Featured Prose | July 08, 2022
“Snow” by Kermit Frazier
If the weather is too warm for you right now, remember that cooler weather will eventually be here. In that spirit, we bring you Kermit Frazier’s “Snow.” The essay was a nonfiction runner-up in TMR’s 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest. It is a moving, behind-the-scenes look at the crumbling walls of segregation, and the evolving urban landscape of Washington DC–delivered through the lens of Frazier’s childhood. The essay first appeared in print in TMR 44:2. You can read our interview with the author here.
Editorial note: A revised version of “Snow” can be found in the second chapter of Frazier’s recently published memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age.
by Kermit Frazier
For all too short a time we were blissfully at one with a white world, one that wasn’t “other” when it fell upon us, for it was, in fact, a world of bright white snow that blanketed our neighborhood just as it did all others. A white world to claim, possess, revel in, yet something elusive still, temporary, melting, like the stuff of dreams. A world awash in contradictions. Cold yet comforting; soft and soothing yet slickly hard-packed over time; pristine and virginal yet driven by weather change toward slush and mush, gutter-clogging and dirty, dark and unworthy. So quick, quick, while there’s time, me and my brother and our friends, shouting down the rolling hill through the trees on wooden Radio Flyer sleds, the snow flying up all around us. Black kids in a white whirl of snow in a black world surrounded by a white one. Magical, exhilarating snow. One of the few white realities we could safely touch, feel, get next to back then.
It was a privileged sled ride because it was a special hill. Cedar Hill. Special and less dangerous for its being both enclosed and more expansive. Unlike the sidewalks of Chicago Street, down which we usually swooped early in the morning, before the neighbors cleared the ice and snow and shooed us away, belly-flopping on our sleds one after another from the corner of Shannon Place all the way down the block and off the sidewalk into the snow-covered dirt and grass at the end of the dead end street, where each of us had to roll off his sled, one after the other, to keep from being cut by the metal runners of the sled swooshing right behind. “Roll off, roll off, roll off,” we’d cry. Hearts pounding and laughing and out of breath yet eagerly pulling our sleds up the middle of the street to head back down, again and again.
No, Chicago Street was by no means Cedar Hill, which was a several block trek away. It was, instead, a street right in the middle of our black community in the Anacostia section of Southeast Washington, DC, across the Anacostia River from DC proper—a section that seemed at times to be an appendage, or even appendix, of the nation’s capital. A street that ran two short blocks from Nichols Avenue down across Shannon Place, which ran several blocks parallel to Nichols Avenue from Howard to Good Hope Roads. A community of row and detached houses for working- and middle-class black people, many of whom owned their own homes, many of which they’d either built themselves or had built, like my paternal grandfather, who’d had two homes built over the years, in fact, both on Shannon Place and a block away from each other, the newer of which he lived in with his wife, the older of which he rented to my parents. A thriving, striving black community in an Anacostia that was still, in the early 1950s, 80 percent white and essentially segregated, as was most of DC.
The white population generally stretched beyond Nichols Avenue up Good Hope Road to Alabama Avenue and up beyond Saint Elizabeths Hospital into Congress Heights, down into Oxon Run and into the Maryland suburbs. We lived closer to the Anacostia River, wedged between the hills to the south and the railroad tracks of the old Alexandria branch of the B & O line, across which lay Bolling Field at the river’s edge to the north. Other tentacles of the black community lay across Howard Road in an area initially called Barry’s Farm and across Nichols Avenue up the hill in an area that at one time was known as Stantontown.
Barry’s Farm was first developed right after the Civil War with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had bought up $25,000 worth of land from the Barry family and sold, rented, or leased it to black folks to raise money for higher education—especially for the newly created Howard University. Black families could purchase one-acre lots and enough lumber to build a house for between $125 and $300 and repay it in installments of $10 per month. Families relocated from run-down alley dwellings in the central city to renovated former military barracks near their new lots, where they could live while they built their homes. In the 1950s, though, the area was known primarily for its rows of flat garden apartments, much smaller than the houses of our community, public housing projects that were called, in a curious shift of the letter s, Barry Farms. An area where, in my view, some of the poorer, tougher black kids in our elementary school lived.
Those kids came up Sumner Road—from Stevens, Eaton, and Wade Roads—past the recreation center that anchored the huge playground that swept down behind it and Birney Elementary School. My brother, sister, and I would come with other kids up Nichols Avenue, across a bridge that passed over Suitland Parkway, which effectively separated Barry Farms from our more middle-class neighborhood, at one time known as Hillsdale. We didn’t talk about our differences much: we were simply Negro kids in an all-Negro school. But those differences were evident at times. For example, although I was friends with kids who lived in Barry Farms, I rarely hung out with them there. And my sister remembers a friend from there coming to visit her and marveling at the fact that she lived in a house surrounded by a yard.
Yet wealth and privilege were relative, for at that time I was jealous of a cousin of ours who went to Birney but rode with his teacher mother and was “rich” enough to be able to buy his lunch from the little store across the street every single day! And of course there were wealthier black parts of DC that we almost never saw—for example, way up in Northwest, on the black Gold Coast, where all the streets seemed to be named after trees. There resided Negroes from prominent families: more doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, old families with Howard University pedigrees, families who sent their kids to Dunbar High School, the academic school for Negroes before integration drained it of its brains and cachet by giving such kids other options, just as it gave Negro kids in Anacostia the right to actually attend Anacostia High School, a mere mile away from Barry Farms and Stantontown.
And curiously, although Stantontown had a different history from Barry Farms, it had a similar economic arc. It developed over several decades in the early to mid-nineteenth century after Tobias Henson, a slave in the area, purchased his freedom, eventually bought twenty-four acres and the freedom of his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren, and gradually added more and more land. By the 1870s, his family was the principal landholder in that community. By the 1950s, however, although Stanton Road still existed, Stantontown was gone, having been condemned a decade earlier by the federal government in order to build the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a housing project designed by black architect Hilyard Robinson, future dean of Howard University’s School of Architecture.
But Fort Stanton still stood—as it does to this day—entrenched on a much higher hill than Cedar Hill. Built during the Civil War to protect the approach to the Washington Arsenal and the Navy Yard, it was one of sixty-eight enclosed forts that—along with ninety-three batteries and three blockhouses linked by more than thirty miles of trenches and roads—made DC the most heavily defended location in the Western Hemisphere by 1864. Of course, by the 1950s there was nothing much to defend against, no more Battles of Bull Run—or Manassas if you were from the South—that threatened the nation’s capital (or at least the capital of the North) with possible invasion by the Confederate Army (curiously the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas/Bull Run). Hence, most of the forts and batteries no longer existed. But there was Fort Stanton in all its dusty glory—a fort that principally belonged to us black kids, kings of the hill, who wove in and out of its crumbling, half-barred tunnels and jumped off a huge earthwork mound behind it that we’d dubbed “Sandman’s Hill,” rolling and daring and testing each other still.
It’s easy to understand why Fort Stanton had been so important to DC’s defense, for from there one can see clear across the Anacostia River into the central city in all its whitewashed splendor: the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the long, flat stretch of mall in between. In fact, as physically separate from downtown as we might have felt from that point on high, it was indeed a true vantage point, from which we could more easily seem to touch the sky on starry nights and view more clearly than from anywhere else in DC the spectacular fireworks show downtown on the Fourth of July. It was then that the rest of DC “deigned” to come to us, the streets around the park invariably invaded by motorized, integrated armies of the night.
But we never felt emotionally separated from that rest of DC because we had relatives who lived “across the river” in their own segregated communities. And the fact of segregation didn’t constantly weigh on our minds, either. For we did have our integrated moments—such as when my brother, sister, and I traveled daily one summer “all the way up” Alabama Avenue in Southeast to attend a music program in an elementary school in then white Fairfax Village, or when my brother and I took tennis lessons in Rock Creek Park, way up in Northwest. Other than those moments when we were young, we simply knew segregation. Knew, for example, that most movie theaters— even a couple we could reasonably walk to—were off limits to us, that although we could go to Carr’s and Sparrow’s Beaches, we couldn’t go to the more picturesque Sandy Point, that we could only dream about what fun it might be to spend the day at the popular Glen Echo amusement park, and that certain department stores downtown wouldn’t let us try on clothes or, if they did, made us use separate dressing rooms. Knowing, however, didn’t always keep us from not knowing. Like the time my family went on what we were sure would be a great new evening outing.
It had been a relatively short drive from our house across into Maryland along a two-lane highway. My dad had turned at the sign, slowed to the appropriate speed down the side road, and parked in a line of cars near the entrance. And there we sat, my father, mother, brother, sister, and I, early and waiting, ready to attend our very first drive-in movie. We had pillows and blankets, snacks and smiles, and the need to have a good time at this relatively new yet already quintessential American form of entertainment. I don’t remember what was playing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. With the big white screen looming ahead, we kids couldn’t wait for any old picture to start.
And when the ticket-taker’s booth came to life and cars began inching forward, our pulses raced even more with anticipation. A drive-in, a drive-in, a drive-in, as we bounced around in the backseat as though we were headed into a wondrous amusement park. Finally at the booth, we watched the young white ticket-taker lean out to greet us with a kind of automatic smile that froze into locked-jaw astonishment when he came face-to-face with my dad, wallet in hand and poised to pay. The white man—boy, really—stared at Dad, then looked away, then looked back again. He hesitated a moment more and then said, in an apologetic whisper, “Sorry, no coloreds.”
Suddenly we kids not only stopped bouncing but hardly breathed. No coloreds? But . . . what did that mean? That is, of course, we were coloreds, Negroes, but . . . huh? For an endless few seconds, Dad didn’t move, and I wondered what he was thinking and what he was going to say or do—eyeing as he was this fresh-faced white boy possessed of the knowledge and authority to bar him from a family activity he was quite willing to pay for. It was the strangest thing—not wanting our money, not wanting us to have a good time, not wanting, well . . . us. And yet it wasn’t him, per se, that white kid, for he did seem more sympathetic than angry. Nonetheless . . . What’s the holdup? What’s going on up there? I could feel white folks wondering in the cars behind us, as the heat in me, in our car, seemed to rise precipitously. Finally my father tucked his wallet back into his pocket and then maneuvered the car away from the window, out of the line, and back down the road.
It was like a retreat, like an utter defeat, and it was one of the most humiliating moments of my life. As we inched along past the growing number of cars, I kept my eyes to myself, not wanting to see how many other kids were bouncing in anticipation, how many white kids, that is, for I couldn’t imagine another Negro family having been as naïve as ours. And even if there was one joyously waiting, I didn’t want to warn them, vindictively wanting them instead to experience firsthand the rejection we’d just been subjected to.
Yet how could we have known? In many respects, desegregation had begun to come to DC toward the end of the 1950s. And a drive-in seemed so logically open yet private—that is, one could be outdoors yet still in one’s car, free from outright contact and “contamination,” together yet separate, an easeful sort of transition, an “all-deliberate-speed” kind of integration. But instead, the only speed we experienced was that of our green, squat-looking ’54 Chevrolet as my dad drove away, clearly angry but holding it in, the way he often did with an emotion he felt deeply.
We didn’t go home, however, for Dad was determined to find a drive-in theater that would admit us. I didn’t understand. Why waste time and suffer more possible humiliation? But he drove and drove, never losing his focus or his way, drove with a confidence that spoke of his experience as a part-time cab driver, drove in nearly complete silence, his desire and determination set, perhaps his sense of being a man and head of the household on some kind of line. And as he did, I began to wonder how long we would wander. All night? All year? For the rest of our lives? Wandering mile after mile all over the periphery of the “capital of democracy,” refugees in our own country, searching for a drive-in that would allow us to drive in, and perhaps recalling, each in our silent way, that until recently we couldn’t even walk into the Anacostia Theater, only a few blocks from our house and on a street called Good Hope Road no less.
But then finally, after nearly an hour, my father did find another drive-in. It was in a part of Maryland that was just outside Northeast DC.
As we spied the images on the huge picture screen and the cars in the nearly filled lot, our hearts raced once again, although more with anxiety now than anticipation. For there was no waiting, no inching up to the booth. Just straight ahead, then stop, then watch as the white female ticket-taker took Dad’s money with ne’er one crack in her proffered smile. And so in we went to enjoy our first drive-in experience, although I think each of us fell asleep from exhaustion at various times during the second feature.
Afterward, my dad drove home triumphantly. But it was a triumph tempered by the realization that metropolitan Washington, DC, like America as a whole, was still far from being integrated, far from being as open as the air to us “coloreds.”
Soon, however, integration was to come to DC with a speed that seemed more lightning than deliberate. For example, two decades later, an aunt and uncle of mine who had at one time lived in the Frederick Douglass Dwellings would buy a house on Brandywine Street in one of those previously all-white communities just above Oxon Run, that street being the same street where one of my best friends, a white boy I went through secondary school with, had lived with his family. When I’d walk home from school with him, walk in the opposite direction from where I lived, my pulse often quickened through some anxiety about moving deeper into a white community, a white world. And when I first drove along Brandywine to visit my aunt and uncle in their new home, I passed by my friend’s old apartment building knowing that not only did his family no longer live there but no white families lived anywhere on that street anywhere for blocks and blocks, palpably sensing how radically Anacostia had changed.
So radically that by the early 1970s, practically all whites were gone from Anacostia—as eventually were my family, many of my relatives, and much of the rest of the black middle class. That place “across the river” had transformed from an area that in the 1920s had the highest percentage of homeownership in the city and apartment structures as only one half of one percent of its total housing to an area that in 1970 saw 75 percent of itself zoned for apartments. That transformation came about for a myriad of reasons. But to my mind two are foremost: urban renewal and integration.
Congress had two increasingly interconnected problems on its hands between 1930 and 1970 with regard to Washington, DC: the need to accommodate families displaced by the demolition of substandard housing, particularly the alley dwellings in the central city, where many blacks had lived since just after the Civil War, and the need to expand facilities for the federal government, whose size began to balloon during and after World War II.
The National Capital Housing Authority, created by Congress originally as the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934, was charged with the task of eradicating alley dwellings and constructing public housing in DC. Around the same time, the federal government decided it wanted to keep its agencies and workers as much as possible near the core of the city rather than push them out to the suburbs, as originally planned. That meant condemning housing and acquiring land by eminent domain, particularly southwest of the Capitol, an area that had once been too marshy and mosquito-ridden to be very desirable, an area where some of Washington’s notorious slave pens and auction sites had been situated before the Civil War, an area that had been allowed to deteriorate into a “slum” by the end of World War II. DC’s population was booming, expanding more than predicted after that war, and there were suddenly more low-income families—primarily blacks—being displaced than there was housing they could afford to rent. In addition, restrictive covenants in the suburbs prevented black families from leaving the city to find housing, even if it was affordable, which it often wasn’t. Meanwhile, height restrictions prevented the government from building true high-rises, either for government offices or for low-income families. Hence, urban renewal. Or “urban removal,” as certain critics cynically say.
Some of my mother’s family were “urbanly removed” from time to time over those years, especially from southwest to southeast of the Capitol. And although many of those old row house dwellings in Southwest were like “see-through” houses to me—that is, the back doors seemed to lie just behind the front doors—they were nonetheless home to family, and displacement is displacement. When my mom was young, shortly after her father died, she and her mother, sister, and two brothers stayed with relatives in that black Southwest. And when they had to move, their search for housing was traumatic for her: she was so afraid that they’d wind up homeless and on the streets. Fortunately, they managed to secure the last, demonstration model, garden apartment in a new public housing project near the Navy Yard in Southeast, projects other friends and relatives had moved to, projects that I considered my second home when we traveled across the Anacostia River, with kids constantly running in and out and family packing Grandma’s four-room, two-story corner place during holiday gatherings, she holding court like the queen of the domain that she was. Still, Mom’s early brush with possible homelessness was one “hit-home” example of the fact that DC proper wasn’t going to have enough public housing for everyone in need.
But across that river from the central city, from the “real” DC, across that river that met the Washington Channel at Fort McNair and converged with the larger Potomac River at Haines Point, across that river sat an area whose original residents were the Nacotchtank Native Americans (also known as the Nacostines); it was an area to which there was only the original little 11th Street Bridge for more than a century, an area that didn’t get a high school until 1935. Across that river lay Anacostia. All of that acreage, rolling and relatively expansive. Anacostia was suddenly the solution.
And so, slowly but surely, as zoning laws changed, public housing projects rose much faster and in greater density in Anacostia than in any other area of the city. And slowly but surely, the social and economic fabric of Anacostia began to change as well.
Such change was also effected—ironically for some, “tragically” for others—by integration. Gradually, from the late 1950s into the 1960s, with rigid segregation crumbling, middle-class black families began to leave Anacostia for better, larger homes in other parts of DC and in the suburbs, especially Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where the restrictive covenants fell more quickly and the housing was more affordable than in other counties surrounding the nation’s capital. Relatives and friends on my father’s side of the family began buying lots and having new homes built in Prince George’s County as early as the mid-50s. And that American-dream drive to move up and out began to break up the old neighborhood and a certain sense of family, almost literally for me, because for quite some time during segregation, at least half a dozen of my relatives lived in homes up and down Shannon Place.
Finally, in 1962, my own family moved as well, from my dad’s parents’ old house to one we bought in Northeast DC, right on the border between the city and Prince George’s County. We were moving to a community whose closest drive-in theater was, unwittingly, the one that had finally welcomed us that night in the 1950s.
Thus was Anacostia “stripped” of much of its black middle-class base just as more and more low-income black families were moving into housing projects there. What quickly followed were overcrowded schools, loss of amenities and services, and an increase in run-down housing stock and other kinds of neglect. And neglect can lead to frustration and despair, which can sometimes pave the way for drugs and crime. At a time when DC residents were finally getting the heretofore unconstitutional right to self-government, Anacostia was morphing into Ward Eight—the economically depressed voting district that the late, embattled yet savvy and tenacious Marion Barry (no kin, I’m quite sure, to the original owners of that vast farmland) consistently championed. Why, even the Metro subway system built in the 1980s threatened to bypass the area, to go straight from the federal city to the Maryland suburbs, until finally, under increased political pressure, “low-priority” stations were opened in Anacostia, one of them on Howard Road at Shannon Place, just two blocks from our old house.
In effect, a part of DC that in the first half of the twentieth century had been benignly neglected, left to its own middle-class, segregated devices, became in the second half of the twentieth century an area to which too much of the wrong kind of attention was paid at first, and then not nearly enough of the right kind.
Hence, in the 1950s, we Negro kids were riding the cusp of an era, blithely unaware of the changes that were in store, our world to a large extent proscribed and circumscribed. And that’s one reason we took our special privileges where we could, namely, up on Cedar Hill. For that house on nine acres of land was none other than the venerable Frederick Douglass Home. And because the caretaker just happened to be a member of our Bethlehem Baptist Church—a church Douglass himself had reportedly once visited in its earliest days—she tended to favor us more than other kids for prime sledding rights on snowy DC days.
In every season, the Douglass home was quite imposing, of course, and it seemed a little strange that to travel up to such a symbol of one of the greatest black abolitionists and champions of freedom and justice for black people, we had to walk from our all-black community into a part of Anacostia that was still basically white. But in retrospect, one might say that we boys were traveling the great Frederick Douglass’s own path, for it was he who in 1877 broke an all-white covenant by buying the house and property from John Van Hook and moving there from the central city.
Two decades earlier, Van Hook, along with his partners in the Union Land Company, had bought up land at the intersection of Nichols Avenue and Good Hope Road and laid out what they called Uniontown. It was to be the first DC “suburb,” a working-class, whites-only settlement (although apparently not for the Irish, who were the “black” white people of nineteenth-century America), and was intended primarily to serve Navy Yard workers with lots purchased for $3 monthly installments. “Negroes, mulattos, pigs, or soap boiling” were forbidden, rules that appealed to those whites fearing the increasing number of free blacks in their neighborhoods in DC proper. But land speculation, financial panic, and a slowdown in production at the Navy Yard—where my dad was working as a machinist nearly a century later—led to hard times for Van Hook and Co. and the sale of his prime, pristine headquarters property to, ironically, one of those hitherto barred “Negroes,” albeit a rather famous one.
Douglass died in 1895, but his second wife, Helen, organized the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which was chartered by Congress in 1900. That association and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs joined forces to open Cedar Hill to the public in 1916. And in 1962, the National Park Service was entrusted with the care of the house. But in the 1950s, we boys felt that the gently rolling hill on which the house stood belonged to us on those snowy winter days just as much as Fort Stanton did year-round. We were black boys dreamily sledding over white snow, pushing through to a time when segregation would give way to integration, and then, little more than a decade later, to one when the population of Anacostia would be just 37 percent white, when the DC school system would be 90 percent black, when Nichols Avenue would become Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and when the Carver Theater—the only one open to us in Anacostia during segregation—would fold and later reinvent itself as the home of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia African American History Museum and then fold again when that museum moved to a new, much larger building up the hill across from Fort Stanton Park.
Anacostia has been mostly black for decades now and thus “naturally” segregated once again, only this time more insidiously so, for such segregation has had a new factor churning within it: social and economic isolation. But much change is in the air—even solidly in the works—as it is everywhere now in DC, it seems. So much so that one current complaint from many black residents is that their “Chocolate City” is melting in the noonday sun of increased gentrification, with white families buying up property black families can no longer afford and “moving back in,” desiring to be closer to the action again, thoughts of where their young children will eventually attend school placed on the back burner or distinctly on the one marked “private.” And what with the Metro so gaily gliding “across the river,” property values steadily rising, and new development lining King Avenue and beyond, Anacostia is clearly increasingly “in their sights.”
Despite all this, however, despite the elaborate plans for all manner of Anacostia riverfront development; despite the creation of a neat though rather circumscribed community of mixed-income townhouses along Alabama Avenue that rests on the site of the demolished Frederick Douglass Dwellings, which had sat on the site of old Stantontown, which was land that had been bought by ex-slave Tobias Henson; despite the grounds of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the old insane asylum, partially making way for the Department of Homeland Security; despite all of that and more—all those so-called manifestations of freedom and progress in this country—I suspect that black boys sledding down a snow encrusted Cedar Hill might well still be black boys reveling in one of the few white realities they feel they can safely touch, embrace, get next to, glimpsed and grasped in the dead of a DC winter. That temperate climate snow—like integration of any kind, it seems—forever illusive, impermanent, the stuff of dreams.
About the Author:
Kermit Frazier’s more than twenty-five plays have been produced at such theaters as the New Federal Theater, Detroit Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Baltimore Center Stage. Some have also been published by Broadway Play Publishing and Dramatic Publishing. In addition, he’s written for several television series, including head writer for the popular children’s mystery series, Ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in: Callaloo, Essence, Black World, Green Mountains Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. His memoir, First Acts: A Black Playwright Comes of Age, was published in May 2022.
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