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The Club House door swings open to reveal black Washington’s remembered past.
By Ayesha Morris Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
They call it the Club House, this two-story row house on Wiltberger Street NW decorated with a big-screen TV, aging couches, assorted chairs, and walls filled with photographs of strapping young men in athletic uniforms. It’s been decades since the elderly members of the Club House Gang wore those uniforms, playing baseball or football or basketball together at Cardozo, Dunbar, or Armstrong High School, or at the Boys Club or YMCA.
Still, they come here to Shaw each day, to reminisce, to shoot the bull, to watch a game on TV, these African-American lions now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. The Club House is their own private social club, one of a handful of similar meeting places hidden throughout black Washington where men who can still remember the days of forced segregation continue to gather, out of habit and nostalgia. The “COLORED” sign on the wall, once a source of humiliation, now stands as a symbol of defiance to old Jim Crow.
Sixty years ago, Wiltberger Street was a natural magnet for workers, strivers, and wannabe hustlers alike. Segregation made it so that the black people in the neighborhood had to hang around each other, because they had few other places to go. Back then, stars such as Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, and Little Richard played at the Howard Theatre, and the whiskey served in after-hours joints such as Cecilia’s, drew an easy following.
It was a street where a skinny 25-year-old could come to buy some reefer for the first time. With 50 cents jingling in his pocket, he could get an older friend who knew the place well to make the appeal. After enough nagging about “bringing that little schoolboy down here,” his order would finally be processed, and he’d be sent walking down to S Street for the pickup. Even those who felt like misfits kept coming back religiously, lured by admiration for the old art of the hustle and the lessons that could be learned from a quick game of craps.
But that was years ago. Today, many of the Club House’s surrounding buildings, such as the old bakery, have fallen into dereliction, public eyesores visited by graffiti vandals and pigeons flying hesitantly into broken windows. Cars sometimes slow as they make their way through, their drivers stopping to chat with the Club House Gang members under the jaundiced glare of the streetlamps.
The die-hard hustlers are gone. Retired folks with nicknames like Jeep, Spot, Possum, and Lemon Tree now enliven Wiltberger Street in more traditional ways, based on friendships and fond memories and the old networks necessary to ease the sting of discrimination and its offspringpoverty, unemployment, and general hard times.
They call themselves the “hiphop grandpops.”
William “Pint” Barbour on the history of the Club House
That group of guys hanging out in the alley might have stayed there forever, freezing their butts off in the winter, had it not been for the good thinking of soda-store owner Francis “Snookie” Pierce and William “Pint” Barbour. “When we was in the alley, we’d hang out ’til it gets darker and then break up,” says Barbour, 63, who used to be called “Half Pint” when he was younger because of his small size. Now he’s strolling around the corner from the Club House with a little spring in his gait to revisit a specific location nearby, a site he hasn’t visited since he was a young manthe place where the group used to gather.
Back then, some two dozen men from their 20s to their 40s would hang out outside Lake’s Garage to play checkers, cards, and diceand talk until nightfall. Now the area is a fenced-off patch of wild grass, and the little house that used to be across the way is gone, says the former D.C. General Hospital employee. But Barbour remembers it as vividly as yesterday. “If somebody brought a car, we’d wait around for him to fix it [while] standing around or sitting down on milk crates or big rocks,” he recalls. “Weatherwise, when it used to get cold, we used to build fires.”
But the best shelter from winter, they realized, was indoor protection. Barbour says it was his idea to move out of the alley and into Snookie’s four-unit place around the corner at 622 S St. For about 10 years, starting in the ’60s, regular visitors would chip in money for the rent. For the most part, the house was used mainly as a meeting place; nobody lived there unless somebody needed a place to stay for a while until he got back on his feet, Barbour says. “People came there to play cards, drink beer and whiskeyand there was a little gambling,” he explains.
That first move, out of the alley, set the tone for the formalization of the Club House. Later, in conjunction with the 7th & T Sportsman, a group of athletes who met at a storefront around the corner, the men made another move. The Sportsman members were looking for another location after the 1968 riots following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination left most of 7th Street in ruins. The lobbing of a few Molotov cocktails was all it took to shut down many black establishments in the neighborhood, including the Howard Theatre.
In 1974, Bernard Miller decided to rent the place as another meeting spot, where people from both groups could get together. “At the time, it was just a place where people came,” Barbour says. “Maybe in the early ’70s, we started to call it the Club House.”
The men turned the tables on segregation by forming their own members-only policy, tacking up a “COLORED” sign that one member had retrieved from Upper Marlboro, Md., to say so. Admitting new members was the responsibility of a committee of about seven, Barbour recalls. “The No. 1 thing was, we didn’t want anyone who had a bad reputation of selling drugs,” he says.
For reasonable dues, members who shared similar interests could enjoy the laid-back environment. And they weren’t locked into the rigid structure of other organizations that held irritating meetings.
So many people wanted to join that they broke themselves into three clubs: the Esquires, the Club House Gang Ole Timers, and the Club House Gang 10. Now they’re down to one: the Club House Gang. Sometimes they sponsored picnics, cabarets, crab feasts, block parties, and trips out of town. Around Thanksgiving, members would visit churches or the Children’s Hospital to distribute food baskets to needy families. A few women joined in the late ’80s, but after a while, they drifted away, most of them catching religion and preferring the social organizations of their various churches.
“You can relax, come up here and argue your point, and you get a lot of street knowledge from being around here,” says Barbour, “as well as learning a lot about the history of D.C.”
Clarence “Note” Williams and Edward “Cincinnati Red” Larker on job discrimination
With the pride and wonder that a “my daddy” story demands, Clarence “Note” Williams, 71, recounts his surprise at discovering that his father once ran the numbers. That local lottery, determined by a few rolls of dice or a winning racehorse, was the reason the Williams family did not go barefoot. But Williams recalls that just about every other black person living in the Northwest neighborhood known as Swamp Pool, where he grew up, and nearby neighborhoods such as Cow Town, where cows were driven up the road, had to create their own jobs to make a living. “They sold whiskey out of their houses to pay rent and send their children to school,” he says.
“Black women had jobs, and black men didn’t have no jobs. They wanted to, but they came out of the ghetto,” says Williams, who got his nickname for being the nephew of a Catholic-school band director. Some men walked pushcarts selling vegetables, ice, coal, or wood. There were others who papered walls and shoveled coal into basement furnaces, Williams recalls. “It was a way of survival.”
When Williams and his peers were in their 20s, more jobs started opening up for blacks. But the situation was far from perfect. “My grandmother and a white woman had a restaurant together,” he says, “but they didn’t serve black people.” Williams had an aunt who worked at the exclusive Garfinkel’s department store. “She wore a black uniform with an apron,” says Williams, a retired counselor for the Department of Recreation. “She worked in there, but she couldn’t shop in there.”
Others, like Edward “Cincinnati Red” Larker, chose to protest.
“Back then, they wouldn’t give the good jobs to black boys unless we protested,” says Larker, 64, recalling his job of 27 years as a parking attendant at the U.S. House of Representatives. “They had a good-old-boy situation back then.”
Larker recalls when he and the handful of other black people who worked with him approached Adam Clayton Powell, a black congressman from New York, in the ’50s to organize a meeting with the speaker of the House to ask for better hiring practices. Whenever a good job opened up, Larker says, black people were not informed and positions were quickly filled by whites who had connections. After the meeting, Larker remembers, a halfhearted attempt was made to advertise some jobs on a bulletin board. But it didn’t make much difference, because “they had the job already filled….[Later,] we got the Black Caucus, so we had a little more say. But since we were from Washington, we didn’t have no one to go to. They called us ‘the instigators.’”
After the 11th grade at Armstrong High School, Larker worked as a dishwasher at a Hot Shoppes restaurant, then as a parking attendant for a company before getting the job at the House. Despite the chronic inequity, he considered himself lucky for having landed a government job and eventually even become a personal driver for Jesse Jackson.
His wife, meanwhile, also managed to get a government job, at the post office. But she was required to take a periodic skills test to keep it. Every year, Larker recalls, he and his wife would set up a mock sorting system at home so she could practice for the test.
George Washington on sports
One of the Club House members has brought up fishing again.
“Spot can be any size,” says James “Junebug” Howard, describing a type of fish, in a conversation he carries on for the most part by himself.
“You can’t catch but two rocks a day,” Howard continues.
“I think it’s a ban on trout, too,” he adds. “Trout is 10. Croaker is 25,” he concludes.
“What about salmon?” asks Randolph “Lemon Tree” Williams.
“I don’t know about salmon, but you can catch flounder,” Howard replies.
“Cut that fish talk,” interrupts George Washington. “We’re looking at baseball.”
Washington, better known as “the Little General,” speaks with the same authority it once took him to coach the Club House Gang into finally playing a decent game of softball. He has his folding chair placed outside in the street but in a direct line of sight to the game on TV. He’s grumbling plenty over the ridiculous moves the figures on the screen are making.
Washington played fast-pitch softball from 1964 until 1990, with clubs like the Capital Athletic Club, with childhood friends (and fellow Club House Gang members) Rip Scott and Clarence Williams.
“[The Capital Area Athletic League was] the first major fast-pitch team to go away and win major tournaments,” says Washington, 63. It played for 16 weeks in the summer, 13 of them on the road. When he wasn’t out of town, he’d visit the Club House on weekends. Eventually, Washington was voted into the Fast Pitch Hall of Fame.
So when the Club House Gang went searching for a coach to turn its slow-pitch softball team around after it had been playing for a few years, in the mid-’80s, Washington was the obvious candidate.
“Out of the clear one day, they asked how would I like to help them with the softball team,” Washington recalls. “I said I would help, but I said I play to win and I coach to win.
“They looked at it as a bunch of old guys that grew up who were supposed to be about fun.”
If the group members didn’t fully realize what they were getting in Coach Washington, they found out soon enough. “They started calling me ‘the Little General,’” Washington says. “I cut a lot of people off the team, and some got bad feelings and couldn’t understand. People’s feelings got hurt.
“I took them to the side and explained why,” he says. “As it came along and we began to win, they began to understand.”
They even started drawing a following to their practices. Other teams would come by to size them up. They joined the Bundy League, later called the Northwest Coalition League, then the Green and Vines League. During the four years that Washington coached the Club House team, from 1986 to 1990, they were runners-up, then took first place two years in a row, and then were runners-up again.
“Some of them had never won a championship in anything,” Washington says. “[Winning] gave them the opportunity to walk with their chest out a little bit. This really got them going.”
Roland “Bruiser” Swingon on young people today
“Nutboxes who won’t even buy a bar of soap to take a shower.” That’s the state of today’s youth, if you ask Roland “Bruiser” Swingon.
After climbing out of bed to watch The Price Is Right, Swingon, 66, often perches himself on the edge of the couch in his home at 1803 Wiltberger St. at a right angle, head slightly turned toward the open door, so he can keep one eye looking at a western on his large-screen TV and the other looking down the street, like a security guard on watch. Having had a hand in purchasing the Club House, two doors down, he knows most of the people around, including the young guys who drop by daily, whom he swears he just can’t understand. Had they been born just a couple of decades earlier, Swingon is sure, making loud scenes on the bus and generally showing a lack of respect would’ve earned these youngsters a whupping from some neighbor, not to mention a confirmation round of biblical proportions once their parents found out.
“In them days, you could just bump into a person on the street, say, ‘Excuse me,’ go into the dance, and that was that,” Swingon says. “Today, you might get your head blown off.
“People could move freely, didn’t have to worry about cars being stolen, carjackings,” he adds. “Now people are scared to death to go anywhere.”
Sitting in a folding chair on a sunny Sunday afternoon, near the grill used for the weekly Club House cookouts, Swingon is in a philosophical mood. “Young guys will waste all that money on drugs and will not buy a sandwich when they hungry,” he says. “Sometimes it makes me mad, because they put their values in all the wrong places.
“Drugs have really ruined the way people hang out,” he continues. “Police and law enforcement think that every black man sells drugs, [when] we’re perfectly harmless, doing nothing. Everyone does not sell or use drugs. The drug market wasn’t as open [when I was a young man] as it is today .”
Back then, Swingon remembers, “I had all my teeth, I could see, and I could walk.” All the right qualities, he says, for chasing the ladies.
“I always liked the ladiesblack, green, blue, banana, and rouge,” he says. “But I always had respect. They’re hardheaded and temperamental sometimes, but they always come right back.”
It didn’t hurt that his jazz collection was a people magnet. He would open up his door to let people come by for extended listeningas long as they knew when to shut up and appreciate the music.
Those were the days when Sunday used to be a night on the town to look forward to, instead of a low-key cookout, a time when you could go out and “you didn’t have to wear a black tie or white tie or pay $100 to get in or wear a $100 outfit” and “you could eat crabs in your soup…for $10 and fall out,” he says.
“It was important to try and stay in style,” says Swingon. Sometimes, he recalls, people would save up for two or three weeks to buy a pair of nice shoes or a shirt. Often, they would shop downtown at Woodie’s or Sidney West and put clothes on layaway. “We were layaway kings,” he says, but “we had the best that money could buy. Today, the average kid does not have a suit, shoes, and a tie to wear to a church service, wedding, or funeral.
“The younger guys gonna have to replace us,” Swingon muses, “but what’s gonna happen to them if they keep on destroying themselves now?”
Reggie Miller on dying
Four down, three across. Like a man trying to work a crossword puzzle, Reggie Miller hovers above the green couch and leans into a picture of a group of brawny guys posing in football uniforms, tracing it with his finger. “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead,” Miller says matter-of-factly. The last one in the row, he says, will be next.
“You see the pattern. Now, I hope it don’t come over here,” he adds, pointing to himself in the back row. “We tell vicious jokes about death,” he says, recalling how he harangued one club member by telling him that the angels had told Miller that his friend was next in line to die. “Not me,” pipes up another man, who recently had a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed.
“We’re just a basic group of fellas who’ve been together for years,” says Miller, 62. “We try to help each other and other people as well. We listen to each other’s problems [and] just be around, let go, and reminisce or curse about what we did yesteryear.”
“We started young, but now we’re old, and wise…” Miller wrote in a sobering note that’s posted on a Club House wall. “We watch games, eat, argue, and meet, but do we care about each other[?] I hope we do, because time is short[. W]e have seen many of our close friends die or become lame, but we still do not take life serious[. W]e need a wake up call to show that we understand our purpose…. [P]eople come from all over the city to be [a part] of what we take for granted[. L]et’s look at ourselves and determine if we can do more.”
Several Club House Gang members have passed away over the yearsthree just this year aloneand others have failing health. As they get up in age, they often find themselves talking about the logistics of their deceased friends getting measured for a casket with the same tone they used to reserve for talk of fishing.
As for who will carry on the Club House traditions after them, some hope their sons will follow in their footsteps. But they aren’t sure.
Still, though, there’s time to enjoy the golden years, to hold on to memories of youth by exaggerating their early exploits and to savor the simple pleasures of old friendships. Some Club House Gang members even come dressed in baseball caps and shorts, ready for the next game.
“I didn’t play nothing, but I loved all the sports,” Miller says. “The biggest sport is arguing about who did what. We can get an argument going on anything, and most of them fill right in with it.”
Leonard Dixon on jazz
The mere mention of “Thelonious Monk” sets Leonard Dixon off. Dixon, 74, can tell a non-jazz-listener just by the clumsy grouping-together of both first and last names. “‘Thelonious?’” he says, screwing up his face. “It’s ‘Monk.’”
The boyhood-pal familiarity comes from chatting with all of them just up the street at the old Howard Theatre. “‘Hey, baby, how you doin’? I ain’t seen you in a while,’” Dixon remembers addressing Tina Turner.
People waiting to see the jam sessions at the Howard would get into a line that wrapped around the block an hour before showtime. “[The crowd] was so thick you can still almost see the shoulder marks” on the wall patrons pressed against as the line inched along, according to Dixon. But the wait was worth it. It was an opportunity to do the jitterbug and the two-step, maybe drink a little bad liquor. Plus, the theater’s location next to the bakery had its advantages.
“You could always smell the yeast of the baking bread,” Dixon recalls. “You take the inside out and stick the butter in it.” It’s the same bread story Reggie Miller told hours earlier, with the same mouth-watering freshness. Club House Gang members tell a lot of the same stories.
Across the street, voices flare up and then settle. Taking a moment to look around, Dixon explains, “We’re not hands-on.” Although arguments swell up at the Club House, things never come to blows like in other cities, he says. “Now, in St. Louis, they’re hands-on.”
But Dixon, like a walking jazz encyclopedia, is eager to return to listing the jazz greats he thinks are important to know. Musicians like Paul Gonsalves, who held a note for four-and-a-half minutes in a tune called “Flying Home,” and Lionel Hampton, who knew just how to “come down with a solo.”
Outside, a car blasting some hiphop drives past. “It hurts my ear,” Dixon says. “I wouldn’t buy a truckload of it.
“Different strokes for different folks, but I like jazz,” he adds.
Edward “Cincinnati Red” Larker
On a Saturday night in May, in Glenarden Town Hall, members of the Club House Gang are working it up, as best they can, on the dance floor. Tables for the cabaret, organized by a club called Social 25, are reserved by name, and the policy is to bring your own liquor and food; the fare that people have brought includes Popeye’s chicken, macaroni and cheese, and deviled eggs. “Mr. Music,” a man dressed in red and plaid, is at his DJ station onstage, alternately turning out jams for the older folks and their younger family members. It’s as if he’s doing an experiment to determine whether Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” is really that different from “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.”
Although a few of the older folks are jamming to hiphop, mostly they get up for the tunes from the ’50s.
Events such as this are the main reason Edward “Cincinnati Red” Larker frequents the Club House. That, and because the social life at his nursing home is shot to hell, he says. He spends as much time away from the place as possible. Bingo-filled nights are not his idea of fun. The conversation is not up to his standards. And most of the people in there have nothing in common with him. But here, Larker says, he can enjoy some semblance of the old funky-chicken days.
Larker says that, of course, he used to be able to do the James Brown, the twist, the funky chicken, and the skate. “They had some good dances then. If a new record came out, they would dance to the music,” he says. Larker points to fellow club member Reggie Miller and says, “We used to call him ‘the Rub,’” referring to Miller’s trademark slow-grind action on the dance floor.
Today, the Club House Gang doesn’t hold its own dances anymore, but it still patronizes those held by other clubs.
“They had a lot of clubs, like the Girls Club and Boys Club, who would have dances. We’d take our tickets we had printed up and gave all the clubs 25 tickets,” Larker says. And, because they would patronize other clubs’ events, they would draw a large following to Club House events as well, often holding “house dances in people’s basement.”
He remembers the Club House’s first dance, in the late ’60s at the Presidential Arms banquet hall downtown. Usually when the members went out, they decided on an item of clothing to distinguish themselves, which could range from flared pants to cowboy hats to sports coats. But because Club House members wanted the Presidential Arms event to be special, “we got measured up for our tuxedos,” Larker recalls.
They spread the word of the dance, with a little community assistance. “All the old hustlers who ran the numbers, the street lotto, would try and sell tickets,” Larker says.
They hired Chuck Brown, who today is the king of go-go but back then was just starting out as a local DJ. “We had heard Chuck Brown singing the latest records, secular music, and slow-dance songs before he got big,” Larker says.
The hall, which had a capacity of 900, was filled to almost double that number, Larker recalls. It didn’t hurt that the Club House Gang was well-liked and popular. “They knew we had good parties,” Larker says.
Brown, he says, offered to play for them anytime, in exchange for putting him on the map. “He got a lot of jobs [from our party] because everybody wanted him,” Larker says.
Larker, who had a stroke two years ago, is still as feisty as ever, suggesting that he’s too sexy for the dances sponsored by his senior citizens’ home. “I don’t go to none of that stuff. They can’t dance like I can,” he says.
“When you get old, don’t sit in no rocking chair. Just keep moving, ’cause you’ll get rusty if you don’t.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.