Witness to Stark Changes from 1960s to 1980s as DC Schools Desegregate and Lifestyles Evolve
Interviewee: Judith Clark Adams
Date: Nov. 16, 2017
Location: Adams residence in Chevy Chase DC
Interviewers: Joan Solomon Janshego and Cate Toups Atkinson
Transcribed (from audio recording) by: Cate Toups Atkinson
Let’s start by asking what is your birth date and where were born?
Feb. 23, 1926 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Were there other children in your family?
And where were your parents from and what were their occupations?
My father, James Clark, was from Wisconsin, my mother, Dorothy Funk Clark, was from Iowa. My father was a civil engineer, my mother was an artist — charcoal, portraiture.
Did you get some of those talents yourself?
No. Skipped. My children are all artistic. Although I love art, I’ve studied a lot about it. I’m very appreciative of art, but I have no talent. None, whatsoever.
You are a widow now? How many children and grandchildren do you have, and where do they live now?
My husband (journalist Timothy J. Adams), died in 1992. Cancer. Three of my children live in this area, and I have a son in Los Angeles and a son in Maine. I have 12 grandchildren.
What brought you to Chevy Chase?
The Peace Corps, 1961. My husband was a newspaper man and he was recruited to work in public information at the very beginning of the Peace Corps. We were married and had four children at the time. We had a fifth child after we moved to Washington. (Her husband, a graduate of Bowdoin College, began working for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1949 and later worked at the San Francisco Examiner. In 1961 he joined the Peace Corps as staff.
Where did you go to college?
I started at Sophie Newcomb (Memorial College) which is now part of Tulane (University) and finished at George Washington University. I majored in English. Then I went out to California, where I met my husband. We were married in 1950. We lived in San Francisco until 1961, when we came back to Washington.
Was that a big change for you?
Well, yes and no. I had family here and I had friends here. My mother and father were living here. My father had been in the Navy. He’d gone to (the Naval Academy in) Annapolis, but had a hearing problem and had to drop out. He went to engineering school, and was called back into the Navy in World War II for his engineering skills. Later we moved to Houston. I graduated from Lamar High School. My father worked on the ports. Then he was transferred to New Orleans, then here in ‘45. They stayed here in Georgetown after he retired. My mother had an antique shop in Georgetown for years on Wisconsin Avenue. Their home was on 31st and P.
So then you had some experience living in Washington as a young person? About how old were you when you came here?
I was 19.
Where did you live when you came here as a married woman?
In ’61 we had a house on Jenifer Street. The kids went to Murch School. We lived there til ‘66 and then we went overseas with the Peace Corps for two and a half years and then we came back and bought this house.
Where overseas were you, and how did you like that experience?
Thailand. Fantastic. Well, it was interesting, especially after having (recently) watched the Vietnam series on PBS. While there was a huge, huge military presence in Thailand at that time — and I knew lots of women whose husbands were serving in Vietnam because they were living in Bangkok — we were not as aware of the Vietnam War as you guys were because we did not see it on television. So watching that series, I was absolutely overcome with what it must have been like to be back here, watching that happen. And I think it was a challenge for the Peace Corps volunteers (her husband, as director of the Thailand Peace Corp program, supervised 450 volunteers) managed because of the huge military presence in the country. It was an interesting time. But Thailand is a beautiful country; it was a fascinating experience.
Have you been back there since?
No. I don’t want to go back. One of my sons has been back a number of times. In fact, he lived in Japan for a long time. It’s changed too much. I’d rather remember as what it was.
And then you moved back here, when? And why did you decide this house, and this neighborhood?
In 1968. My husband left the government service (to help his Peace Corps boss, Charles G. Peters, start a magazine, the Washington Monthly. He served as managing editor). I wanted to live in the city, and I wanted to live on a bus street so I wouldn’t have to drive the children everywhere — and where they could walk to school and to the library, and that was very important.
In the late 1960s was this a neighborhood that was attractive to live in?
Oh yes, very. But my memories go back to the other side of Connecticut Avenue in the early ‘60s and what it was like living in Chevy Chase in the early 1960s.
Tell us about it.
Well, one of the things that fascinates me is that there seemed to be less people but more children, because all the children were out playing. And there were fewer people actually because there were no lines. I mean, you went to the bank and you just went to any clerk that was available. You went to the post office and there were no lines anywhere
Of course, there was no Safeway, there was no community center. The Safeway was a hilly, wooded lot. The windows in all the stores on Connecticut Avenue had displays. There was a cafe in Drug Fare, which was in the middle of the block. The liquor store has always been there. Shupp’s Bakery was big. People’s Drug Store was on the corner. So you had these two (drug) stores right there. And People’s had a counter. And those stores had many teenagers as clerks after school and during the summer. Those were not career jobs at that time. I mean there was always career staff, but there were lots of jobs for teenagers.
There were bikes everywhere. They weren’t locked. Nobody locked their cars. It was very easy parking. No traffic (laughs). There as a library where the community center is now, a beautiful old building
The women were home — a huge difference. There were no landscapers — the teenagers would do all that work. They mowed your grass if you needed it done. They did the raking, they did the snow shoveling – all these jobs for money. Babysitters were 25 cents an hour, and that was a big job for teenager girls.
Everybody dressed up. The kids had school clothes and when they came home they put on their play clothes. Then they went out to play, and then they came home for supper and did their homework and went to bed. You dressed up to go to the doctor’s. You dressed up to go downtown shopping. And you went downtown to shop, although Woodies was in Friendship Heights, and Woodies was very important.
All the windows (in people’s houses) were open all the time. You never locked your windows. You didn’t lock your back door; you locked your front door. And for schools. The elementary school was a very tight ship. There was tracking. There were no librarians. The library was staffed and filled with books by volunteers. There were no lunchrooms.
There were girl aids. If the kids took their lunch, they ate at their desks with a girl aid monitoring them. But almost all the kids came home from lunch. All the children walked to school. I don’t ever remember a parent driving their kids to school — ever. There were boy patrols. Girls were not allowed to be patrols, just boys. And the boys had white sashes. It was a big deal. It was a very responsible job because so many kids were walking.
After school all the kids were out playing. Oh, the other thing — in school there was lots of music and singing. They sang in the classroom as well as in the musical program at Murch. Instruments were given out by the city. And that was one other thing I wanted to mention — the DC Department of Recreation was fantastic. There was a very good cooperative nursery school run by DC that the parents ran at the 42nd Street playground.
And then I wanted to talk to you about the social life. Almost all the mothers volunteered for all those jobs that are now paid jobs everywhere. And the fathers of course volunteered. People did not eat out much. I think the Chevy Chase Lounge was the only bar on Connecticut Avenue, and I’d be hard pressed think of a restaurant. I mean, Hot Shoppes was down Connecticut Avenue. But people entertained at home.
I don’t remember how much food cost, but when you think that we had a family at that time of six people and one salary and a car, and we went out and entertained, food was not expensive.
Then we go to the ‘70s. Drugs and crime. Protests. Demonstrations. Civil rights, Vietnam. The window displays are gone. The bikes are gone — they’re stolen if you leave them. You closed your windows and you locked them. You locked your doors of your car. You locked your back door and your front door. You couldn’t leave anything outside — they even smashed pumpkins at Halloween time.
The Safeway came in. The community center came in. They were very popular, very welcomed, and the new library opened. That was an advantage. Now nobody dressed up anymore. Jeans became ubiquitous. Counts over on Wisconsin Avenue was a gathering place for the teenagers. It was a western store and since jeans became so popular, you really wanted to have Counts jeans, but then you distressed them, you know — you beat them up. Counts was in the next block from where Le Chat Noir is now. And there was a photography store there, too. Cameras were big.
There was just an enormous change in the clothing for kids at school. That was the beginning of using thrift shops for your teenagers. Because they didn’t — they wanted to look — how can I put it? They did not want to look fresh and clean and neat, let’s just put it that way. But the department stores start disappearing, although Woodies — I can’t remember exactly when it left, but before it left it was a department store that offered all kinds of free classes. One of my daughters learned to knit there. They had almost a whole floor devoted to materials and fabrics and knitting supplies, and it was a fantastic resource for this community.
The malls start to appear, so people stopped going downtown to shop. But driving was still fairly easy. Traffic was so mild you could go downtown and pick your husband up at work, which I did a lot — it’s amazing to think that you could go downtown to pick your husband up and come back and it took, what, maybe half an hour, down and back?
Schools. Well the schools had a nervous breakdown, seeking new identities. All kinds of new learning came in. There was a changed environment. Lafayette had what they called open classrooms and carpeted floors. At Deal (Middle School) they did away with bells announcing a change of classes. At Wilson (High School), because they started busing in a different population, the word was, you don’t have to like each other but you have to get along.
The white flight begins, to private schools or to Montgomery County. And there were quite a few people in this neighborhood who paid tuition for their kids to go to high school to BCC (Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School).
Recess was still part of the curriculum. In elementary school there was recess morning and afternoon, and you know, recess is beginning to just disappear from the curriculum. The Lafayette spring fair was an important neighborhood event. It was much more ad hoc than I think it is now. I haven’t been for years but the last time I went it seemed much more manufactured that it was during the ‘70s
And the social life: People still entertained at home. The DC Department of Recreation was fantastic during the ‘70s.They had a young woman named Patty who ran the playground at Lafayette, and if you used an improper word you were sent home, and you stayed home, until you were allowed to go back. And they offered free tennis lessons. They offered fishing; they’d take you to Chesapeake Bay. They had fantastic day camps in Rock Creek Park in the summer.
And there were still teenagers in the ‘70s working after school and in the summer. And doing yard work. And babysitting now was 50 cents an hour. There were lots of marches. That’s interesting to think about because my older kids were moving into high school and college. And hordes of kids would come from colleges and stay in people’s houses in sleeping bags for these marches. This neighborhood was very active politically in civil rights.
Did they come here?
Some did. I didn’t put up that many. Some people had 10 kids, but I had so much (going on) here.
And there were still big families in the big houses. You know, now you have these monstrous houses and you have two people.
Now we get into the ‘80s. Well, the big money starts coming in. In this neighborhood, the women went back to school. I should have mentioned that in the ‘70s, almost everybody was a college graduate already, but they went back for law degrees, they went back for library science degrees, you know, there were physician assistants. So you had those two salaries and it started changing things.
Landscapers came in. Nannies came in. The driving starts to be extremely stressful. Parking becomes very difficult. But the Metro comes in and the Metro’s fantastic, so if you went downtown to the Smithsonian or elsewhere (you could take the Metro).
I have to say, during these three decades the children were what they now call free-range kids. I mean, my children all went down to the Smithsonian by themselves as soon as they were old enough to manage the buses. And they went down on the Metro later. But it was such a different environment. The children were so much more independent. And it was safer. I think probably they were allowed to have so much freedom because it was safer.
Integration begins calming down in the public schools, and the scholastics start setting down too. They do away with the open classrooms and all that stuff. But, the stress of the college applications begins. I don’t mean to say there wasn’t concern about the older children going to college, but it wasn’t until my youngest child — because I had a fifth child in 1963 — that the stress on the younger generation began in the ‘80s and you know now it’s such hysteria. It’s crazy. I mean, none of my children applied to more than three schools at the most, (and) now you have kids applying to 15 or 20 schools, it’s really ridiculous.
Restaurants start to come in and become very popular because women are working. They don’t want to cook, and people start meeting in restaurants instead of meeting at home. That’s a big difference. And the Kennedy Center comes in. The Arena Stage has always been a part of the social scene really, but the Kennedy Center changed everything as far as real entertainment, outside entertainment.
And then I’m leaving the ‘90s and 2000s to you ladies.
So you have five children, and the older ones were born in the ’50s?
Yes, the eldest is 12 years older than the youngest. The first four are two years apart (each).
You mentioned tracking. What does that mean?
Tracking in the school by ability. They were tested and put in classrooms by ability. As you can imagine, that did not go over well in the ‘70s. I’m sure there was informal tracking (in the ‘70s) because when we came back from Thailand and we had kids going into middle school and high school they did have to take placement tests in math and English, I think. And also, I meant to mention, that by the ‘80s, when our youngest child was at Wilson, there was an informal (division among students). High achieving kids really formed their own school-within-a-school, of all colors. And that’s one reason integration started settling down. By that time, it had been a decade in place really. But it was rough at the beginning. And you can understand why. It was a shock to everybody.
You mentioned window displays. Did you mean they didn’t have them anymore because it was too dangerous, that people would knock the windows out? Did that happen?
That’s exactly what I mean.
It sounds like you had one type of experience in Chevy Chase before you left for Thailand, and a different one in the late ‘60s when you returned? Was there a stark difference?
Well, we came back to the Chicago Convention. We didn’t have a place to live — we’d rented a house (on Jenifer Street) before. And we were sitting there watching on the television the Democratic convention in Chicago, and we thought, what has happened in this country? And of course what had happened was the first assassination in ‘63 and then the Robert Kennedy assassination and then Martin Luther King, and the country had changed. So there was a terrific difference between being here in the early ‘60s, and then leaving the country for two and a half years and then coming back … to this terrific disruption in the country.
The ‘70s were really a difficult decade for the United States, I think. And that was reflected in the city’s streets. Look at the riots, look at 14th and U — look what it’s become, and look what it was after the riots. It took 20 years for that neighborhood to come back.
And I wanted to live in the same neighborhood (after leaving Thailand). When we came back there was no question that we would not look for a house in this neighborhood. And the public schools have always been excellent in this neighborhood.
When white flight happened, and your neighbors were sending their kids to Montgomery County schools, why did you decide to stay?
I believe in the public school system and I still do. I do not like the idea of charter schools. I mean, I understand that some people feel they are necessary, but I believe in the public school system and I think it’s part of what American was very good at for centuries.
Do you have an idea of what percentage of people in your neighborhood left DC schools?
No, but it was noticeable. Usually what people did was keep their kids in the elementary schools and when they reached middle school and high school they either went to private school or parochial schools or to Montgomery County. But Chevy Chase DC is big, I mean, you know, in this immediate neighborhood is Blessed Sacrament parish, and a lot of children were already going to Catholic school. But I knew in my own close-knit group of friends I had three friends who moved to Montgomery County because of the schools. And they just felt that their children needed a more stable school environment. It wasn’t that they were against integration, they just felt it was too disruptive until it became settled.
You mentioned people in the ‘60s entertained at home. Did you have dinner parties in your neighborhood? Did you have block parties?
No block parties because of the buses. But dinner parties, oh yes. I mean, babysitters were 25 cents an hour. The thing was, people were not foodies. I mean, the food was excellent, but you didn’t have to have the emphasis that is now put on food. You could have a casserole, a tossed salad, a bottle of red wine, and you know, a simple dessert. It was for conversation, it was not to show off your culinary skills.
Were the kids were part of it?
No, no, my goodness, kids were in bed, are you kidding? When they were young they were in bed by 7:30, and when they got older, of course they greeted your guests and then they went to their rooms. I mean, I don’t know what happens now.
What was a typical party like? Who came?
A broad range of people — people from the neighborhood, friends from all over the city, the Peace Corp friends, friends I reconnected with from GW. There were usually eight people.
If you don’t mind me asking, what did you pay for this house?
I think we paid $36,000. Yes, I know, that’s ridiculous.
What do you know about the history of the house, when it was built?
I think it was built in 1919 (but) I’m not sure. It was probably the first house on the block. I know where this little brick house is was once the garden for this house. There are a lot of houses that look like this in the neighborhood. They evidently took the porch off. It’s possible it’s a Sears house, but I’m not sure of that.
Did you change the structure of this house in any significant way?
No, I added a powder room downstairs a couple of years ago. But no major renovations. That’s another interesting thing that started happening in the ’90s — the tear-downs and the add-ons. That has been a significant change in the neighborhood, I think. As you drive through you can see houses like this have been torn down and great big houses put up. And then the additions, right down our alley, many people have put on additions. And that’s a change. Evolving, I’ll put it that way.
What were the occupations of people who lived in their neighborhood?
Well, there were a lot of newspaper people who used to live in the neighborhood. And newspaper men at that time before Watergate were not stars, they were just working men and women. But mostly everybody worked for some aspect of the government. Almost everybody we knew was connected in some way to the government.
Besides the building changes, what are other ways things have changed in your neighborhood?
There were very few black families in the neighborhood the way there are now. And there were some huge families. I mean, when we first bought this house one of the first things I did was to teach my 5-year-old how to cross the street because there were 15 kids among the two houses that were on the other side of the street. And I thought, I’m not going to be able to keep him from that magnet. So there were very large families. I would say that’s the difference. I don’t think there are such large families now.
What teenagers do now is get internships. But one of the things that was really good for the kids in this neighborhood was being able to work, to have a real job, where they were responsible.
Do you remember some of the jobs your kids had?
Carving meat at the Hot Shoppes. Working at the Hechinger’s when Hechinger’s went in over there (at Tenleytown). Babysitting. Teaching fencing up at the community center. Newspaper delivery. Newspaper routes. And then, all the boys did yard work and shoveling snow, things like that.
Broad Branch Market is a neighborhood institution; did you frequent it?
No, before this Safeway went in we went to the other Safeway off Wisconsin Avenue. Clover Market (on Connecticut Avenue between Nevada and Fessenden streets) is where a lot of teenagers worked; it’s been there a long time. Shupp’s (also on Connecticut Avenue) was a wonderful bakery — delicious food.
I remember the Parthenon. And during the ‘80s there was a Thai restaurant down probably where Comet is now. And the Avelon Theatre — there was a ballet studio that was upstairs.
That’s why we like doing these histories — you learn something different from each person. But you are the most organized person I’ve ever done an oral history with because of (the extensive notes prepared for the interview). You kind of did everything for us.
Well it was fun. I could have gone back through all of my diaries and it would have been much more thorough, but I thought you’d like a general sense of what it was like (to live here in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s) because for those 30 years it grew into a quite different place. But the past 20 years it seems to me have been just a little more of the same. I mean, goodness knows what’s going to happen to us all now with our current (political) regime but so far things have been pretty stable in this neighborhood, I think.
You’re saying the changes aren’t as dramatic as they have been? I think occupations have changed. Most government employees couldn’t afford to live here now.
Yes, you are quite right. I’m a little shocked at the money. I mean sometimes I feel as though it’s a different ethos in the neighborhood from what it once was. And it feels much more like Georgetown once felt. And I’m really not crazy about that change.
I’d rather have it be more down home. But of course it’s very difficult because you can’t move into this neighborhood and get a house for under a million dollars. It means you are not going to get the diversity. I don’t like it that you get priced out of a neighborhood like this. I think it benefits everyone to have diversity.
Before marriage and children, did you have a profession?
I did. I was an advertising copywriter for Magnum’s (store) in San Francisco. And then I went back to work when my youngest son went to Deal. I taught nursery school at Chevy Chase Children’s Center for years. I wanted a job where I was home in the afternoon. I felt that the teenagers needed to come home and I’d be in the kitchen where I could listen to see what’s going on.
Well, bad things were happening. I mean, drugs really hit Wilson hard. I used to have a golden retriever and I’d walk where Fort Reno Park is, and you would see kids over there shooting up heroin. It was very, very upsetting — it was bad times. Things were in such turmoil.
They used to have concerts at Fort Reno. Has anybody told you about that? You’d have to think it through — and I’m not a sociologist — but as the jobs dried up for teenagers they didn’t have that much structure in their lives, and I think that was what lead them to try drugs. Alcohol was not the problem that drugs were. And Fort Reno started having concerts giving teenagers some place to go and some place to be together, because teenagers like to be together and that’s great.
This was in the ‘70s. By the ‘80s things were calming down. I don’t remember Wilson having the same terrible challenges (as it did a decade prior). And Wilson by that time had a very active theater program and my youngest son was very involved in the theater program.
Who put the concerts on at Fort Reno?
I’m trying to remember, but it could have been the DC Department of Recreation. For years it was such a fantastic resource. And the (Chevy Chase) Community Center was also. They had an excellent pre-school and they put out a catalogue of courses. People used to wait for those and line up to get in the classes. It was an excellent resource for the community. They used to have woodworking and they had all kinds of lecture classes in the evening and they had a Scrabble group and a chess group and I think they had knitting and you know all kind of handicrafts. They used to have a theater group. My son was in Tom Sawyer there. That began his theatrical career actually, acting at the community center!
Tell us about the Marion Barry days in DC.
Well, Marion Barry, as you know, really started out as a hero, I mean there is just no question about that. And then I think things went downhill. I think his aim was to elevate a lot of African Americans into the middle class by stuffing the government with workers. And I think that was a noble aim, but not such a great idea because you got incompetent people that bloated the bureaucracy. I did have a great deal of respect for him in early days but I lost respect because of his sexual indiscretions and also his drug use.
But that’s a very complicated situation and it’s also part of the whole public school history in the District of Columbia, where the most attractive professions for black women were teachers. But it created a teacher’s union that became very insular, which was not good for the school system. But on the other hand, you can see why they wanted to protect the careers of even incompetent teachers because that was their entry into the middle class.
What would you say the caliber of the teachers were that you experienced?
In the early years, excellent. Those ladies (career teachers) were something else. They were really something.
What about in junior high and high school?
Well, I would say that both in junior high and high — well, my kids are very smart and they were achievers no matter what. And there were always excellent teachers available. But your concern really should be for the kids who need excellent instruction and I would say that the level of instruction went down. But I don’t know what it is like now.
So do you think your children benefited by the culture diversity they experienced at Wilson?
Some did, some didn’t. Let’s just put it that way. I’ll be frank about it. I think it was much harder on the girls than the boys.
Well, for one thing, both girls were at the very beginning of the integration of the schools and the most shocking thing to them were the fights between the black girls, which were vicious. And that came as a huge shock … and one of my daughters told me she never raised her eyes to confront a girl directly because that was a challenge. Of course they never told me anything (about that) until years later.
What about the boys’ experience?
Well, they did sports. And sports was a matter of ability, and it was different.
Did they have African American friends?
Yes and no. It was only by the time it got down to (the years when her youngest son was in high school) that they were friends. There was a tight group of friends of black and white kids, but they were all college bound and they were either in athletics or they were in theater.
But not so much for the older children?
Well, no. It was not the same. It was just a different time.
Did your kids ever express to you if they were happy to have that experience or if they would have preferred to go to a private school?
I think some of them would have preferred to have had a more stimulating environment. It was not that they felt they didn’t want to be with people of color, that was not it at all. But I think they felt they could have benefitted from a more intellectually demanding environment. There were a few AP classes then, but not many.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, did residents here hire domestic help?
In the ’60s we had cleaning women. Women who came in one day a week, and that was your day out. You know, that was the day you went and did a lot of chores. And how much did we pay them? Well, you can imagine, not much, because if babysitters were 25 cents an hour … but I can’t remember. In this house I had a cleaning woman for a while, and it’s crazy to think about because I had five children; she had four. And of course she cleaned houses. And I do remember asking her what she did with her children and I think her mother took care of her children while she cleaned houses.
These days, the women who clean houses around here are mostly Hispanic it seems.
Oh, she was African American — they were all, in the ’60s and ’70s. Then I didn’t have anybody in the’‘80s. Isn’t that fascinating? See, that’s a change I hadn’t even thought about. When I think back about going to a doctor’s or dentist’s office or anyplace in the ’60s and the ’70s it was all white help, and now it’s all black help. All the cleaning women were black, now they are Hispanic. All the landscapers are Hispanic too. These are things you don’t think about, such a gradual change.
Did anybody have cooks?
I don’t know anybody who did. You know, mothers were home. And then in the ’80s you started meeting people in restaurants, that was when the big change started, everybody went back to work.
How did things change for you in the ’90s?
Well my husband died in ‘’2. Then I did a little bit of traveling. I started doing other things. Stopped volunteering, started just having fun.
Where did you volunteer?
At the Textile Museum for years, and then all during the school years I was always doing something for the parent and teacher organization. Then I had an automobile accident unfortunately two and a half years ago and that’s why I’m on a cane, so I’m not traveling anymore.
What would you say to the next person who might live in this house?
Well, you know, I just hope they enjoy it. It’s a very, very pleasant environment. And the interesting thing to me is you are really not aware of the buses and the traffic. And the garden is quite big. And we used that extensively — that’s something that’s fascinating. When we bought this house in 1968 we started using the garden a lot, and we had dinner, and lunch, and breakfast out there and there were no mosquitos. Now, believe it or not, there were no bugs. And we had dinner parties out there. And now, you can’t use it because of the mosquitoes. I don’t know what the difference is — none of us can quite figure it out
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