Friday, November 21, 2008

Obama daughters to attend Sidwell Friends school

The Obamas have chosen the school that their daughters will attend in Washington - Sidwell Friends School. I usually wouldn't pay attention to what school the President's children go to, but this interested me because my mother attended Sidwell Friends high school when she was growing up in Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s.

The school was not integrated until 1956 (the year in which I was born), according to a February 16, 1956 New York Times article, which highlights the fact that the children of Senator James O. Eastland, Democrat of Mississippi, who was virulently opposed to integration of the schools, attended Sidwell Friends. This means that the school my mother went to was all-white. I do recall her saying that the children of foreign dignitaries went there, but it seems unlikely that any of them would have been non-white.

It's pretty remarkable that a school that was part of the white, segregated power elite of Washington will now educate the daughters of the first African-American president. My grandparents were part of that segregated elite - my grandfather, Richard Wilson, was the Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register and Tribune for many years, wrote a column for the Washington Star, was president of the National Press Club in 1940, and was active in the Gridiron Club. The deed to the house they bought in Bethesda, MD in 1948 contained a restricted covenant that forbade them to resell the house to Jews or blacks. (Incidentally, the Supreme Court in 1948 ruled that such restricted covenants were unconstitutional). (At the time the National Press Club was also restricted to white male journalists; in 1955 it was opened to black male journalists, and in 1970 to women).

When I was growing up and we used to visit my grandparents in Washington, I always felt a sense of discomfort walking around D.C. I knew that the city was segregated, that blacks were the majority of the population, but that white people held the power there. It felt like a colonized city (of course, that's not the terminology I thought of at the time). When I've visited more recently I've felt much more comfortable, although of course there are still great disparities of wealth and poverty in the city, often along racial lines. We also used to visit them at the house they owned in the West Virginia mountains (which was called "Ball Alley"), about 75 miles from D.C.

I loved my grandparents and I loved visiting them, especially at Ball Alley - but increasingly through the 1960s and 1970s I heard them making racist remarks about black people. (Although my recollection is that my grandfather was also involved in hiring the first black columnist for the Star - Carl Rowan, who had written for the Minneapolis Tribune, which was part of the same newspaper chain). I remember that they were very frightened by the riots in Washington in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, which probably was a factor in their increasing antipathy to blacks. I recollect my grandmother talking about the riots and telling us how close my grandfather was to the violence.

This is a photograph of nine presidents of the National Press Club, taken in 1971. My grandfather is the second from the right (the tallest man - he was 6' 3").

I wonder what my grandparents would think now if they knew that the children of an African-American president of the United States were going to the school their daughters had gone to in a segregated Washington, D.C.

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