Neighborhood Uproar over
Black and White Couple in 1940s
Ralph Benson: Oral History Excerpts
MOVE TO CHEVY CHASE
Q - So then they moved to Chevy Chase – in what year?
A – In 1936 maybe. I may be a year or two off.
Q – So that was before you were born.
A – Yes.
Q – Then they moved to the house on Upland Terrace.
A – It was Upland Terrace.
Q – Do you know when they were married?
A – They were married in 1930.
Q – And the house on Upland Terrace, was that a new house?
A – Yes
Q - Did they have it built?
A - No. It was already built. They found it by accident during the depression while they were looking for a place. They had a bungalow on 49th Street, and they happened to make a right turn on Upland Terrace and saw the house at the corner of Upland Terrace and 33rd Street. They could not afford it, but my grandmother had some money, and she had some connections. It was interesting to see the mortgage, They didn’t really have a mortgage in those days. They bought it for $12,000. They had twelve $1,000 notes. Each year they had to re-up them. There was no mortgage as such.
Q – They were able to do that during the depression?
A – Yes. I think, as I said, my grandmother probably helped. She wasn’t too happy with my father.
Q – Why?
A – He took her daughter away form the Catholic church.
Q – In those days, that was a big thing.
A – That was a big thing, yes. She was a strong-willed person, and she made a fair amount of money in her lifetime. She was a businesswoman.
Q – What did she do?
A - She rented properties. She bought properties and rented them and bought and sold the properties. I never knew her husband, because he died before I was born, I think they probably would have had a divorce if it was today. He lived in the basement. That was the way in those days.
MOTHER TOOK PEOPLE INTO THE HOUSE
Q – My mother was much kinder, very loving. My mother took care of people all of her life. She took in people who were neighbors from 4 or 5 blocks away and cared for them. She cared for her mother until she died.
Q – You mean she literally took them into her house if they didn’t have a place to stay?
A – Yes.
Q - So you remember that as a child?
A – Yes. They actually had to rent rooms, because they couldn’t afford the house. They had the one master bedroom, which had a bath attached. They rented it to a wonderful woman. I remember her she was like a member of the family. Her name was Edith. She was great.
Q – Did she eat with the family?
A – I don’t recall her eating with us,. But she was in the family, and she put up with us kids when we were small. We would come in, and she would have things for us to play with. She was a fantastic person.
A – One person lived with us, with no rent involved, when her husband passed. She was a member of St. Paul’s. Also her sister for a year or two. As I said, my mother was very kind and giving.
A – Yes she continued until probably 5 years before she died.
UPROAR OVER MIXED RACIAL COUPLE
Around here, this was a time when segregation was rampant in DC. I remember one time at Pinehurst Circle right before you get to Western Avenue a house was sold to a mixed marriage couple, and the neighborhood was up in arms. They raised money and bought them out. They had the last laugh because they [mixed marriage couple] probably made lots of money.
Q – What year would that be?
A – Probably back in the 1940’s. I can’t tell which end. Maybe 1948. I would be 10 years old.
Q – That would be the only black people in the neighborhood?
A – That was the only black person. Because one was white and one was black. It was a mixed marriage.
THE WAR YEARS AND LAFAYETTE
A – I went to Lafayette. It was towards the end of the war, and we had a victory garden at the side of the school – on the south side. And we would bring newspapers, I think it would be Thursday, I believe. We would have competitions as to who would bring the most poundage, and we would get stripes to put on our coats.
Q – What were the newspapers used for?
A - It was for the war effort I have no idea what they used it for.
Q – In the victory gardens, did each class have a garden?
A – I think some of the classes. I don’t’ know if all of the classes did. I liked growing things. and that was fun. Maybe that is why I like to grow things now. My father did too. We had a little garden at home.
Q – What else do you remember about Lafayette?
A – I remember a couple of the teachers,
Q – Like a teacher that stands out?
A – Ms. Tyler, Ms. McKenna and Ms. Henderson. Ms. Henderson was probably kindergarten. Kindergarten was only half a day. We would have a nap half way through.
Q - What else do you remember about Lafayette – extra curricular activities. Were they still doing the May Pole when you were there?
A – Yes. We had the May Pole, and we had the lower field. I am not sure what they call it now. It had the track. Back in those days, there was a little house that sat on the top of the hill. We used the hill for sled riding when it snowed. There was a smaller building up there. I don’t think we had any playground equipment. Maybe one or two but a lot less than they have today.
HORSES ON WESTERN AVENUE
A - We were big on being cowboys. You have to recognize that Western Avenue goes into Montgomery County. When you went to Montgomery County, it was rare to see a house. It was still cows and horses. They didn’t build a whole lot of houses until after World War II. I can remember one time seeing my mother up on the stoop of the house and my best friend, Donald Judson, was with us. Horses ran down the street with a car chasing it. It was like a round up except it was cars instead of horses chasing the horses. My friend was going to catch one and lasso it. He got across the street before the horses got there.
Q – So where you lived, which was right near Western Avenue, on the other side, it was basically farms. Were there horses and cows?
A - Yes. I remember only one house there. There was an older gentleman, and he had a horse that the children would ride. It was basically a farm area.
Q – Did you go to Connecticut avenue as kids?
A – Yes. That was the Avenue, as we called it. “I am going over to The Avenue,” we would say. We went to the Avalon Theater,. That is where we saw our movies.
Q – What kind of movies?
A – Mostly westerns. My father took me every Friday night to the movies. Just me. My brother was too young, and my sister was too old. She could care less. She was a teenager.
Q – What else attracted you to the Avenue?
A - The stores. When it was Mother’s day or something. I can tell you where the hardware store was. It was on the first block coming down from Chevy Chase Circle. And there was Shupp’s Bakery.
Q – What is there now?
A – It is the Arcade. That’s where Shupp’s Bakery was.
Q - Where was the hardware store?
A – It was on the next block up towards Chevy Chase circle - about two doors away from McKinley at the streetlight. There was a Haskins variety store. They would have models that boys would like. It was like model airplanes, cars, and dinky toys. Then there was the bank. Riggs is not there, but it is still a bank. It was three blocks below Chevy Chase Circle.
THE HOT SHOPPE ON CONNECTICUT AVENUE
A - It was Dr, Snyder’s era [at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church]. He was my mentor. I looked up to him. In Luther League, we would have a little religious ceremony and then we would dance afterwards. In those days, dancing on Sundays was a “no no.” We would go through our little religious ceremony, and then Dr. Snyder would leave and we would dance. He knew what was going on but did not let on.
We would dance after the religious ceremony in Schaefer Hall at the church. Then we would all get to the car and go to the Hot Shoppe which is not there anymore It was on Connecticut Avenue going south 3 – 4 blocks from McKinley. It was on the west side of the street (right if you going down). We would drive-in at the Hot Shoppe, and they brought the food out.
Q - There was enough land there, that you could do that?
A – On yes. There were a lot of kids there – especially on Sunday nights. And the kids ran around seeing their friends. I guess the Hot Shoppe didn’t like that. They always called the cops.
You would park, and when I first started going there, someone came and took your order and things progressed and you would have a little box with a speaker. You pressed a button to order and they would bring out the order to you.
RATIONING DURING WORLD WAR II
During the war too, there was rationing. There was food rationing, There was gasoline rationing and whatever. I remember one time I had an uncle – he was in the black market. We called him Uncle Buck because every time that he came over to our house, he gave us a silver dollar. Actually, in those days, that was a lot of money.
Q – How did you know he was in the black market?
A – Every so often we would get things that you could not get unless you had the rationing tickets for it. We went downtown, I am not sure why. We went shopping. I went down town with my mother, and we had a 1938 Oldsmobile. The battery was under the front seat and so was the gas tank. That is probably not the best combination, but that was the way that it was. I remember coming up Connecticut Avenue, and standing up in the back seat. There were no seat belts in those days, and she said “something is burning.” So she pulled off. I think it was at the Kennedy-Warren, and she went in and she said “I think that my car is on fire.” The lady there said “are you sure?” She said “I don’t really know if it is on fire or not.” So the gardeners went out there with a hose. I remember seeing them take the front seat off and there were flames in there.
Q – They hosed it off?
A – No. They called the fire department. It could have exploded. That is where the gas tank was.
Q – So what kinds of things were rationed?
A – Food, gasoline – everything was.
Q – I mean sugar, flour, and butter?
A – Yes. Butter was for sure. Cream. In those days we got milk and butter delivered to us by the milkman and Thompson’s Diary. I can’t remember what the other one was. We had a little insulated box out there by our back door for dairy delivery. Everything – eggs, and meat was hard to come by.
Q – So meat was rationed?
A – Yes. You could only get so much of a certain thing. When you ran out of ration tickets, you didn’t get that anymore. That was a good incentive to have a garden especially in the summer time. I remember one time, my parents really never had much money, but we went on vacation to a farm in Virginia. Where it was I have no idea, and I remember gasoline was rationed. If you had no more rationing tickets, you had no more gas. My father started going home the wrong way – towards North Carolina. We finally figured it out It was scary, because no more tickets, no more gas.
SPY HOUSE ON WESTERN AVENUE AND THE PURPLE IRIS
There was a story that I heard that at the end of the war, there was a spy ring at a house at the end of Western Avenue – going towards the park – on the DC side. I don’t know if was true. I have heard the story over the years. I think it was probably a house that was abandoned, and it looked like a haunted house to the kids and they made up some stories
Q – Have you ever heard of the Purple Iris?
A – Oh yes.
Q – Tell you what you know about that.
A – The Purple Iris - I always thought there were a bunch of crooks that went there, because it goes back from the road. I think it was on Rittenhouse. There was a fair amount of land there.
Q – It was literally purple in color?
A – It was purple. To me, it was so far back that I didn’t see much of it, and I didn’t pay much attention. You saw cars come there and drop people off. I am sure that some parked around there, but I don’t remember that. So we always thought once again the criminal element was there.
Q – Was it a public place?
A – I never knew it to be public
Q – Did it have a sign?
A – I don’t recall. I don’t remember being back there. It was something different, and we made stories up [about it]. We had a good imagination. Kids today don’t have good imaginations. because they have too much stuff. We had to use imagination to play. We played baseball. We played in the street, and you wouldn’t get run over like today. It was fun. We had a good time.\
BLACKS AND JEWS
I didn’t think much about segregation so much in those days. There actually were not very many blacks in DC at that time. We used to go to the beach in summer time.
Q – Which beach?
A - Mayo – on the Chesapeake Bay – we didn’t go to the ocean. I remember that it was not only the black but also the Jews who were discriminated against. When I got older I drove into Mayo, and there was a sign there and it would say “gentiles only,” which meant no Jews allowed. I would ask my father “what does that mean?” He said “no Jews allowed.” It is interesting to see how things changed. They changed for the better. Now we don’t discriminate against Jews or blacks or anyone else. Now some Americans want to discriminate against Muslins, and that is not fair. But we did it during World War II - taking Japanese out of California and putting them in concentration camps.
Q – You probably were just not so aware of race and discrimination. It was not an issue. You probably learned about it during the Civil Rights era.
A – Actually I think I knew about drinking fountains – for black and whites.
Q – In Washington?
A – In Washington.
Q – Where at?
A – Everywhere, no matter where you were. Bathrooms too. I never got into the bus situation because where I lived, it was all whites. There weren’t any blacks.
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