Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for 27 years, I guess I’m entitled to call myself an Oregonian, and I’ve noticed that Oregonians who refer to the other coast almost always refer to it as “back east.” I hadn’t visited since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but my trip to New York City in September, 2017 was the result of an invitation from Amy Goodman, the famous journalist, producer and host of “Democracy Now,” a daily tv/radio show featuring progressive and left wing perspectives on national and international topics. Because of my support for Portland’s progressive radio station, KBOO-FM, Amy invited me to be her guest for dinner and to attend a live broadcast the following morning at the studio in lower Manhattan. Being a serious Democracy Now fan, I jumped at the opportunity.
I lived in Brooklyn from 1973-75 while studying medicine at Long Island University. Not believing I could survive a year of chemistry, I didn’t really expect to graduate from the Physician Associate Program, but the day I received a B on an organic chemistry final, I knew I would graduate. And I’ve never forgotten where I was when I screamed “I’m really going to be a PA! ” It was in the middle of the intersection of Flatbush and Dekalb Avenues in downtown Brooklyn.
Having been raised in a secular Jewish home, delis have always held a special place in my heart. I never pass up an opportunity to eat at a first rate delicatessen. At this very intersection (literally across the street from the University) is Juniors, a New York institution.
So my first day after arriving in New York, I had breakfast at Juniors, then headed uptown for 2 hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then back to Washington Square to meet an old PA friend and his wife for lunch.
Amy asked me to meet her at New York University, where she was moderating a forum as part of a conference called “Global Citizen.”
Panelists included Muzoon Almellehan (on Amy’s left), a 19 year old Syrian refugee recently appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador because of her relentless efforts for advocacy of the education of girls and young women in the middle east https://www.unicef.org/media/media_96488.html. On Almellehan’s left is Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat whose behind the scenes efforts led to the 1995 Oslo Accords — a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
At NYU I was joined by my PA friend and colleague Diane Bruessow, an activist and clinician whose work on behalf of the transgendered community led to a White House dinner with President Obama.
Following the panel, Amy, Diane and I walked to a nearby restaurant for a relaxed dinner. We were joined by Susan Buck-Morss, a professor of political philosophy at the City University of New York http://susanbuckmorss.info/.
Amy’s request to each of us was to share our personal stories. Considering our host’s identity, we recounted our political and activist credentials. It made for a fascinating evening: a philosopher/scholar, a trans activist and clinician joining a world famous progressive journalist at a three hour private social event. When I asked Amy how a 60 year old journalist continues to produce and host a one hour tv/radio show five days a week (something she’s done for twenty years), she answered with stories of her Jewish grandmother lying on a death bed, still retaining 100% control of her life (and much of her family’s) up to the day she died.
I expected Amy to excuse herself after an hour or so (she had a show to produce and host in about 12 hours), but she acted as if she hadn’t anything better to do than spend time with us. She was utterly gracious and hospitable.
The following morning we headed for the studio and a live broadcast of Democracy Now. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet Juan Gonzalez, DN co-host and award winning author and journalist. Gonzalez had just completed the first leg of a book tour, launching his 4th book, called “Reclaiming Gotham,” concerning income inequality and the reign of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
After the program, we had a tour of the studio (“the greenest television studio in the United States”) and opportunity for a few more photos.
I took an hour to walk in Central Park, but found myself amidst dozens of police vehicles, and after inquiring why, learned that “45” was inside the Park Plaza Hotel, where he thanked the African diplomats for making several of his friends rich, then pointed to the non-existent country of “Nambia” as a model for health care delivery.
At 3:00 I boarded a train for D.C., where my college friend Maurice Dorsey picked me up at Union Station and hosted me for the next three nights at his home in downtown Washington.
Maurice recently retired from an upper management position at the US Department of Agriculture, and his most important post retirement work has been as an author, writing “Businessman First,” a biography of Henry Parks, a pioneering African American entrepreneur from Baltimore.
Since learning about the September, 2016 opening of the African-American History Museum, I knew I had to add Washington, D.C. to my next trip to the east coast. Due to its enormous popularity (it’s the newest museum at the Smithsonian; 1 million visitors to date), admission is by ticket only. I was disappointed to learn the first available tickets were for December, but planned to go online at the dot of 6:30 a.m. for a few tickets made available each day. Unsuccessful, we arrived at the museum at 12:30 in order to be in line for a few timed entry tickets available each day at 1 p.m. In luck, we were inside the museum at 1:10.
I wouldn’t call the exterior attractive.
The lobby is large, nondescript and uninviting — devoid of art, history or color. But on the way to the lowest level where history begins in the 15th century, there is a vast wall projection of uncaptioned black and white images of African-Americans over the past 150 years. Emotionally compelling, the slide show provides a hint of what the visitor is about to experience.
Included in the exhibits were Unitarians and Universalists. We lost two of our own martyred at Selma: the Rev. James Reeb (whom I met when he was at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.) and Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit woman who marched with other Unitarians from Michigan.
In two hours, I covered two out of the first three below ground floors. It was Maurice’s 4th visit. I told him I would like to visit for two hours a week, and perhaps in a month I could cover all the exhibits.
Having spent 1970-73 as a civil rights activist and community organizer, and considering myself relatively well read on African-American history, the most overwhelming impression I had from my brief visit was to learn how very little I really know and how much I have to learn.
Our first night in D.C., Maurice suggested we have dinner at Lupo Verde, a highly rated Italian restaurant which opened in 2015. It wasn’t actually the food which attracted us, but rather the history of the place. In 1931, my father moved with his family from the Bronx to Washington, D.C. His father, a Vaudeville violinist, was out of a job in the depression, and a cousin encouraged him to open a mom and pop grocery in D.C. My grandparents rented a building constructed in the 1890s: the first floor became the grocery store and the second floor is where my grandparents, my uncle and my father lived. When a Safeway opened across the street, my grandmother started buying produce from them, since she could buy it more cheaply retail than she could from their suppliers. Needless to say, the grocery business didn’t last, and within a year they converted their inventory to liquor — a commodity which remained in demand in the inner city neighborhood during the 27 years they stayed in business at 14th and T Streets, Northwest. In the image below, my grandfather is on the right, with the canned goods behind him.
There’s an interesting story about opening day at Schuman’s grocers. A delivery truck brought a cage full of live chickens, and my grandmother asked, “What do you expect me to do with them?” My grandfather told her she needed to kill the chickens, pluck their feathers and cut them up for sale. To which she replied that he could either do it himself or hire a butcher. So in the back of the store, you can see the butcher in the photo, probably from 1931.
There hasn’t been a trip I’ve taken to D.C. in which I haven’t stopped by 14th and T Streets to see what’s happened to the building. My grandparents sold the store to an African-American businessman in 1957, and I think he spent at least 20 years at that location. The building remained unoccupied for at least 10 years until Antonio Matarazzo purchased it and gutted the inside, converting it to use as an upscale Italian restaurant.
The restoration has beautifully preserved the character of this historic building, while converting the interior to its contemporary function. We dined at the table for two in the foreground. As a child visiting my grandparents, I slept on a couch four feet to the right of our table. My father’s childhood bed was against the left window at the far end of the room.
Here’s the bar, which is in the same location where my grandfather was standing in the first photograph.
And what it looked like in the daytime while it was being cleaned.
My grandparents’ patio has become a place for alfresco dining.
My grandfather at Schuman’s Liquors
One summer there was a break-in to my grandparents’ apartment on the 2d floor while they were asleep. When my grandmother realized the burglar had taken jewelry and cash from the bedroom dresser, she told my grandfather that the man must have seen her naked, to which my grandfather replied, “You want to put on your nightgown, and I’ll invite him back?” Their bedroom window is on the left.
I’m glad I researched the changes made to the building before I visited. I felt nothing but positive emotions and happiness as we dined on exquisite southern Italian cuisine offered at Lupo Verde. If my grandparents were alive, I’m sure they would be pleased.
Maurice offered to drive me to the Jewish cemetery in Adelphi, Maryland, where my grandparents are buried. It was a lovely place, and I felt privileged to visit.
On my last day in Washington, Maurice offered to take me anywhere I wanted to visit. He suggested we begin at the University of Maryland, where we had been classmates from 1968-70. He drove us by the dormitories where we lived, but we argued about which one was mine. I insisted it was Easton Hall, but he disagreed. From there I asked to see the Skinner Building, where in April, 1970 I was arrested during a protest by 86 students and a chaplain. We objected to the dismissal of a member of the Department of Philosophy due to his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War.
We were known as the “Skinner 87.” Charges against me were dismissed (they couldn’t identify me in a police photograph), and they found the chaplain guilty and sentenced him to jail time “to set an example.” Most of the students were found guilty and fined.
That same year, I was involved with two friends in a takeover of a Unitarian pulpit at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland — a church where I had been a member for five years and on the board of trustees. We were protesting the church’s lack of support for empowerment of black Unitarian Universalists in what was known as the Black Affairs Council. In addition, the church had refused to take a stand against the war in Vietnam and declined to house members of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign sponsored by Southern Christian Leadership Council, claiming it had insufficient bathroom facilities despite housing a religious education program which was home to 500 children. Our takeover was widely publicized, including a front page story in the Washington Evening Star and an editorial in the Washington Post which referred to us as brownshirts and thugs.
Here is the church sanctuary, virtually unchanged since the 1960s, and in the second photo, I’m standing in front of the same lectern we seized in 1970.
The years at Cedar Lane played a significant role in my psychological, political and spiritual development, and I wanted to visit to see how it had changed in the 47 years since I had left. I was 15 when I joined the church in 1963, and its associate minister, the Rev. William R. Moors, was an important mentor. (He had moved to the Unitarian Church of Rockville a few years before our takeover in 1970.)
I was warmly welcomed by the staff member who greeted me, and I was shocked when she said there might be a record of my membership in a card file.
The typed name and address on this 3×5″ index card has been kept in a file drawer for 54 years! You can see that I used to go by my first name (Steve), and in 1968 I began using my middle name. Although I joined the church in 1963, apparently my name was read to the congregation as a new member in 1964. After leaving Cedar Lane in the spring of 1970, I changed my membership to All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. Something else I certainly didn’t expect to learn at Cedar Lane was that Maurice’s memory of my dorm at the University of Maryland was correct and mine was wrong: I lived at Hagerstown Hall! My telephone number at the university is preserved on the card, and it includes my address during the year I spent at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Then the helpful staff member pulled out two more index cards directly behind mine.
In the bottom card, I learned that my mother’s sister (Unitarian since the 1940s) had apparently tried to proselytize my parents to Unitarianism in 1956! In the upper card, you can see that my mother developed an interest in the church and was on the mailing list in 1967. My parents became Unitarian Universalists a few years after I did and attended a church in Ft. Lauderdale for a few years after moving to Florida in 1984.
After all this traveling, Maurice and I were famished, so I suggested we visit my neighborhood delicatessen, which continues to serve as wonderful food as it did when I lived in Silver Spring. I met the owner and grabbed a photo with him. We had my traditional favorite meal: corned beef, cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye bread, and cheesecake for dessert.
We planned a visit to my childhood home, but had a couple of hours to kill, so I suggested we visit an obscure medical museum which was located about five minutes from the deli.
Many exhibits were devoted to post-traumatic stress in veterans, but there were also some amazing historical objects, including these.
Before heading to my childhood home, I suggested we visit Rosemary Hills Elementary School, where I attended 4th, 5th and 6th grades beginning in 1957. Maryland’s public schools had been strictly segregated, and black children who lived in Lyttonsville — a neighborhood of dirt roads and wooden shacks located only six blocks from my house, attended their own schools — underfunded and inferior to ours. After the “Brown vs. Board of Education” supreme court decision in 1954, Montgomery County built a new elementary school, and I was in its first class. My teachers were all African American, having been transferred from the black segregated facilities when they closed. I thought the staff might enjoy hearing about the first class that had opened Rosemary Hills in 1957.
Maurice followed behind me into the building (we were buzzed in) and I introduced myself to the secretary in the school office, explaining I had been in the first class and had attended three grades beginning in 1957. She looked at me with what I read as fear or terror. I couldn’t understand her body language, but her words were clear. “You’ll have to leave. Visitors are not welcome at any time. We can’t have people wandering around the building.” And with that, she physically escorted me to the front door, as I exclaimed to Maurice, “We’re being thrown out.”
I was shaking with anger, and couldn’t believe what had just happened. Maurice has had two partners, both of them white men. He told me that when he became involved with them he warned them that they were going to be rudely shocked at how they would be treated when seen in public with him. “You’re going to lose your privilege,” he explained, and said that he seriously doubted I would have been treated that way had I been alone. “There isn’t a day I breathe that I haven’t been discriminated against by twelve o’clock. If you’re with a black person, you’ll be treated the same. In restaurants, they seat us in the far corner by the kitchen. We’re often ignored while waiting to be served. I’m followed when I shop in a department store. It doesn’t matter that I’m wearing $3000 worth of clothing and in a Brooks Brothers suit every workday — I’m treated the same way I would be if I were 20 years old in a hoodie. ” Maurice has two masters’ degrees and a Ph.D. His position in the Department of Agriculture had him evaluating multi-million dollar grants to rural southern farmers. He received telephone comments from applicants like this: “Be sure to approve my loan application in a hurry — I don’t want it going to some nigra in your department who’s slow as molasses. Understand?” When he chose to cab home from his job downtown at the Department of Agriculture, taxis would regularly pass him by. When he finally got one to stop, he asked them why. “Black agriculture employees always go to Anacostia (a black neighborhood). We don’t want to drive you there.”
On the plane home from Washington, I was seated next to a pharmacist who is an executive consultant to the American Pharmaceutical Association. She had been the only black woman in pharmacy school at the University of Illinois, and received a failing grade on a final exam. She didn’t believe the grade was legitimate and asked the professor to show her the exam. When he refused, she appealed to the dean, who explained that professors had the right to show or not show graded papers to students. She was expelled. School had been difficult, and her high school teachers and counselors had discouraged her from applying to a university, encouraging her to attend a trade school instead. Maurice told me he was given the same advice at his all white high school in Ellicott City, Maryland.
The pharmacy student was eventually readmitted to the University, but was repeatedly told by professors she should not seek any position other than that of a retail pharmacist and should not seek further academic degrees. She didn’t believe them. Despite becoming a mother at 19, being abandoned by her husband and supporting three children, she got a doctorate of pharmacy degree and became a top level pharmacy administrator, overseeing pharmacy programs for the federal government and administering multi-million dollar grants.
I admitted to my seat mate and to Maurice that I hadn’t known that having financial security, expensive clothes and a Ph.D. wouldn’t immunize an African American from regularly becoming the victim of racial discrimination. This was an epiphany I hadn’t expected. It took a trip to Washington, D.C. for me to learn this at the age of 69.
We drove four more blocks to my former home on Milford Avenue. We were warmly greeted by Elaine and Phil, who had purchased the house from my parents in 1984 and were just one year short of living in the house as long as my parents had. I learned about all our former neighbors (most had died), and we were invited to see my bedroom. Like Antonio, Elaine and Phil had been good to their house, and it remained a warm and nurturing environment.
Two days of air travel and 2 cities in four days. It was a whirlwind trip, but worth every penny, if only for what I had learned.
Eric Schuman, September, 2017