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I was born in 1949 in Washington, DC, where we lived at 520 Ingraham Street, NW. There was a service road down the center of the block, which, due to the absence of traffic except for residents who parked their cars behind their property, was a safe place for neighborhood kids to play.

One of my earliest memories is of being part of a group of kids at the west end of the service road one summer day ('54? '55?). This group which happened to include one black kid about the same age as I, whose family had just moved in a few doors up the street from us. There was a red-headed white kid literally screaming at the black kid, "Get out!! Get Out!! Get out of my sight!!!" I remember his words as if it happened just this morning, but beyond the words, a very prominent part of my memory of the event, even now, is an awareness that I did not understand why the red-headed kid was so angry at the black kid. What had the black kid done to him to make him so angry?

My only other memory related to this black kid is of being in his living room the day his older sister got married. I can close my eyes and see her in her wedding gown, sitting in the chair in the corner, waiting to leave for the church. Other than that, nothing. No clear faces, no names.

Here I was, encouraged by my family to play with the black kid, and there was this red-headed kid, screaming at him to get out of his sight. It took some years for me to understand some of what had been going on down there at the end of the block that day:

Washington of the Fifties was, by and large, a Southern city, complete with the considerable racial prejudice of the time, far beyond anything remaining today and subject to the old "There goes the neighborhood" syndrome. Until that black family moved to our block, it had been an all-white neighborhood surrounded by all-white neighborhoods. On top of whatever atmosphere existed normally in their household, the red-headed kid's parents had probably vented some serious anger over what would happen to property values now that the neighborhood was mixed.

I have no knowledge of the red-headed kid's lineage, but it is probably a fairly safe bet that his parents were native Southerners. In and of itself, being a Southerner didn't equal Racist, but it certainly increased the chances back then.

By comparison, I was of an essentially Northern family consisting of my parents, my maternal grandparents and me: my mother and her father were both born and raised in Poughkeepsie, NY; my grandmother was Canadian (like before, being a Northerner didn't equal Not Racist, but did increase the chances); my father was from Tennessee, which would qualify him as Southerner, but I can guarantee you I never heard him utter a bigoted sentiment.

I came to understand later why the black kid's presence bothered the red-headed kid so much but didn't bother me at all. An epiphany, if you will, though I couldn't tell you exactly when it hit: his parents had taught him and my parents had taught me. It's as simple as "The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree."

And for that, I'm glad. I'm glad my family was tolerant, that I was not taught to be a bigot, and that I have this memory to remind me of the example I want to set for my own kids. Of all the memories of I have of Washington, there is something in this one I can actually pass on.

Perhaps that black kid who is part of such a vivid memory for me might recognize himself and get in touch. The red-headed kid, too; I have to wonder if he still feels the same.

Here's where it happened (Google Map).


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