- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

During a summer writer’s retreat, we were asked to interject a deliberate falsehood into our biographies for others to uncover.

I proudly told a tall tale about being the youngest daughter of the first mayor of the District of Columbia, Walter E. Washington. I claimed I often denied my father because to do otherwise invariably created complications.

Finally, I confessed, but noted that while Mr. Washington did not go to great lengths to disavow anyone about the misconceptions they might have about our familial relationship, truth be told, neither did I.

For we shared more than a name, we shared a love for the nation’s capital and its inhabitants, and an innate admiration and affection for one another. Washington for Washington. When his wife, Mary Burke Washington, whom I visited this week, told me again how the elder, elegant statesman insisted on reading my column before other newspaper articles, I was flabbergasted and flattered. After Mr. Washington discovered my nickname, he affectionately refused to address me by any name but “A.” I can’t claim Walter Washington even as “Uncle Wally,” as some lifelong Washingtonians did during his political heyday. Still, he was a father figure, always offering his expertise, his encouragement and his wise counsel, and always treating me to his sharp wit and humor. Not only to me — but to countless Washingtonians, who spent this somber week of his death at 88 sharing their personal, poignant stories of how this gentle giant changed their lives.

Walter E. Washington was the Father of the District of Columbia.

As his city administrator Julian R. Dugas succinctly said, “Without Walter Washington, there would be no home rule” in the District.

To read Mr. Washington’s history is to read the history of Washington, D.C. To read of his struggles for respect and recognition for himself and his beloved city is to read of the civil rights struggle for every black person in America’s segregated society.

“Walter Washington was a man at a time when [black men] weren’t supposed to be or allowed to be,” said Frank Hollis, a D.C. labor lawyer who came to the District as Mr. Washington’s star began to rise. Mr. Hollis said he learned how to withstand pressure during testy negotiations by watching an adept Mr. Washington, who “was catching hell” from all sides. “I don’t know how he did it, I couldn’t have.” Indeed, Mr. Washington’s was some high-wire act trying to form a nascent government at a turbulent time when middle-class blacks did not want to make waves or be embarrassed; younger, militant blacks wanted to take to the streets rather than negotiate with “the Man,” and “the Man” who did everything to stop both factions from crossing age-old color lines in the District.

Sam Jordan, a retired D.C. government jack-of-all-trades who served every city mayor, tearfully told Mrs. Washington during our Wednesday evening visit, “I loved that man like a father, I learned everything I know just by watching him.” It is Washington legend how the mayor refused to shoot rioting looters despite orders from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Mr. Jordan remembered that when Mr. Washington and his Cabinet members walked up 14th Street NW during the 1968 riots, gunshots could be heard all around them. At one point, a bottle shattered in front of them and everyone dropped to the ground — except Mr. Washington. The mayor shouted at them to “get up” because they could not appear to be weak.

Mr. Jordan said that even after his loss to Marion S. Barry Jr. in 1978, Mr. Washington still took the dashiki-wearing upstart under his wing, and taught him “how to come to work, how to dress, how to talk and how to deal with Congress.” “That’s why the transition was so smooth, because Walter was just like a father to Marion for those first years,” Mr. Jordan said.

Mr. Washington comes out of the W.E.B. Du Bois “Talented Tenth” era when excellence was the standard for the brightest black minds, many of whom graduated from Howard University like him. Mrs. Washington said he frequently recounted the day his professor acknowledged his brilliant answer, but chastised him because it was not on point. “From then on, Walter said he always remembered to stay on the point, especially when he was dealing with the commissioners and those folks on the Hill.”

“On the Hill” on Georgia Avenue NW, many like Mr. Washington’s neighbor, poet Sterling Brown, were embedded with what D.C. writer Charlie Cobb calls “a racial consciousness.” In that generation, “race men” felt “duty-bound” to work for the redemption and vindication of blacks, to move the race forward whatever their field of work and to train others to follow in their footsteps.

Away from politics, Mrs. Washington said her husband loved dancing to jazz. “He would surprise me by putting on some music, and then ask me, ‘Mrs. Washington, can I have this dance?’ and we would dance right here, all around the living room,” she said, fighting back the tears.

A Renaissance man, she said, “Walter loved fresh flowers,” dressing in a tuxedo, spending hours in his book-lined study, and eating homegrown vegetables from his backyard garden.

Sitting with Mary in the Washingtons’ LeDroit Park parlor, I noticed that even though the flower-filled room was laden with photographs of Mayor Washington with dignitaries — from President Johnson, who appointed him to be the first mayor commissioner, to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, his most recent successor — those pictures were overshadowed by a virtual museum of family photos.

The private man was very much a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather, said Mary, while three generations of Washington women, assisted by another family fixture, butler Willie Carpenters, accepted calls and callers to the well-known, white home.

Like most of his surrogate D.C. children, I too am grieving his loss, but I’m ever so grateful for the lifeblood that Washington’s father, Walter, gave to us and his namesake city.

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