Spanish Scholar, ANC Commissioner, Businesswoman and Race Pioneer: Bernice Degler Made a Difference
Interviewee: L. Bernice Degler
Date: Oct. 30, 2013
Location: Degler residence on Chevy Chase Parkway NW
Interviewed and transcribed (from audio recording) by: Patricia MacDermot Kasdan
L. Bernice Degler died in her home on Dec. 15, 2013, one week after celebrating her 90th birthday
Q – How far back can you trace your family in Washington?
A – My family was from Texas; they moved to DC during the Great Migration.
Q – Tell me about your early life.
A – I was born in 1923 right here in Washington in a little hospital in Northwest. I started out at Garrison School, which was a lab school so it was interesting — a lab school is where the practicing teachers have the experienced teachers guiding them; this was about 1927 — then Garnet Patterson and then to Dunbar High School. I graduated in June and the war started that December, 1941. For many years Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only President I knew.
Q – What did you do after you graduated from high school?
A- I went to Miner Teachers College; it was part of the DC system. At that time there was segregation. I didn’t realize when I graduated from the Teachers College with a BS in Spanish and English, that only 5 percent of the people in the United States had college degrees. I felt inferior because I didn’t have a PhD, and never did get one. I actually was an English major expecting to go into journalism in grad school, but I was just so inspired by Dr. Valrez Spratlin of Howard University, that I loved the Spanish language. He was American with degrees in Spanish from the University of Madrid, which I tried to go to, but at that time because of the end of the war, students were not being encouraged to go overseas, so I decided to go to Mexico. When I graduated, I left and went to the National University of Mexico, the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, to get a Masters degree in Spanish Language and Literature.
Eddie Brooke drove me to the airport. When he looked out his back door, he’d be looking across two streets at my front door. He was so neat; he went to Howard University Med. School. He told my father that he would drive me to the airport. Many years later he became a Senator from Massachusetts, as a Republican! Eddie was a very good friend and a very good champion.
Q – Tell me about your experience in Mexico City.
A – I spent a little over two years there in Mexico City, which was so beautiful. I can’t go back because they have too many people now. I lived near the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. I loved Mexico because being at the university was being among people of importance. One of my professors was the Director of Archives for the country. I had a marvelous professor in Latin who was from Basque territory, and you got to go places and do things with these people. It was nothing for me to have an appointment at the National Palace, which was downtown, because my advisor was the Director of Archives; it was a different day — it used to be somewhat that way here in Washington.
Q – What did you do after your left Mexico City?
A – I always knew that I would teach. I wasn’t encouraged to do the degree in journalism because it was such a hard route for anybody, but especially women. So the safe thing was teaching, but you could at least start on the college level. I very quickly got a job because a person in my neighborhood was appointed president of Morgan College. A cousin of mine who taught Spanish there was leaving to go to New York State University, so I got that job, and I was there for two years. Dr. Spratlin called me and asked me if I would come to Howard, so I went to Howard to teach Spanish – Spanish Instructor – Instructor is low on the totem pole, but there.
While I was at Howard, I entered the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. There were four institutes; I was in the Institute of Language and Linguistics. I was there for the great international experiment of Dr. Leon Dostert in the aural-oral approach laboratory.
Then I got married. A group of us were interracial – I guess I and my friend Pauline were the only – what were we called then? Negroes, but at any rate, I always tell people no matter what they name me, no matter who does the naming, I’m still me, it doesn’t matter. I got married in 1950 to a friend from New Jersey.
Q – Please tell me about your career.
A – I taught in the public schools and stayed about 10 years then didn’t work for about 14 years. I had two boys. We lived in Brookland where I mainly grew up, then moved here in 1966. We were Unitarians so we were welcomed to the neighborhood by E. Duncan Howlett, the minister who lived here in Chevy Chase. We went to All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard. The Beaches were members. I was on the Board of Religion at All Souls and also coordinated the pre-school kindergarten and Sunday school.
Q – Do you know anything about the history of your house?
A – The assistant ministers lived here. One was Rev. James Reeb; he had moved out and was working on civil rights in Roxbury, Boston, when he went to Selma, Alabama, and was killed. I worked with him because I was on the Board of the Sunday school. I worked closely with him and I remember telling him, “Don’t go, don’t go,” not thinking that he would be killed, but that he had little children and it wasn’t worth taking a chance.
A Japanese fellow from the embassy came to live with us through IBIS, International Business Information Service. He was very formal, very correct. When he left you did not know much more about him than you knew when he came, except that he was a delightful person, although he wore his clogs in the house. IBIS would call and ask, for example, “We have four Japanese scholars, will you cook them an American dinner?” And they came in bearing gifts. I had mashed potatoes, oven-fried chicken, string beans with butter beans, and ice cream for dessert. Those people lapped up that food. They were all young, and each one taught at a different college or university in Japan. Other times I would entertain people (for IBIS) for a couple of hours or drive them around sight seeing.
Q – How did you happen to buy your house?
A – We had bought land to build in Montgomery County and were in between places to live. Hilda Nichol said, “While you are waiting for your house to be built, why don’t you stay in this house?” We worked together on a lot of things and her husband ran (Senator Edmund) Muskie’s campaign, but they went back to Maine. So we moved here, it was part of our involvement, not formal involvement, with Northwest Washington Fair Housing. Hilda and Doris Ingram who lived on Livingston Street were both involved in that. I was not; I did not volunteer with them or anything like that, though I supported them and did anything I could do.
So we moved here expecting to stay only a year or year and a half, and finally decided we would just stay so we sold the lot in Montgomery County. We ended up buying this house. Northwest Washington Fair Housing had an office on Georgia Avenue right at Military Road. Sometimes they would send out white homebuyers, then black homebuyers, and compare the treatment.
Q – Why did you choose Chevy Chase?
A – We were influenced by people we were deeply involved with who were also friends.
Q – You must have been one of the first African Americans in the neighborhood — did you encounter any opposition?
A – I’m sure that there was plenty of opposition, but no body ever approached me in any way or anything like that. As a matter of fact, the opposite happened in some respects. Now I imagine with the children it was different or harder. This was a time when in the culture there was reaching out and some soul searching as to, “I never thought about this – will I go to the movies downtown? And no, I never saw any black people, but it never occurred to me that they weren’t there because they couldn’t go.”
When Pat Finn across the street moved in, we were very friendly with Pat and her husband. She ran the program for nurses at Georgetown and Dr. Finn was a physics professor at Georgetown. Bill (Bernice’s husband) was a registered architect, who was for years the head of membership at the American Institute of Architects, so we had a lot in common because we were all people who got involved with issues and organizations.
Mary Ellen Gannon talked about the fact that her mother was of Italian background and her father was a well-known lawyer of Irish background. She grew up in Chevy Chase over by Lafayette School. She is still there.
Now as far as color was concerned, I guess I was safe because I was the only one. There was another for a while at the corner of Military and Chevy Chase Parkway in that last house down there, but he was a very private person so I never met him.
Q – What was the neighborhood like – then compared to now?
A – For me, within the radius of two blocks there were about 45 children and the children brought us together on many different levels. With me and with Bill and the boys when we moved here I’m sure people were very curious and were watching. It was quite obvious that we were well-centered people. The Walter Beaches came over the first minutes we were here, and eventually Allan (Beach) who lived across the street.
I imagine there was a great deal of curiosity, so we didn’t get what we might have gotten had we just moved in cold. Within the first few months we had a big open house for the Unitarians who lived in the neighborhood. Also, Bill would bring new architects and their wives here who had moved into the neighborhood. When you are involved in things, you don’t run into the kind of things that other people run into – the negative things are there, but they aren’t necessarily expressed to you. Our closest family friends turned out to be the Hannans, very conservative Catholics.
Q – What were the occupations of the people living nearby?
A – Our friends the Finns on the corner, he might have been head of the Department of Physics at Georgetown and she was head of the nursing program there until it ended. The Hannans directly across the street, with whom we were so close, he had a rug business in Northwest Washington. She was a teacher. It was his family that gave the land for St. John’s. The Seegers lived across the street. On the corner was Joe McGrath who was a lawyer; after his wife died and he retired, he became a lay preacher at Blessed Sacrament. Next door was interesting because they were a Quaker couple that worked for the State Department; they would go away and rent their place to Africans from Swaziland. Then it was sold to a couple that was also at the State Department.
Q – Where did your children go to school?
A – They went to St. John’s, Barry and Wilson. There was a time when everybody was switching to St. John’s whether they were Catholic or not.
Q – What age were they when you moved to Chevy Chase?
A – They were like 11 and 12, somewhere in there.
Q – What was their school experience if they went to Chevy Chase schools?
A – Kirk also went to Lafayette, which he liked.
Q – What stores and businesses did you frequent on Connecticut Avenue?
A – I liked it because in those days it was different from now – it was personal. I’d go to Boukas and say, “I need flowers for the 6:30 class over at Lafayette. Give me a break.” Then there was a women’s apparel store called On the Avenue; it was owned by Barbara Roca. Her husband was a respected lawyer.
We loved the Piccadilly Restaurant and we were all so excited when Jeff Gildenhorn opened up The Fishery where you could pick out your fish and look at its eyes and so forth. The Giant had a fish counter with guys cutting the heads off. If I wanted two of those heads, they’d give them to me. I miss that personal business on the Avenue; to me now the Avenue is indifferent.
That table there is some 60 years old and I was going to redo the top of it myself. I called Carol Englert next door and she said, “Well, let’s go up to the hardware store.” I remember taking a big plastic jug and they gave me some stuff to clean it up. Then I called him up, “This is not working!” The guy came down here, looked at the table and told me what to do because I had taken off all the patina.
Then, Magruders was so different! Carole and I and Mary Ellen would get in the car because we were going to hit three or four places, then divide the stuff up. This is typical Brookland – this is the way my block was – a peck of this and a bushel of that. We’d get up there early in the morning with the car because we were going other places and Tony would have gotten up about four or five that morning and gone out to market and gotten all those fresh vegetables and brought them back. He would see us coming and he’d say, “The specials, nothing but the specials.” And we would say, “What else is there?” But he was so fussy at Magruders, with fruit baskets in the window. Now it is completely different. I used to take my turkey from Thanksgiving and freeze it and have them cut it in half and put the other half back in the freezer. You could do stuff like that. At the butchers you would say, “Would you grind that pork?” It was different! Now to me it is impersonal.
Carol still lives next door; she is a widow now. At that time there were more women at home. I worked for many years but I was at home for 14 years when I was so involved with Polly [Shackleton – Ward 3 DC Council member]. It would take the mailman a long time to get down the block because every housewife would have something to say.
Life was different; however, what stands out is that the children you never see outside playing – it used to be that they were outside playing. There are at least 10 kids on this block and you never see them. Our children were out there all the time; you came in the house to get a glass of juice and went back outside to play ball or wander around.
Q – Did you go to the Broad Branch Market?
A – I didn’t go to Broad Branch very often. Kirk always wanted some money because the children would stop in there after school.
Q – What did you do while at home with your children?
A – While I was at home, other than cooking and cleaning and going to schools with three boys, I became a docent and joined the docent board at the National Collection of Fine Arts, which is the National Museum of American Art, both unpaid positions. We had a program that I also ran for the museum of bringing in speakers broadening the focus of the museum. I remember I brought in Dr. Davies to talk about the Harlem Renaissance. You would invite certain organizations to hear the speaker – this I liked the best. I was there when a controversy went on, when we accepted critics of Sam Gilliam [African American painter associated with the Washington Color School]; we had one of his paintings – exciting years! I was there when a Vice President’s wife, Joan Mondale, who was a crafts person, legitimized crafts for the traditional, fine arts museums.
It was also during that time that I met Polly Shackleton (Ward 3 DC Council member) and I used to help run her constituent service office at the Community Center and coordinate the volunteers. I loved that lady — I walked with her when she was ringing doorbells, and I got an award from her. I don’t remember for what. It was exciting working with Polly Shackleton on neighborhood things.
During those years, I think it was Marion Barry who established the ANC, and Harriet Berger around the corner was elected to the ANC for 3G. She decided to go to law school; she was walking down the street and I said, “I’m bored.” She said, “Well, let’s see if you can’t take over the rest of my term. That will let me out.” After that, I ran and became an ANC Commissioner from 1978 until 1984. I was Commissioner for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission as an Independent, I had forgotten that, but you were forced to select a party, so I just put Democrat in order to vote in the primary. The ANC was important to me because I had grown up in a non-political town, a very political town that was non-political.
Q – What was your main focus when you served as an ANC Commissioner?
A – I ran on reducing real estate tax rates and I ran on giving attention to the elderly. Isn’t that funny? If I ran today, I’d run on the same two things! Unbelievable how much things change but stay the same because we are going through such rapid change at this time.
Q – Tell me more about your ANC experience.
A – I thought that I was the only woman, but there were other candidates: Eliza Callas and Martha Williams. I remember Allen Beach [ANC Commissioner] was a part of it – I love Allen! They were mainly men and mainly lawyers. I imagine I might have been intimidated in the beginning but not after a while. I remember Mr. Brown and I used to bump heads because he wanted funds for the National Cathedral. We usually met in the Community Center; we never met in the office.
Q – When did you go back to a paid position?
A – I went back to work in 1979, as bilingual Coordinator at Gordon Adult Center in Georgetown; later it was the Rosario Center after he (Carlos Rosario) died. I was Woman of the Year for the Business and Professional Woman’s Club, probably in 1980, for establishing a Hispanic Business and Professional Women’s Club. And then I would go back and forth and teach Spanish at Miner Teachers College.
I was President of African and American Women’s Association, which was started by a group of women from AID and State Department, and October was our 40th anniversary! It is a humanitarian group to further education, travel and meaningful life experiences for women. I had a meeting here Monday with four ex-Presidents. When I was president, I started a program of why visit Africa when you can do so right here in DC? I had Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, two or three others, and we would take children by the busloads – the school system was easy to deal with then – and take them to the embassies or bring them to the Sumner Museum.
I spent seven years at the Sumner Museum and Archives, and I retired from there. That was the oldest school built for African Americans and it was Sumner who pushed it through Congress. It is an historic building; the bells were cast in England and the clock tower is probably one of the few on the East Coast. I was director of program development and education and coordinator of docents – they had to go through training. I liked Marianna Blagburn and the way she reacted to the training – she is very hands on and quick to move.
Q – What did you do after retirement?
A – When I retired, Cathy Smith in Cleveland Park was hell-bent on developing the U Street Project; someone told her about me, and she called me to work on the U Street Project with her. I called different ones to come down as volunteers and Marianna was right there.
Then I got involved, because I was involved with Cathy, with Manna Incorporated that built housing for people. I ended up running an educational program at the Whitelaw Hotel for the people who live there; these were Section 8 folks – and who came to help me? Marianna! She wasn’t there every week, but she did help me when I had the quilters come in and teach quilting. We had a little competition for prizes, and she helped me with that. I am in the book they published as manager of that part of the U Street Project. Cathy Smith is still there in Cleveland Park; she’s a white woman from the mid-west, but this was what she wanted to do, get the mainstream, like the Smithsonian Institution, and the busses and so forth, to include the Shaw area as a part of sightseeing in DC. She would have meetings at the Lincoln Theater. She worked with different organizations in that area.
A lot happened in the 80s because the District of Columbia Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs at one time was the largest organization of working women in the world. When I joined them, as usual, I looked for something to do. There was a woman who was looking for somebody to help her establish a Hispanic club, so we did that. I used to go to Ayuda every Tuesday and translate for the American lawyers who were coming in to help the poor girls who were being exploited.
Q – Tell me about the photo you are holding.
A – I love this inscription from Elsie Austin, who was at the State Department, USAID and a member of Delta sorority. “To my friend Bernice, admired for her intriguing combination of courage and commitment, kindness and humor, wisdom and achievement, and all with a surprising bit of devilment” — I knew her from the African and American Women’s Association.
Q – What do you enjoy most at this stage of your life?
A – Now everything is my grandchildren, three more boys, who were here last summer for a month. The oldest one just turned 16, the youngest is 12 and I have an older granddaughter who is 25. So the grandchildren are the big deal right now.
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