Random Acts of Kindness: Ghosts of Christmas past
The American Dream used to be that if you worked hard and saved, you could buy a house in the same neighborhood you grew up in. It’s what gave ethnic enclaves their flavor, many of which are missing from city to city today. The names of areas like “Greek” or “China” town remain, but almost none of the said people remain.
Americans had the benefit of family and friends living close by. It’s been the human staple that created a sense of a village even as the population of this country shifted from rural to urban. This was especially true for African Americans as they looked to northern cities for opportunities and relief from the stranglehold of Jim Crow.
Those opportunities sprung from the need to manufacture materials required to fight both world wars. Factories worked around the clock to fulfill the needs of not only American fighting forces but also of its many allies, creating millions of jobs that no one born after 1960 can even imagine.
Together, these circumstances set in motion the oddest of family holiday traditions.
My mother’s mother, Lucille Allen Cooper, was born in the now trending Deanwood/Fairmont Heights section of D.C. in 1912 and so was my mother in 1928. Grandma used to tell me about how public transportation stopped at the river’s edge that now borders RFK’s parking lots. In her day it was the city dump. Grandma’s face would light up when she would speak of the old D.C. with the tradition of “house parties” and “beer gardens” where she first met her beloved husband and my grandfather, Frank Cooper. He was visiting D.C. for the summer from Florence, South Carolina. Visiting extended family is how most African Americans spent their vacations because of segregation and restrictions on accommodations. Most traveled by car to see long-lost family members spread out across the country. The movie “The Green Book” details some of this dark part of our history.
I can still remember my first trip to South Carolina to see my granddad’s relatives. As a little boy there, I first came face-to-face with bigotry and racism when I tried on something in a five and dime store and was told I’d have to buy it (implying the item was tarnished having been touched by the likes of me). My relatives there all lived down dirt roads in lines of shotgun shacks across from white split rail fences with a big white house sitting on a rise in the distance.
They were all sharecroppers — a form of neo-slavery few still living have seen with their own eyes. Every morning at the crack of dawn a huge flatbed truck would rumble up the road and stop along the way as my family members jumped in the back to pick cotton for the day. Everybody but small kids were loaded up and whisked away till sundown. Hence the term “worked from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.” The number of hours worked depended on the sunlight.
This is the backdrop that drove my relatives and millions of African Americans to move “Up North” which laid the groundwork for holidays to essentially be mini family reunions.
A few years after my mother was born my grandparents moved to the only house in which I’ve known them to live. For more than 60 years my family lived in that house and it was the center of my life. It’s hard to imagine in these times, but my aunt recently told me the rent was $18.50 a month. ($18.50 in 1946 is worth approximately $158 in 2018). My grandfather, two of my uncles and even my brother years later found work at the then D.C. General Hospital — less than a 15-minute walk away.
My dad’s family, the Williams, moved in next door from the foothills of Virginia and the Selmons’ family was already on the other side of my mother’s mother’s house. Yes, you heard it right: my mother married the guy next door. And to make this story even crazier my mom’s brother married the girl next door on the other side, a Selmons. So holidays were a large gathering of three extended families with 40 or more people going from house to house. And with marriages and kids, the gatherings got larger. It was unbelievable compared to today when so many have to drive, ride or fly to get home for the holidays. We just had to walk up the street!
As the years passed my mom’s brother with his wife and five kids moved two streets down. And When I was about 8, we moved to the end of the same block. There’s more: My dad’s sister moved up the street from us with her husband and four kids. Her daughter later moved across the street from us with her kids. And my dad’s other sister moved less than 10 blocks away with her son who was around my age.
There’s still more! Later my father’s mother’s brother moved on the same block with us with my other two cousins. Still, later, my father’s sister’s son moved next door to us. You get the picture? We’re talking about more than 50 people related to each other within 10 city blocks: my grandparents on both sides, their siblings, and their offspring. I knew and saw all of my many cousins and even knew how I was related to them.
It made for the loudest, joyful, most exciting and fun-filled holidays you could dream of; that’s virtually impossible today. We’d have to eat in shifts with the elders at their places of honor at the main tables with young adults and kids farmed out to card tables set up around rooms of each of the houses. We kids ran back and forth searching for our favorites dishes cooked by whoever. You could literally take your plate door-to-door, and we did.
All these years I had assumed the three sets of grandparents owned their homes. But one day we found out they didn’t. They all had been renting from the same landlord from as early as pre-1936. Their long-time landlord, who used to come collect the rent personally, had a relationship with these renters over the many years until he passed away.
While I was away working in radio in the ‘70s, the Selmons moved and things started to change somewhat, but our festive arrangement still went on in a slightly smaller form until in 1978 or ‘79, when the new owners who inherited the six connected properties decided they would sell them all.
After more than 40 years in that house where she raised her kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, my mother’s mother was given just a short time to move. Now it looked like my Thanksgivings and Christmases would never again be the way I knew them. My grandfather Frank had passed while I was in Dayton, Ohio, and we were all older. Some cousins had families of their own and desire to start their own celebrations. We still came together for the holidays but in smaller numbers as time went by. My mom’s siblings even tried to convince her to scale things back or give up hosting and all the work involved, but you know grandmas.
This is when the Ghosts of Christmas Past set the most wonderful of Christmas stories in motion. First my late oldest brother jumped in to get grandma some legal help to attempt to delay the sale while giving her time to investigate the long shot of buying her own home at such an advanced age. Nothing materialized because nobody wanted to finance an almost 80-year old lady who had never worked a day in her life.
I don’t think anybody took her willingness to buy seriously — not even some of her relatives. But the Ghosts of Christmas Past were already at work. Almost out of nowhere, in rode a pro-bono lawyer who wanted to help, along with some law students. The lawyer was no joke and the owners agreed to sell. But they were betting she couldn’t solve the issue of the money. And odds were they were right.
Then those Ghosts of Christmas Past moved the hearts and minds of some D.C. government officials who had heard about her plight right up to and including “Our” Mayor for Life, Marion S Barry. (To people who are not “from” D.C., this is why he is loved far beyond your understanding.) The city gave her a grant for the down payment and then financed the loan for her to buy back her home and our holiday venue. Try that today.
[Read more: Thanks to the kindness of his aunt, Wendell was able to recover a scanned copy of the 1979 Washington post article following his grandmother’s fight]
We continued to gather for many more years after that but eventually, her health declined and she indeed started to spend more of her holidays at the tables of her children and their families as we wrestled over whose house she would visit each year. At 68, I still see those smiling faces and hear the sounds of those holidays and see us gathered on that block in Northeast Washington running from house to house.
Thanks to those many Random Acts Of Kindness in 1997 my grandmother got her wish and passed away in her own home, in the same bed her Frank passed in.
Sadly, her house was sold in 2014. Over the years, whenever I have returned to my neighborhood and driven through at Christmastime, missing are the sounds of laughter and joy from kids out on the sidewalks or in the alleys playing with the gifts that they just received. It feels like the neighborhood is deserted and devoid of that warm fuzzy feeling where everybody knows everybody and everybody’s kids play with everybody else’s.
Because of gentrification, the whole feeling of a neighborhood community has evaporated, and what we have today are tiny little fortresses with people hunkered down behind their bars and alarm systems — with them and their kids missing what it feels like to be a part of a true community. It’s like my neighborhood was hit with a neutron bomb which eliminates people but leaves the houses intact.
One of the things the gentrification crowd likes is buying our history.
I still drive by to look and sometimes late at night I even get out and sit on my grandmother’s porch like we did as happy children. The people living there embrace the history of this home and have told us to come by whenever we want. I asked them if I could come in and look once, hoping to reconnect to past times. But the house has been gutted and remodeled — it doesn’t give me the same warm feelings. The outside still looks the same except for the color. But I never want to peek inside again.
Many of us are gone and didn’t know the Ghosts of Christmas Past gave my grandma almost two extra decades of holidays with her family in that house. Like me, she was born in December. Anyone want to guess which day? Christmas Eve, of course!