Grandma Bell and her grands, L-R Ronnie, Carol, Harold, Earl, Bobby and Tommy
“The Legends of Inside Sports: From the Outhouse to the White House”
May 2015 marked 50 years of working in the community with at-risk children and youth gangs. My Brown Middle School Principal Williams B. Stinson predicted to my mother Mattie Bell, I would not live to get out of high school. He believed I was going to hell in a hurry. I was definitely a kid in trouble.
Life started for me in a one room shack with an Outhouse as a toilet in the Eastland Gardens neighborhood in NE DC. I am a 4th generation Washingtonian. My Great-grandfather Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to build Mount Airy Baptist Church in 1893. The Tyler House a complex for low income residents is located two blocks north of the church at North Capitol and L streets, NW, DC. It is named after my Great-Uncle the Rev. Earl Tyler. He could preach like Dr. Martin Luther King. He and the church choir led by my grandmother Amy Tyler Bell and her five children made every Sunday seem like a revival.
According to my mother I was about 3 years old when the shack caught fire one day while she was in the Outhouse. Thinking I was asleep she stepped out for a moment and left me with my dog a German shepherd by the name of Billy. When mother came out of the shack it was on fire and I was sitting on the ground crying with my dog Billy standing over me. When the fire trucks finally arrived the shack had burned to the ground.
The mystery was how did the fire start and how did I get out of the shack. The firemen surmised that I or my dog had knocked over a kerosene lamp left burning to heat the shack. My dog then led me out of the shack to safety.
My grandmother would take me in to live with her until my mother could find housing seven years later in a NE housing project called Parkside. My older brother Alfred was already living with grandma Bell. My father Alfred Bell was the original “Deadbeat Dad.” We were mommy’s and Grandma’s babies and daddy’s maybe. The Temptations surely had him in mind when they wrote ‘Poppa Was a Rolling Stone.’
When Bill Withers sings his rendition of “Grandma’s Hands” he is singing about me and my hero grandmother, Amy Tyler Bell.
“Grandma’s hands clapped in church on Sunday morning, Grandma’s hands played a tambourine so well (organ). Grandma hands use to issue out a warning she say,Harold don’t you run so fast you might just fall on a piece glass, might be snakes in that grass. Grandma’s hands, use to hand me piece of candy, Grandma’s hands picked me up each time I fell, Grandma’s hands, boy they really came in handy, she say Mattie don’t you whip that boy what you want to spank him for he didn’t drop no apple core. But I don’t have Grandma any more if I get to heaven I will look for Grandma’s hands.”
I am a 4th generation Washingtonian unheard of in a town with so many transients. In 1893 my great-great grandfather Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to build historical Mount Airy Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Today the church is a historical landmark and a “Living Monument to Jesus.”
Rev. Tyler would become the Pastor in 1906 until his death in 1936. Rev. Tyler successor would be his son and my great-uncle Rev. Earl Tyler and he would lead the congregation from 1936 until his death in 1955.
My cousin Brenda and I admire a plaque in honor of our Great-Grand Father Rev. Alfred Johnson Tyler
Growing up my heroes could not run the 100 yard dash in 9 seconds flat, throw a football 75 yards in the air or hit a baseball 400 feet. My heroes were all black women.
I spend my early years with my grandmother Amy Tyler Bell affectionately known to all in the neighborhood on Jay Street NE as “Grandma Bell.”
Grandma Bell &GrandsAunt Sara “The Enforcer” Dressed to the “Nines” headed out to Black Broadway
My brothers and all of my cousins walked a very fine line when it came to discipline and respect. There was no need for my grandmother and aunts to carry a night stick or a gun they had something just as lethal, an iron fist with a backhand attached that sometimes we never saw it coming. Their backhands would have made Venus and Serena Williams proud.
On Jay Street at Grandma’s house I would meet all of my heroes. None could throw a football 60 yards in the air, shoot a jump shot, run the hundred yard dash in 9.0 flat or hit a homerun out of the park.
My heroes had names like Grandma Bell, Aunt Sara, Aunt June and Aunt Helen. Respect, honesty, truth and the word of God govern Grandma’s House. If you stepped out of line there were consequences to be paid, Grandma could be a Death Wish (Charles Bronson), Aunt Sara the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzegger), Aunt Helen was the Enforcer (Clint Eastwood) and Aunt June was the Equalizer (Wesley Snipes). They took no prisoners.
Grandma Bell was a legend on the block–her word was law. When the street lights came on in the neighborhood you better be sitting on the front porch. I remember one evening I was playing football on the vacant lot on our street when the lights came on. I was running out for a pass and saw Grandma Bell headed my way with a tree limb (switch) in her hand I ignored the ball and ran right by her as she was swinging at me.
My Aunt Sara had a backhand that would have made tennis legends Serena Williams envious. I saw her hit my brother Earl with one at the dinner table one Sunday. He had come to the table late and had missed the prayer. When she asked him for an explanation on why he was late, he rolled his eyes and poked out his mouth. She hit with a backhand and knocked him and the chair into the living room. When he got himself together and returned to the dinner table, as the Bible says “He was clothed in his right mind!”
Grandma Bell had 3 sons, Uncles, Dwight, Ralph and Hope. They were there for reinforcements if needed but were seldom needed. We learned and played sandlot football and baseball on a vacant lot on Jay Street and our uncles kept a close eye on us. They never coached us but they were there to make sure we played the game fair and had fun. I never heard them use a curse word, but my Aunt Sara could cuss like sailor.
My father Alfred was a Dead Beat Dad he was nowhere to be found but for some reason we never missed him. He would show up to make another baby and then skip town until we were born. I always remember it being “Grandma’s baby, momma’s maybe and has anyone seen my daddy lately?”
Who’s your daddy was always a legit question?
All signs lead to me and my older brother Bobby being born out of wedlock. The name on my birth certificate reads BELLE:
THE CITY OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
BUREAU OF VITAL RECORDS
CERTIFICATION OF BIRTH
This is a certification of name and birth facts on file in the Bureau of Vital Records, Department of Health, City, of New York.
Date of Birth: May 21, 1938 Certificate No. 16511
Borough: Brooklyn Date Filed: o5-27-38 Date Issued: 08-09-91
NAME: MALE BELL SEX: MALE
MOTHER’S MAIDEN NAME: MATTIE SMITH FATHER’S NAME ALFRED BELL
When I asked my mother how was I born in Brooklyn and Bobby and Earl were born in DC? She said, “I was 7 months pregnant with you when I followed your father to New York City. You were born in Brooklyn, New York in Kings County Hospital. Our stay in New York was short lived.
We stayed on Union Avenue with one of my cousins, Auntie Irtis and Uncle Bubba James and their son Chucky. We returned home to DC two yearslater without your father.”
In my early teens I remember going to visit Auntie Irtis and Uncle Bubba during the summer. It was in the Bronx that my basketball game improved. Mommy B also thought that being around my Aunt Irtis and Uncle Bubba might enhanced my growth as a young man.
Shortly after returning to DC my mother found us (Earl was not yet born) a home on Douglas Street, NE in the Kenilworth section known as Eastland Gardens. This is one of the oldest black communities in DC. The single family homes were located near the city dump and our one room shack with an outhouse was located near a beautiful park known as The Lilly Pond.
One winter shortly after moving into our home my mother decided to run to the corner store for milk while I was sleeping. She left me in the hands of a German shepherd dog by the name of Billy. She left burning a kerosene oil lamp to warm the house. My mother emerged from the store to find the house on fire and fire trucks everywhere.
I was found sitting next to the outhouse with my dog Billy crying my eyes out. I was only 3 years old and still to this day no one knows how I got out of that house but God and my dog Billy and he never told anyone. The firemen did surmised that my dog Billy or I had accidently knocked over the lamp and he led me to safety.
Grandma Bell was a great influence in my life. She was the genuine article. Her kind has become an endangered species in the black community. The new Grandmas are now as young as 30 years old.This is a result of babies having babies! The end result, Grandma and mothers can be found hanging out at the same night club with their granddaughters and daughter and be in competition for the same man. What a difference a day has made!
I have fond memories of Grandma’s house on Jay Street NE and Mount Airy Baptist Church. My Aunt Helen lived directly across the street and my Aunt Sara lived next door. My brothers, cousins and I were under surveillance 24-7 they were today’s security cameras. We would be in church sometimes 3 days a week and Sunday was an all-day affair. Mount Airy would become our home away from home. My grandmother played the organ and sung in the choir.
She kept the books, helped cook Sunday dinner, washed and dried the dishes and anything else that was needed to be done around the church. Sunday dinner at church or in Grandma’s kitchen was a special treat. Grandma’s chicken and biscuits would put the Colonel and Kentucky Fried Chicken to shame. I am willing to bet the Colonel and Popeye took their recipes for fried chicken and biscuits from one of our ancestors who cleaned and cooked in their kitchens. My mother was no slough in the kitchen either.
The pride and joy of Mount Airy was the gospel choir. The congregation would leave the church on Sundays talking about how the choir had turned the church upside down or my Uncle Earl’s uplifting sermon. My aunts and uncles sung in the choir and they could sing like humming birds. Martin Luther King had nothing on my Great-Uncle Earl. His sermons and the sounds of the choir made every Sunday at Mount Airy a revival. If you arrived 5 minutes late downstairs and upstairs would be filled to capacity.
I remember members of the congregation who arrived late standing up against the walls, I also remember we young’uns having to give up our seats to the seniors. Church was the place we worshiped on Sundays and not some NFL football stadium. The Redskin were really “The Dead Skins!”
On Sundays in today’s black churches most pastors have to adjust their services to In by Ten and out by 12 noonto accommodate the NFL and the Redskins. If they don’t the congregation will dwindle down to a precious few. Black America’s extended church is now an NFL stadium on Sundays or a plasma television with 187 channels with a split screen for a 1:00 pm kick-off.
There is a saying that a church on Sunday morning is the most segregated institution in America—have you checked out how many blacks owners there are in the NFL? The NFL ended the 2015 with the Super Bowl celebrating 50 years of operating without a black owner in sight. But they had a black QB, this is a far cry from when a white reporter in 1988 asking Washington Redskin QB Doug Williams “How does it feel being the first Black QB playing in the Super Bowl?” The problem, Black QB and black coaches are still just “Window Dressing” when you look at the Big Picture!
The Big Picture, we are still the gladiators and not the Emperors (owners). You can count the Black General Managers like Ozzie Newsome of the World Champion Baltimore Ravens on one hand.
Jackie Robinson who kicked the doors down to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947 must be turning over in his grave. When it comes to Black Americans participating in America’s favorite passtime, we slowly but surely are headed back to 1947. How many times have you heard “Baseball is American as apple pie?”Black America has been left with nothing but the pie crust and no apples. Black Americans found on today’s National League and American League rosters are far few and in between. CBS Sportscaster James Brown and Magic Johnson parading around as minority owners is a joke (Nationals and Dodgers).
Homerun King Hank Aaron in a 2013 column in USA Today was asked about the progress of Blacks in the front office. When the reporter pointed out James Brown and Magic Johnson as the examples of the progress, the always honestAaron’s response was (paraphrasing) “You got to be joking!”
We can’t be found on the field of play and they have priced us out as spectators, the price of a ticket for the 2015 Super Bowl was $5,000.
Back to Mt. Airy, my brothers and my cousins were all baptized at Mount Airy by our Uncle Earl. We felt special and the congregation and the community surrounding the church was special. Rev. Tyler as the church leader made the community a priority for the church family. My grandmother, aunts, uncles and my brothers and me visited the sick and shut in during the week. Community Service was a way of life at Mt. Airy. There was no such thing as a family being without food or clothing or a homeless person not having somewhere to lay his or her head. The Tyler House now located two blocks from our church was built for low income families andis named after my great uncle as a memorial to his love of community.
Those of us who grew up in the Tyler/Bell household were Black and proud long before the God Father of soul James Brown came out with his classic rendition. When we discovered that we had no choice but to be black, Grandma Bell made sure we knew we had to be proud. I still can’t quite figure out where we lost those great values, some people point to integration and I am inclined to agree.
For example; Success continues to be a bad omen in the black community. Any sign of someone else’s success (two-dollars more than your neighbor) we take on the characteristics of the oppressor. We become crabs in the barrel and jealousy and envy become our biggest enemies. It is little wonder why we have become the most dysfunctional community in America. There must be something in the air in this new environment we have adopted. We don’t like each other.
I often wonder how we came up with the premise that white folks don’t like us!
My early school years were spent attending Burville Elementary school in the neighborhood. During my time at Burville I don’t ever remember my grandmother or aunts having to come to the school because of questionable behavior. We walked a very thin line between having a switch or a belt applied to our butts. You bet not think about calling the police for child abuse, are you kidding me—again where did we lose it and can we ever get it back? I don’t think so!
When I look at today’s church and today’s “Pimps in the Pulpit” I realize how lucky me my brothers and cousins really were. When my Uncle Rev. Earl Tyler died in 1955 and Grandma Bell followed him in death you could not get into the church for their home going services. My proudest moment in the history of the church was when I suggested that the grandsons be the
Pallbearers for our hero, Grandma Bell. Aunt Sara thought it was a great idea, wish granted.
I know my great-grand father; great uncle, grandmother, aunts, uncles and my mother are looking down at today’s Mount Airy and they are troubled by what they see. First, “The First Family of Mt. Airy” the children they left behind to carry on their legacy, lost its hold on the church with internal conflict and bickering among themselves. Therefore, allowed outsiders to come in and take control. My Aunt June got so fed up she joined the Catholic Church.
The straw that broke the Camel’s back for me was the spectacle of a deacon and pastor being the lead story on the 5:00 p. m. evening television news. They were seen being taken from the church in handcuffs, arrested for their own version of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield (biting, kicking, punching and hitting below the belt). The only thing missing was the unscrupulous boxing promoter Don King.
My Great-Grandfather Reverend Alfred Johnson Tyler, Great Uncle Reverend Earl Tyler, Grandma Bell, my aunts and uncles and my mother have to be wondering how, where and when did we lose it and will we ever get it back?
The Bell family has been in shambles since the death of the patriarch of the family, Grandma Bell. The sisters Sara, Helen and June had their own “War of the Roses.” The Cat Fighting and name calling went on for years and had spilled over to the brothers and cousins of the Tyler/Bell family.
I am going to first start with my immediate family of brothers, the late Bobby, Earl and William. My brothers and I were definitely not family. Bobby the oldest had made it known to family and friends he never considered our birth mother to be his mother. He was raised by Grandma Bell and considered her to be his mother. Sometimes it is best to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Some things are best left unsaid. My mother died in November 1993 before her death I had not seen him in five years. That is a sad commentary we lived only five minutes away from each other. I would only saw him several years later when he was sick and dying of cancer.
When he encountered racism on his job as a U. S. Marshall I was suddenly considered his brother. He wanted me to use my political and media contacts to help him in his fight against a racist boss on his job and I did. My friend former U. S. Marshall and DC Superior Court Judge the late Luke C. Moore came to his rescue. Suddenly, Iwas thrust into the role ofBig Brother.
My brother Earl and I were the closest of the four siblings because we grew up in the same household with Mommy B. He was truly a kid in trouble and a poster boy for juvenile delinquency. He spent time locked up in a juvenile facility after my mother was committed to St. Elizabeth’s hospital.
He and his crew’s specialty were petty thieves yoke robbery and knocking over cash registers on the busy H Street NE corridor on Saturdays.
Detroit Mayor and NBA legend Dave Bing was a part of his crew. My brother and I participated in a couple of heist together but I found it to be too much drama. I returned to carrying groceries at the Safeway and eventually start caddying on the weekends.
William was a late comer to the family. He was the oops how did that happen child? My brother earl and I were in double digits (ten and twelve) when he was born. He had better opportunities than Earl and I because of a beautiful next door neighbor, Ms. Winifred Powell and her two sons. When my mother became mentally ill and had to be institutionalized they took him in and raised him like their very own. They made sure he had cleaned underwear, received an education and he never missed a meal. They also took care of me when I needed a decent meal.
He would repay the Powell family by ending up in jail for selling drugs and becoming his own best customer. As an adult he spent little time showing his appreciation to them. I have always had these bad vibes that he thought someone owed him something. When he found it to be to his advantaged he had no problem “Name dropping” letting people in the streets know that I was his brother. On his release from jail he came looking to me for help and support. I let him share office space in my Kids In Trouble office in NW DC and I introduced him to my contacts including boxing promoter Don King. Don would eventually hired him as a photographer for Don King Productions. He lasted for several years longer than I first thought.
In 2007 he was in recovery and had forgotten who he was and where he came from. His only excuse, he never really knew Grandma Bell, the rest of us didn’t have that same excuse.
William Sterling Bell aka Puddin, Tyrik, Billy
After my brother Earl served his time in reform school he earned his high school diploma and joined the U. S. Army. Before joining he hitch hiked all the way to Winston-Salem, NC to see me play football and to tell me he was about to join the U. S. Army and turn over his life to Uncle Sam. His timing was bad I was in Coach Bighouse Gaines’ doghouse. I never left the bench in a blowout against Johnson C. Smith. To this day I still get emotional when I think about him hitch hiking 300 miles to see me and tell me of his future plans.
In the U. S. Army he would find success as a sergeant with the Military Police, a champion ping pong player, a respected softball umpire, a starting fullback and an All-Army Heavyweight boxing champion of Germany. He was a better all-around athlete than me. The difference, I knew how to toot my own horn.
Earl’s leadership qualities were evident among his peers. In 1969 he would run afoul of military brass in in an explosive civil rights boycott of an off base nightclub in Nuremberg that discriminated against black enlisted men. He led 35 Black soldiers on a march against a popular club known as the Cage. This made the kind of headlines the military could do without. Earl could not ignore the fact that it was just in the summer of 1968 that the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
He openly denounced the U. S. Army for allowing this type of discrimination. He was fully aware that it wasjust a matter of time before the military brass would make him a target. In 1970 he decided to cut all ties and not re-list (Jet Magazine 1969). He received an honorable discharge as a U. S. Army Military Policeman with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
On his return home he discovered that the racism he thought he had left behind in Germany had followed him to his hometown of Washington, DC. He applied for employment with the DC Metropolitan Police Department but was denied because of his past juvenile police record.
The decision to deny him employment was against DC Government policy. The rules clearly stated “An employee’s juvenile record cannot be held against him while seeking employment in the DC Government.” Thanksto an inquiry by my friend Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry thedecision to deny him employment was overturned.
Earl K. Bell’s fight against discrimination opened the door of employment for hundreds of Black men and women who followed his path on to the DC Police
Department. His fight against racism and police brutality on the department was just beginning. In 1978 he discovered 2 on duty DC cops brutalizing black prisoners on the weekend during his tour of duty just for the hell of it.
He requested that they bring the practice to a halt. The 2 Cops one black and one white ignored his request. When he asked me what should he do I told him to turn them into their superiors. The superiors were, Assistant Chiefs Marty Tapscott and Isaac Fullwood childhood friends and black like me. To my surprise they were not black like me but were a part of the Plantation Mentality “Code of Silence” devised an implemented to protect crooked white cops around the country. The 2 homeboys tried to sweep the incident under the rug.
My brother’s next plan of action was to take the case to the U. S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. The U. S. Attorney indicted and convicted the 2 cops.
Sgt. Earl K. Bell’s 14 year career came to a tragic end in 1988 when he was involvedin a head-on collision with a sixteen wheeler tractor trailer on the way to his new assignment(Code of Silence). He was assigned to the Police and Fire Clinic for exposing the police brutality in the cell block of Police HQ in 1978. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. On August 1, 2013 he died in a nursing home due to a lack of quality health care and the negligence of the Department of Mental Health & Hygiene in the State of Maryland.
He survived a Dead Beat Father, NE Housing project, single parent household, mother institutionalized, a reform school for juvenile delinquents, military racism, head on automobile accident, prostate cancer, and amputated foot but could not survive a dysfunctional family, a group of cowards on the DC Police
Department and a nursing industry that has been given a license to kill. This is a national crisis in America.Sgt. Earl K. Bell was not heavy—he was my brother.
Sgt. Earl K. Bell U. S. Army MP & Heavyweight boxing champion / Sgt. Earl K. Bell DC Cop
The most important lessons I learned at Grandma Bell’s house was how to be a decent human being, stand up and be a man and to love and believe in the Lord. I would later have to often call on those lessons learned to help me survive in this vicious “Player Hating” Game Called Life in the black community.
I have broken bread and walked with Presidents, great politicians, entertainers and some of the greatest athletes of our time—-to this day my grandmother, Amy Tyler Bell is the greatest human being I have ever met.
I REMEMBER MOMMY
“I remember mommy and the love that she gave. I remember mommy in a happy way. We went to school with holes in our shoes, we didn’t have much but the Lord saw us through.She packed our lunch in an old greasy bag it might have seem empty, but it was more thanothers had. I remember mommy in a happy way.”
We are family, sister-in-law, Ann, Parkside Project moms Mommy B and granddaughter
wife, Hattie. My brothers Earl and Mommy B and Mrs. Johnson
Alfred make a rare hospital visit.
My mother Mattie was born in Sumter, South Carolina and arrived in DC after her parents died suddenly, she was just a child. I was the second born to Alfred Robert Bell and Mattie Edith Smith I was conceived in DC but I was born in Brooklyn, New York. According to my birth certificate my mother and father were not married when I was born. My mother said she was 7 months pregnant when she followed my father to New York for reasons I still have not be able to figure out, I guess it must have been love. I was born in Kings County Hospital and my mother returned home to DC with me around the age of one. My brother Robert Alfred the first born was named after our father (I thank God). My brother would prove worthy of his namesake, he was selfish just like him. He would later tell folks he considered my grandmother his mother because she raised him. Alfred was left with Grandma Bell as my mother chased my father all over New York with me in her belly. She returned home without him and found a little one room shack on Douglas Street in NE DC for us to live. It was less than one year later our one room shack would burn to the ground. My mother tells the story she had left me home asleep with our German shepherd dog named Billy and had gone to the Outhouse. There was a kerosene stove heating the room where I slept. She emerged from the Outhouse to find the shack in flames and found me in the yard crying with my dog Billy standing over me. She thinks the fire got started when I woke up and discovered her gone and crawled out my crib and knocked over the stove. Billy then dragged me out of the burning house to safety. This was a devastating lost to my mother who was trying to establish her independence from my father. Her cousins Doretha and Evelyn would give her a place to live. They were more like sisters than cousins. I went to join my brother Alfred at Grandma’s house. My brother Earl was born later and Grandma Bell would also welcome him into her already crowded home. I lived with my grandmother until I was about 10 years old.
My football and baseball skills were honed on Jay Street on a little plot of land about one-hundred yards from where we lived. It was here I learned to catch and run with a football and hit a baseball. I now look at that lot which I thought was a big Field of Dreams during those days it now looks no bigger than a parking space on any street in America. When my mother brought us the news that she had finally found a place to call our very own I was confused and torn about leaving Grandma Bell’s house. It was Grandma who dried my tears and said “Boy stop that crying you won’t be but a few minutes away and you can come and visit me whenever you want.” She was right the new housing project Parkside was just a 10 minute bus ride away. I would miss Grandma’s hands.
My new address would be 715 Kenilworth Terrace, NE. My older brother Alfred would stay with Grandma Bell. Earl and I would go to the new house my mother shared with her cousin Doretha and her son Rowland. I am still in the dark to this day on how the decision was made for my oldest brother to stay with Grandma Bell.
The streets in our housing development were not paved with gold in fact they were not paved at all. Sand covered each and every block. The development was once a racetrack and in walking distance was a dump which later became one of our many playgrounds in the community.
My new school would be Naval Thomas elementary a five-minute walk from my house. I have fond memories of Naval Thomas and our school activities. My favorite activity was May Day and the wrapping of the flag pole. School prayer and saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag was something we were prepared to do every single morning without question. Activities like cookies and milk were all a part of the school fabric. It was a great time to be a black child in America. We didn’t have a care in the World. Racism was the furthest thing from our minds it was a topic seldom if ever discussed in our community. We were isolated in our own little World. The only white folks we saw and interacted with were the folks who operated the corner grocery market, an insurance man and sometimes white cops in a patrol car. The family that operated the grocery store we would later in life learn were Jews, but they were white to us we could not tell the difference. To be truthful we could have cared less. As far as I can remember they treated us like human beings and there was little or no conflict among us. There were exceptions, when a group of us would get up early in the morning to hit the milk and bread delivery trucks.
After graduating from Naval Thomas the next leg of my formal education would take place at Brown Middle School located on “The Hill” off of Benning Road in NE Washington. On “The Hill” there were four schools located within yards of each other. The schools were newly opened Spingarn High, Charles Young elementary, Phelps Vocational High and Brown Middle School. If you lived in Langston Terrace you never had to leave the neighborhood until it was time for your college education. The schools were only a putt away from historical black Langston Golf Course. It was here I would see great sports legends like boxing Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, pro golfers, Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Ted Rhodes, etc playing golf and hanging out.
I started to grow as an athlete at Naval Thomas and on the playgrounds of the DC Recreation Department under the watchful eyes of recreation leaders Nick Turner, Bootsie Harris, Walter Brooks and Jaky Mathews. The playgrounds were our safe havens. The recreation teachers and playground directors were the best babysitters you could ask for. Our parents never had to wonder or worry where we were and if we were safe.
There were some great athletes to come out of Parkside and off of the playground of Naval Thomas recreation center. Many of them I could not carry their jockey straps, guys with names like Pete Cox, Charles Hill, Garnell Lawson, Curtis Howell, and John Tilly. The difference, I was lucky and fortunate enough to carry my athletics skills on to the next educational level.
Brown Middle school was almost my last stop in the Game Called Life. I got away from Grandma Bell and went buck wild. It was here I became a know it all and spend much of the school day being a clown and making a fool of myself. There was a room designed for the likes of me it was called 104. The room was for those of us who made it our mission to disrupt the school day. My partners in school foolery had names like Mickey, Teddy, Rhoma, and Hobo. We were the school clowns and most of the time we could be found spending an hour after school for each offense. There were times knuckle heads like me were given weekly sentences. My mother working every day at that time never notice and I intercepted the letters mailed to the house about my anti-social behavior.
Mr. William B. Stinson was the Principal. He and his staff were always dressed to the T’s and they didn’t play any games with me and my kind. My mother had already been summoned to school from her job about my anti-social behavior. She warned me that if she had to take off of work and come to school one more time I would regret it.
All hell broke out one day in a music class taught by Mr. Logan. He was always immaculate dressed and his finger nails manicured. His mannerisms led many of us to believe he was on the sweet side of manhood. One day I was showing off in class and he had a habit of poking his finger into your forehead to get your attention. When the tactic was used on me I saw stars after the poke I threw the music book in his face and ran for my life. Mr. Logan chased me around the school for several minutes before he finally gave up. I think to this day if he had caught me I would have suffered some serious bodily harm. I left the building and spend the rest of the day at the Langston Golf Course until school was out.
I could not wait to found out what took place after my run in with Mr. Logan and my classmates could not wait to tell me the doom and gloom. Mickey Freeman was the first to stop by the golf course to tell me that Mr. Stinson had called the cops and they were planning to lock me up. Several other classmates told me Mr. Logan had a cut over his forehead from the thrown book. I was scare as hell and didn’t know what to do but go home and prepare for the worst.
Mr. Stinson lived in the NE community on Sheriff Road only about five minutes away from our Parkside housing project. On the evening after I tossed the book we were eating dinner and there came a knock at the front door, my mother opened the door, guess who had come to dinner, would you believe Mr. Stinson and Mr. Logan? I immediately got indigestion. When they left the house my mother beat me from downstairs to upstairs and back down again with an ironing cord. When she got finished as the Bible says, “I was clothed in my right mind.”
We were poor but never really knew it. My mother was a graduate of Cardozo High School and was a bright woman. Shortly after moving to Parkside she passed a government test and was hired by Quartermaster office of the Department of the Army as a clerk/typist. The job lasted only two years before she was laid off because of a reduction in force, she got caught up in “The last hired, the first fired.” I started to carry groceries across the railroad tracks on Minnesota Avenue NE at a Safeway food store. Have you ever notice there was always a set of railroad tracks that separated the black community from the white community? I also a caddied at the Burning Tree Golf Course in Bethesda, Maryland on the weekend to help make ends meet.
I remember my neighbor Jody Waugh taking me out to Burning Tree, being asked to go out to the golf course on the weekends with the older guys was like an initiation into the neighborhood gang. Our gang activities consisted of waiting for Sunday evenings to ride the Street Car from our neighborhood to the end of the line and back. On Sundays three could ride on one pass. The end of the line would be Lafayette Square Park which was located directly across the street from the White House. Sometimes on Sunday there would be as many as ten to twelve of us taking that ride on one pass. One group would start at one Street Car stop and hand the pass out of the window to the group waiting at the next stop. This would go on until everyone was aboard. We would just sit out in the park and eat Little Tavern 10 cents hamburgers and catch the Street Car back home before 10 pm. The drivers were usually white and were on to the Sunday excursions but they seldom gave us a hassle unless we got to acting stupid. I know there are thousands of parents wishing for those “Good Old Days” when life was simpler.
Things got kind of tough financially for us and mother a proud independent woman had to apply for Relief from the government. Relief was just another form of Welfare. Grandma Bell was always there to lend a helping hand. When our food supply got low I caught the streetcar to grandma’s house and not the Safeway.
The Safeway was not a safe haven when you were poor and hungry. One evening just before dark my brother Earl and I decided to go to the Safeway to shop (lift). We found out the hard way this was not a great idea.
On the way back home with our bounty stuffed in our coats a police car pulled alongside of us and ordered us in the car.
We were scared to death as the car with sirens wailing sped toward the Police District HQ on Benning Road. We realize the cops had not searched us and we immediately put our bounty under the back seat of the patrol car. The cops never gave us any explanation why they had picked us up in the first place.
Once we arrived at the precinct we were marched us into a back office. There was this white lady who claimed two black boys (not niggers) had snatched her pocketbook near the Safeway. She quickly identified us as not the pocketbook snatchers. We were released and told to get the hell out of the station, relieved we started the long walk back to Parkside. As we started to walk home we realized the food we had shoplifted was still under the backseat of the police car. Earl and I boldly returned to the precinct and retrieved our food. Hunger won out.
The only thing about traveling to grandma’s house I had to undergo interrogation on why I was missing church on Sundays. Caddying at Burning Tree to make a little extra money was not a good enough excuse for her. I had sort of strayed away from church once I had moved to the projects. I tried to cut back by caddying only on Saturdays and attending church services on Sunday. Max Elbin the golf pro at Burning Tree didn’t like his regulars taking days off. Once I started to slack off on Sundays he would punish me by not giving me a bag on Saturday. I had to choose between Church on Sunday and Burning Tree. The golf course won out. God and church will always be a part of my life because of the early lessons taught at Mount Airy Baptist Church.
Once we got acclimated to the neighborhood it was like one big family. The streets when we moved in were all sand and the local dump was in walking distant of our house. History says this community was once a racetrack for horses.
The streets that made up the housing project were Kenilworth Avenue, Kenilworth Terrace, Grant, Barnes, Anacostia Road, Haynes, Foot and Foot Place. It was a very unique community because there was a whole lot of love. Since there was no father or big brother figure to be seen in my house the older guys in the neighborhood took me under their wing. They kept the heat off of me, too often I wrote checks with my mouth that I could not cash.
In the 40’s and 50’s the black community was really a community. I have no clue where the saying originated but, it really took a village to raise a child in our NE housing project. For example, living in the projects were teachers, doctors, lawyers, principals, etc. Mrs. Marie Selden my elementary school teacher lived on the same street as I did. When my mother lost her government job she often ironed clothes for her. I also enjoyed sitting at the knee of my friends’ fathers and hearing them tell us their war stories and about life in general. The backyard chats became a weekly ritual. There were many history lessons taught. These men were our heroes.
The 700 block of Kenilworth Terrace started with the Stevenson household. The Stevens and the Carthens were the only Muslims in the neighborhood I can recall. No one shunned or looked down at them because of their religion. Next door to the Stevensons were the Smiths, then the Bells (no relation) a father and son and next door to them lived the Hills. My house 715 started the next set of four single attached family homes in the community. As I look back our housing project was a unique living experience from the present day projects. We actually lived in condos compared to projects today. Our projects don’t begin to compare with the projects in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. They are mostly apartment buildings with people living on top of each other. It is easily to understand the presence of drugs and violence found in those communities. We had an upstairs and downstairs and our own back and front yards were my mother hung our clothes to dry. The clothes could be left overnight and could be found hanging there the next morning. You better not even try that in the day time now. Compared to the notorious Potomac Gardens in SE DC our community was the Gold Coast (Upper 16th street NW).
In the early fifties William Cassell a noteworthy black architect built an apartment complex called Mayfair Mansions directly across the street from the Parkside Projects. Many of the professional from the projects moved into the new apartments. A drugstore, barber shop, cleaners and restaurant were built within walking distant of both residential complexes by Mr. Cassell. He rode around in a black chauffeur driven limousine. His chauffeur’s name was “Peanuts” I bet you can’t guess why? He would often be seen standing outside of the limo eating a bag of peanuts. Mr. Cassell reminded me of Academy Award winner and movie Director Alfred Hitchcock. He had the same physical appearance and he was a nice man and a gentleman. He didn’t look down his nose at you like most brothers and sisters do today once they get two dollars more than the next brother and sister.
Mayfair Mansions would be what you call today a “Middle Class Community.” It was here all the professionals lived. Many of these residents were once our next door neighbors in the projects. The new apartments were beautiful with manicured lawns and sense of elegance. Those of us who remained across the street in the projects were proud of the new addition to the landscape. It seemed like we all had a friend or knew a neighbor who had made the transition. We were still family. As I look back I give thanks that it was not a gated community where you had residents with “The Jack & Jill” mentality.
My Aunt Doretha and my cousin Roland moved into the new apartments and my good friend William Chappelle lived there also. William was what you would call a nerd. He was very quiet, neatly dressed and he always seemed to have a book in his hands. This made him a target for several Parkside bullies. In the evenings we would chose up sides and play tackle football on a vacant lot behind the grocery store which was directly across the street from Mayfair. The bullies always seemed to be giving William a hard time for no particular reason. One evening after the game had concluded William was walking to the grocery store and John Tilly playfully slapped him up the side of his head when he responded too slowly to a question. I stepped in and broke up the hassle.
I lost one friend but I gained another friend for life in William Chappell. He would go on to become an outstanding student at Spingarn High School and graduate from Howard University with honors. We would lose track of each other after I left the city to attend college. I would later see him on the bus or at Ben’s Chili Bowl after I became a radio sports talk show host. We would always reminisce about the good old days. It was like we just didn’t want to let them go. I would not see William for years and I would later discover he had died. Several years later I would be in Ben’s Chilli Bowl eating and see this young and hot comedian named Dave Chappelle. I heard him telling someone his dad grew up in NE Washington. They say “curiosity killed the cat,” but I put one and one together and came up with William and Dave Chappelle. I would later meet Dave backstage at his alma mater the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in NW Washington, DC after a student body assembly. He confirmed that William was his daddy.
Dave Chappelle the 50 million-dollar MTV man with mother Yvonne
Darryl Hill became the first black athlete to integrate the Naval Academy. He grew up in Mayfair. It was through Darryl I would meet the legendary All-American Syracuse University running back, Avatus Stone. Darryl was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and probably was a “Jack & Jill kid” who were kids of privilege. His parents owned Hill’s Transfer Company, a fleet of yellow and green moving trucks in Washington, DC. He was a skinny little guy much like myself he would try to join in the evening tackle football games. But there was an obstacle in his path. I would rough him up and he would often leave the field bruised and crying. One evening he would bring his mother back to plea his case, big mistake. He would never live that one down, he became known as “Mommy’s boy.” This would all change when several weeks later he would show up with the great Avatus Stone. First, Avatus gave us a clinic on how to throw and catch a football with Darryl joining in with the group. When all was said and done, Darryl had a free no-hassle pass to join in the evening games. Avatus would later stop by the field to see how things were going. Avatus would later become my dear and trusted friend.
Eldridge Lee better known as Sackie was an only child and we lived on the same block. I would guess he would be considered a middle class kid today. His mother Ms. Mary Lee was a single parent and was employed. Their house was always immaculate cleaned and there was always plenty of food in the refrigerator. There was one other thing that made Sackie stand out in the community; his was the only house on the block that had a pet. He had a dog named Ginger and I was scared to death of that dog. On different occasions he would invite me home to a treat of fries, hamburgers or whatever Ms. Mary had cooked. On those free food occasions I lost my fear of Ginger. I remember the first time I ever got behind a wheel of an automobile was on Benning Road after school one evening. Sackie let me drive his car on this busy thoroughfare home. I still to this day don’t know how I manage to get home without an accident. I never realized that Sackie and his mother were members of Mount Airy and he was a junior deacon.
In the meantime my mother loved playing cards (poker) and the numbers. She was very lucky at both. My mother Mattie was affectionately known as Mommy B, she could dream a number one night and play it the next day and hit. To make ends meet she started having card games, selling dinners and bootleg liquor on the weekends. She even agreed with the community number backer to write a few numbers out of 715 Kenilworth Terrace. The money started to roll in and mother with a heart as big as the house we lived in became a soft touch for family and friends. Anyone with a sad story and down on their luck could come to our house for a loan and they did. With her financial success came the envy and jealousy that always raises its ugly head in our community.
Suddenly, the police started to raid our home on the weekends. Someone in the neighborhood was snitching to the local police department. It was a terrible experience for us to see our mother being escorted out of our home in handcuffs by the cops. To this day to me the lowest form of human life to me is a snitch. Law enforcement “Cold Case” unit would be even colder without the snitches in our communities. The card games were moved to other homes in the community to throw the cops off. Her cousin Evelyn started to have card games at her home in Eastland Gardens NE. Eastland Gardens is one of the oldest black communities in the city. She had to then share her financial success and customers with others. The police raids came to an end once she started to move the games, but the raids resumed once she returned to 715 Kenilworth Terrace. Mommy B had to finally start to pay the cops off to continue her successful enterprise. Even with the payoffs the cops would raid our home to keep up appearances they were doing their jobs. She was in a no win situation.
The stressful conditions finally caught up to my mother and she had a nervous breakdown in 1957. I was on my own after my mother was institutionalized. My brother Earl was send off to a juvenile facility because of his
anti-social behavior. He was the thug of the family. Earl was into yoke robbery and robbing cash registers on the weekend in the busy H Street corridor of NE DC. I tried it as the lookout several times but it was too much drama and I quit. My younger brother William was taken in by Ms. Winifred Powell our next door neighbor. I was the odd brother out. It was around that time I was coming into my own as an all-around athlete at Spingarn High School and that athletic outlet and coach would be my saviors.