! I can remember a whole crew of them walking right up the Mall right in front of me for the same purpose.”
“You know, everybody was so enthused about Dr. King. Of course I was too, but I’ll tell you,” chimed Mrs. Reed, “Mahalia Jackson stole the show!” Jackson wowed the crowd that afternoon with her stirring rendition of the gospel tune, “How I Got Over.”
The Reeds returned to Chester motivated to agitate change. Rev. Reed, clearly, took the spiritual path, like other influential leaders of the Movement. He is now retired, but continues to practice his vocation as an Elder at Fresh Anointing Christian Center in Upper Darby.
Mrs. Reed went on to assume the top seat of the Chester NAACP Youth Council. “Right after (the March), I became president.” For the next few years (in conjunction with other organizations), Mrs. Reed participated in various protests around the nation, including the sit-ins in Cambridge, Maryland, and Delaware among other places. She also was a participant in the turbulent “Chicago Freedom (or Open Housing) Movement,” once again led by Dr. King, who’s ascension to “icon” status.
Alas, coupled with the murders/imprisonment of other leaders, Rev. Reed attributes the decline in the Movements’ progress to the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, whom he described as the first white person to predict a black president of the United States. “That didn’t come from the mouths of black leaders. That came from the mouth of Robert Kennedy,” declared Rev. Reed. He also recalled the “ violent dismantling” of progressive organizations and influx of drugs into black communities. Reed cited J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO attack on the Black Panther Party, who’s famous free breakfast program was dubbed by Hoover as the nation’s “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Rev Reed remembered, “When the early Black Panthers had their food programs, the oranges would be spiked with LSD, courtesy of the U.S. government. Drug trafficking in urban America increased, courtesy of the U.S. government. All of that to dismantle it, so what would’ve been militants, became a generation of drug addicts.”
He said, “Our eyes were opened to some things. I don’t think young people in that day knew how devastating it could be for your own government to be against you.”
Though they did not attend the national commemoration, the Reeds look forward to Chester’s celebration at Crozer Library on the evening of the official anniversary, Wednesday, Aug. 28th.
Citing the recent Zimmerman Trial and controversial alterations to voter ID laws, the Reeds see that the fight they started more than all those years ago endured, but do not feel that previous sacrifices and efforts were in vain. Rev Reed surmised, “I think all of the points are coming together now; educational, economic, social and political. People are understanding there has to be a convergence of progress on all levels and I think that’s where we’re headed, despite the discouragement and government by obstructionism.” He continued, “We are enjoying some significant gains over the last 50 years. Things are much more settled now, we’ve had obviously some things that’ve caused sentiments to come to the surface.”
“Now we can go into places where we were never accepted before, we can eat certain places, (and) the schools are integrated (via the Civil Rights Movement),” said Mrs. Reed, “but we still have a long ways to go.”
Rev. Reed continued his wife’s sentiments, “ We’ve got a long way to go. No we haven’t turned the corner yet. We’re on the right street, but we didn’t turn the corner yet. I believe the next 50 years will be more fruitful.”
Evelyn Harris of the Bronx, NY stowed away on a bus at 12-years-old to attend the March on Washington in 1963
Anita Downs, of Chester, snuck from New York to Washington to attend the March on Washington in 1963.
If any place was open to everybody, it was the March on Washington in 1963. However, excepting a hypothetical Ku Klux Klan defector, it’s hard to fathom someone breaking the law or risking punishment for attending. Well, that was the experience that Chester resident, Anita Downs and Bronx, NY native, Evelyn Harris. Both women attended the national commemoration on Saturday. At the time, Downs was nearing the age of 17, Harris (who was then known as Jiovanne Roland) was only 12. Aside from experiencing the original March as minors and trekking to Washington by bus to DC on Saturday, the two have something else in common, both snuck their way to the original March without their parents knowing!
Downs, Chester High alumni (class of 1964) and graduate of Sacramento State University was staying with an aunt in New York at the time. , Admittedly impressionable, Downs remembered, “They had busses going from New York to DC, so me and a bunch of my friends out of New York went to DC to the March on Washington. I was a follower and I’m glad I followed.”
The only problem was neither Downs’ aunt or parents knew of her trip, a scenario worthy of sitcom TV she laughs about today, “My parents thought I was in New York (where) I was supposed to be with my auntie in and my aunt thought I was here in Chester, but I was on the bus going to Washington.”
Harris, was also in New York, in the Mount Vernon section, where as a preteen, she heard about the March through her pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church, Rev. Dixon, who actually grew up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a similar (yet slightly bolder) move to Downs’, Harris and friends stowed away in the bathrooms of trains headed to DC. Harris explained, “We snuck from school. I wanted to see that (the March)! I knew that it was going to be something big. I knew this was something great,” though she wouldn’t recommend any kids try to pull that off today.
Both women had bad negative interactions with Jim Crow-antics which compelled them to get to DC that day. Harris rehashed a tense experience with a white police officer at a water fountain, “I was told (by the police officer), ‘You can’t drink at that water fountain because of your color.’” Harris remembers the officer calling her a nigger, “I’ve been called a nigger. I know how it feels, but I like I told him, ‘my dad said a nigger is an ignorant person and they come in all colors and sizes, sir.’ (The officer) said, ‘You’re a smart one,’ and that was it. I’ll never forget it. “
Downs, already burdened with the “double-whammy” of being produced by a interracial marriage (her father is Black father and her mother is Filipino). remembers her high school days where she and peers received no encouragement to pursue excellence, “We, as Black kids, were never told that we could go to college (or) that we can be somebody.” She recalled the prevalence of labor/industrial course such as home-economics and shop.
Like Harris, Downs also recalled seeing the separate water fountains, bathroom and restaurants of the hostile Jim Crow South while visiting family, as well as having to get off of a sidewalk if a white person happened along. The experience schooled her early in life to the fact that Blacks weren’t allowed in certain places. It also prepared her for future activism, whereas she participated in the NAACP Youth-led demonstration against the segregated Great Leopard Skating Rink in 1962 and faced police dogs while trying to register new voters.
On another occasion, at another time of civil unrest in Chester, Downs remembers going into town to get new shoes for herself and her little brother and a ham since it was the Saturday before Easter. She reverted, “My mom said, ‘Don’t you do no demonstrating! You come straight back home!” She obliged and went about her business, with no intention of rabble-rousing, little brother and cousin in tow. When she reached the madness and tried to pass through, she noticed an older woman who served as a mentor to local children, on the ground, bloodied by police, with her top ripped. Downs, nixed her plans and tried to tend to her mentor by covering the woman up with the jacket she was wearing. At that point, Downs recollected, “I got checked with the billy-club and, next thing I know, I was being thrown on the bus.” As she watched her brother and cousin run home (which she believes was to tattle), she thought, “For all I knew, I was helping an elderly lady.” The penalty for her intended compassion was a two week stay at Broadmeadows State Penitentiary (now George W. Hill Correctional Facility).
Nevertheless, those were distant memories to both, who were dazzled by the energy on the Mall in ‘63. Echoing Dr. King’s last speech, Harris simply described, “I’ve been to the mountaintop! It was a beautiful thing.” She continued, “There were tons of people. After the speech, things changed. They really did.”
Awe-struck by the goings-on of the day, the magnitude of the day didn’t sink in for Downs right away. “I knew who Dr. King was. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, I knew all of them. I knew who they were and I knew what they stood for, but to appreciate it, I didn’t learn that until later in life.”
Downs enjoyed herself just as much at the commemoration, citing the speeches delivered by Civil Rights pioneer, John Lewis and present-day activist, Rev. Al Sharpton as highlights. “It was amazing,” gushed Downs who sensed an increase in diversity in the crowd,s eeing more whites, Hispanics and Asians than before. “It was touching to see all those different people of all ages.” Having spent time in Florida years before, she also enjoyed seeing the support for Trayvon Martin and his family. She has memories of experience extreme prejudice I Florida as well, to which she said, “It’s changed, but not that much.”
The repercussions of sneaking to DC that day was different for both. Harris’ mother had been called, so she knew her daughter was a truant that day. She regaled with a paraphrasing of the phone call she had with her mother, “My mother said, ‘You didn’t go to school today.’ I said, ‘No. I went to Washington, DC. I saw Martin Luther King today!’ She said, ‘No you didn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes I did, mommy! I saw him. He was talking and it was real good! Everybody was there!”
Somehow, Downs made it back undetected. It wasn’t until recently that she told her mother. While watching, Lee Daniels’: The Butler together, during a scene depicted a protest, Downs’ mother said, “I don’t understand why those people had to march like that.” Unaware of her mother’s aloofness, Downs asked, “Mom, remember I marched and you didn’t want me to go?” Her mother replied, “Because we didn’t want you to get hurt or killed.” To that Downs divulged, “Well, you know I went to the March on Washington,’ and she said, ‘Huh?!’” That was the extent off her mother’s emotion over the issue. A laughing Downs concluded, “She just looked at me like I was crazy. She didn’t pay any attention. My mother right now, she’s just like,’Whatever.’’”
Harris is a poet in her spare time, and wrote one especially for the whole experience: “Chances come and go. Seasons change. People change. I’m so glad I’m taking this chance because chances come and go.”