My father drove me. He drove me in our green, squat-looking 1954 Chevrolet, a rounded bug of a Bel Air before that model sprouted wings as though it were meant to fly. He could drive me because he was working the four to twelve shift at the Navy Yard so that he could get me and my brother and sister breakfast and off to school, since my mother was a full-time student and busy with her own crucial work. He was a quiet, conscientious, steadfast father who was perhaps the least formally educated among his brother, sister, and cousins, having dropped out of Howard University after a year and a half, joined the Navy, and then become a machinist, working for the federal government his whole life. Yet in many ways he was perhaps one of the brightest, the most practical and spiritual, and in some ways the clearest thinker. He drove me because he also drove a taxicab part-time and knew the streets of DC like the back of his hand. Drove me down Shannon Place from our house to Talbert Street, then up Nichols Avenue past his old elementary school and our Baptist church, over the bridge past my old elementary school, up, up the hill past the hospital into a white neighborhood that had a movie theater we couldn't go to until recently. Drove me along Alabama Avenue for a couple of blocks and then down Wheeler Road into Oxon Run and right on Mississippi Avenue to my new school.
My mother drove me. She had such drive within her. She drove me on her way to DC Teachers College, where she'd just entered her third year, having started college full-time when I was ten. She was bright and ambitious and determined to get her degree, to be a professional, to move up from secretary turned housewife, mother, and keeper of others' children to elementary school teacher, like many of the women of the family she'd married into and unlike virtually any of the women of her own. She drove me in the car she used regularly, since my father owned a black and white '51 Chevy taxicab that he used to get to work. She drove me up what was to become Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue thirteen years later, past the decades-old Birney Elementary School, past the Bethlehem Baptist Church, across the Suitland Parkway that had years earlier split the black Barry Farms community in two, past the six-year-old Birney Elementary School, up, up the hill past the red-brick walls of Saint Elizabeth's Hospital, into Congress Heights and past the movie theater of the same name, then down Fourth Street toward Simon Elementary School, where she was to later student teach, and finally left on Mississippi Avenue to Hart Junior High School.
My teachers and my principal drove me. Pushed, praised, and pampered me. Put up with my stoicism and modesty in the face of my intelligence. Passed me on with mixed [End Page 392] feelings from one grade and classroom to the next. I was their black wunderkind, their star pupil at Birney Elementary. A school named after James Gillespie Birney, former Kentucky slave owner turned moderate abolitionist, who didn't share William Lloyd Garrison's opposition to political action, who professed loyalty to the Constitution rather than to possible dissolution of these United States, who ran for president in 1840 and 1844 from the Liberty Party, a party he helped to found, one whose six electoral votes in New York in 1844 gave that state to Polk instead of Clay and cost Clay the Presidency. A school built for black children in 1889 that was rebuilt in 1901 and was still a school for black children when its third incarnation opened in 1952. A school that helped to anchor our community in Anacostia just as the Negro churches, businesses, social centers, and lone movie theater, the George Washington Carver, did. A school with its own orchestra, choral group, and award-winning magazine called Birney Life. A school that assiduously paved the way for its...