Frida Burling

Frida Burling has seen Georgetown transform from a “sleepy old southern town…full of racial prejudice” into a vibrant community with lots of young families. Frida moved to Georgetown in 1945 with her first husband and after a brief stint in Cleveland Park, moved back with her second husband, Eddie Burling, in 1959. She has been a constant figure in the Georgetown community ever since. In her interviews with Annie Lou Berman, Frida describes what it was like to live here during desegregation in the 1960s. She also details the differences in the social scene – people rarely put on their tuxedoes for a weekday dinner party anymore. Through all of the changes in her 50 plus years of living in this community, Frida has maintained her positive attitude for Georgetown and continues to love the neighborhood unconditionally.

Interview Date:
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Annie Lou Bayly Berman

 Frida Burling: Because I remember giving the first party, probably the first integrated party in Georgetown for Senator Black.

Annie Lou Berman: And when was that?

Frida: I can’t tell you the date. We’d have to look at the paper and see when he was elected senator. But, my husband being head of…am I saying his name correctly?

Annie Lou: Senator Brooks. Yes.

Frida: Am I saying the name right?

Annie Lou: I believe so.

Frida: I get the names mixed up.

Annie Lou: So do I.

Frida: The senator from Massachusetts who was the first black senator, but I do forget names now. He came as a Republican senator, and the morning paper pointed out that he did work a little bit for desegregation and various good things. My husband at that point was a leading Republican in the district and had helped bring votes to get him down and had asked me to give a party. So I, although a liberal Democrat, was happy to entertain for the senator because I believed so in eliminating the segregation all around me in Georgetown. Which made me think more of those days. When I grew up, at first in the Washington area, Washington was a sleepy small-town. A small southern town.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: The people I saw were all much older people. Set in their ways, full of the southern prejudice and the blacks were quiet and nice, and people liked them because there was no irritation between the races at that point because as the whites would put it, the blacks “knew their place.” They weren’t “uppity”. It wasn’t until later in the south when blacks were trying to get voting rights in schools integrated and better housing and all those good things that they got what the southern women and men called “uppity”. Here there was none of that.

I was analyzing why, and it occurred to me, we had Tudor Place where the old families lived and up at Dumbarton Oaks were the other places they all lived. They all had big beautiful houses of, which all originally had slaves. And the slaves obviously lived in and around the houses. And they all grew up polite and civil. The whites took for granted the blacks all around them.

It wasn’t until later on when there was an influx of northerners from Boston or Detroit or Chicago or New York, the fancy sections of it, that we’re moving to Washington, and they didn’t like the idea of living next to blacks as we did in Georgetown. They started Wesley Heights and Spring Valley and these communities that had a clause in their selling price that you could not sell to people of a different religion or race.

So Jewish, black, or any colored people were not allowed in Wesley Heights, Spring Valley, West Moreland Hills, the WCNA & Miller Real Estate Development that developed this movement of the people away from Georgetown Northwest where they wouldn’t have blacks around them.

Annie Lou: I had no idea.

Frida: Where they felt safe. It was perhaps the beginning of gated communities. Whereas the Georgetown people they had also been segregated, they accepted blacks as neighbors. The freed slaves that grew up here had their own little businesses, and they had shoeshine parlors and they had laundries and we were used to having these black people do our cleaning or various things. We accepted them as natural neighbors. Whereas these people from out of the area were horrified and couldn’t imagine why people would want to live with blacks around them.

Annie Lou: So this was really the only neighborhood at that time that had that situation?

Frida: Right. The new coming blacks from the South would move into Anacostia or the other sections where there were a lot more blacks. This got a little bit more expensive for them, but the blacks in Georgetown had four churches right around me here.

Annie Lou: And that’s the one across the street?

Frida: Mount Zion is one. There is one on N street. There is one on Dumbarton and 27th. There’s one on 26th street. Four good churches that are still attracting their people. Gradually those people moved to the suburbs where they had more space and plumbing and everything. But, they love their churches and they still come back to their churches and they all have crowds around here on Sunday for this.

Annie Lou: So these churchgoers are the same generations and generations of the same family’s going to these churches?

Frida: Absolutely.

There were segregated schools. There was of course, no voting allowed for blacks until much later. I can’t remember the dates exactly. But, it was what more or less brought Obama in. It was Lyndon Johnson that really got through congress the voting rights laws, which caused him lot of trouble. That’s when there was the Martin Luther King march in ’63 that I was in and there were various things.

I just bought a book yesterday, which I haven’t had time to read yet, which was written by one of the little black girls who was escorted by the Marines and Army… was ordered by Eisenhower to desegregate the Little Rock schools. I will never forget watching this on television where the whites looked with such hatred and hostility as these children were protected by the soldiers. About 12 of them were led into the school and the whites were spitting at them and calling them awful names. The little girls and little boys were dressed in their best clothes and scared, shy, quiet, and well behaved. It was something that I shall never forget.

I’m too old to go shopping any more. I got a friend, yesterday, to buy me the book which I haven’t yet read, but she bought a copy also for herself. On my email this morning, it said I have been up all night reading that book. Thank you for referring me to it. Tears are rolling down my cheeks. I am so grateful to you for having suggested that I get it.

Annie Lou: And what is the title? It’s OK. We can get it at the end.

First I will ask you, in Georgetown did you feel a lot of the businesses were segregated a long time ago.

Frida: Social life was segregated not business life.

Annie Lou: OK, it’s just social life and I guess church, religious life. What was it like here as things began to change?

Frida: It was an easy change because we were used to one another. Our people were more educated than perhaps some in the south, and we weren’t as hostile to the changes here in Georgetown. We all knew each other. But I have mentioned that Rose Park had been the colored playground and Tudor and Volta Place was where the whites had played and then some up in Rock Creek Park.

It was very interesting thinking why it is the sequestered areas were not here. We never felt it. I remember when Dean Acheson lived here, and Felix Frankfurter moved into Dumbarton and they all would all walk downtown and Georgetown took on a whole new life with FDR and the New Deal as I’ve mentioned before.

Tommy Corcoran rented a house up on R Street and he and a lot of the young lawyers were bachelors at that point. They would walk downtown and back. They needed a convenient place…being New Dealers they where liberal and so Georgetown, as I might have said before, has always been a very liberal place and full of Democrats and journalists.

And then others that wanted a little more space, the liberals and Democrats went to Cleveland Park where as the rich Republicans and conservatives moved into Kalorama area and Wesley Heights and Spring Valley and out that way. It was a mixture of both Chevy Chase Republicans and Democrats I think, but a little more of the whites. So it’s a very interesting pattern as you see the whole city. Whereas the poor black people were further over on the east.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Northeast, Southeast, and Anacostia.

Annie Lou: Did a lot of people from the neighborhood go to the Martin Luther King march?

Frida: I don’t know actually. We were a funny mixture. We were a little black and white. I went with my mother, my very white mother, and we sat and we talked to everybody of all colors and we were all friendly. As I think I’ve mentioned, it was just the most loving happy day that I have ever seen more than weddings or baby births or anything with everyone loving each other in harmony and peace. The peace of God that you hope is there was there that day.

Annie Lou: That’s amazing.

Frida: You see the wicked hatred in the faces of some of the Southern people fighting the mixture of all the races at school. But, I don’t think there was any problem here.

Annie Lou: That’s great. How did the desegregation manifest itself in Georgetown? Did Rose Park immediately turn around to all of the parks?

Frida: Not immediately. As the New Deal came in and more of more of these people came and then they stayed, and they got married, and had children and they bought more houses and bigger houses and ever since those days it has been quite a different Georgetown. We have some of the beautiful old houses, but a number of them are totally different inside.

My benefit for the Georgetown Ministry that I love so was in a beautiful old row house at 3255 N, which had been Herman Wouk’s old house, dark and dreary, but a handsome, beautiful old house. Part of Cox Row. After his death it had been bought by Tina Alster and her husband George Frazer.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Not George, Paul Frazer who was a former ambassador from Canada. And they got Hugh Jacobsen, my neighbor who we talked about before, to redecorate it. It is so totally different. It is Hugh Jacobsen’s house now. It’s white and has many open windows, and it’s the indoor/outdoor that we’ve gone to lately. As new people would come to Washington and buy these old houses, they would fix them and have their families grow here.

I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I notice across the street at Mount Zion Church where they have a playgroup. There are maybe six strollers on either side of the front door typical of what is happening in Georgetown because where there were old people before there are young people. Maybe the wives work as well as the husbands. They’re usually pretty successful. They’re having babies, and they come to the churches for their day play centers. It’s just a wonderful contrast from the sleepy old town it used to be to the dynamic place that Georgetown is becoming because of you wonderful young people.

Annie Lou: Right. There are a lot.

Now, if we were to go back to touch a little bit on desegregation and the makeup of the neighborhood. Did the makeup of the neighborhood stay the same for a while? Immediately after desegregation you were saying that people lived here for a while, but then they slowly started moving.

Frida: It seemed more gradual. I lived at first and 32nd St and the top half was white and the lower half was black. We were all very friendly. My boys…there were two colored boys we called them then, who played with the white children on my block all the time. They came to my birthday parties.

Annie Lou: OK.

Frida: They were socially mixed. However, their father may have helped me as a butler at a party or his daughter may have been a babysitter for me. They more or less worked for us, but we were all friendly.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Socially it was only the children that were playing together in those days.

Annie Lou: When did you feel that really did change, that socially there was more integration?

Frida: I guess at the time of Senator Brooks. I can’t remember that date. If you could find that from the morning paper.

Annie Lou: And how have you felt that the…

Frida: I wish I could remember. The famous J. Piermont Morgan’s daughter who married a couple of people. At one point she had the Lincoln house, which is now, is occupied by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. She had part of that, and then she bought another part down there. She was very elegant, and she married Randolph…who was assistant secretary of the treasury. But, she was top social if you go by those things.

I remember she was a prominent Republican and she came to my party and said to me “You have started what is the whole new trend we are going to be mixed parties from now on.” She was a little ahead of her time, she and I. But, it did move more that way, although I admit there’s not as much black and white socializing in Georgetown as I think there are in some other places.

I do know through Covington and Burling where my husband was the son of the founder and worked for many years. We now have Eric Holder as Attorney General and we have many others that do socialize. I had a party where…I wish I could remember…Jesse Jackson came.

Annie Lou: Jesse Jackson?

Frida: Jesse Jackson came. That was unusual it would be a benefit or something. The normal small dinner parties we would have were 10 or 20 people frequently which we don’t have any more. At least I don’t think people do anymore, without a husband I don’t. They were usually just white.

Annie Lou: Have you noticed over the years how the socializing in general has changed? You were saying how people don’t have as many dinner parties. People don’t entertain at home as much. Do you think there is as much socializing within the neighborhood, for example, neighbors socializing with one another and that kind of thing or do you think people are more leaving the neighborhood?

Frida: I don’t think they’re leaving the neighborhood. I think the young people get together. I think they are so much busier that they don’t do the social life that we did. Back when I was married to Eddie for 40 some years, he would be home by 5:30, change, take a shower, and put on nice clothes and we’d go to a dinner party three nights a week, a big fancy one. Certainly, a couple of cocktail parties in addition.

I don’t see it, but I’m not part of that being single and being old, but I don’t think that goes on either from what I have been told by the young people. They’re busy with their children. Their husbands work longer in the office. They don’t get home until sometime six or eight or more. So I think there are fewer parties and certainly much less fancy ones.

Annie Lou: Most of the parties you were going to, they were just social events? Or were they tied to around a charity? It seems like now so much is tied to as a benefit or a charitable endeavor.

Frida: In those days with Eddie they were mostly social. They were mostly ambassadors who are no longer part of Georgetown much I don’t think. We would go to embassy parties, and we had the Supreme Court various people in. You had dignitaries and some senators. You had a very impressive group of people to dinner once a week, dinners for 20 people and had that at home. It was considered much nicer to have it at your own place than to go out to a restaurant. That’s what people did that didn’t have a big enough house or enough servants to serve a party.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: You went to Kenny Graham’s or Polly Wisner’s or Sally Quinn’s or all these other lovely places. Now I think people are busy. A lot of the women both work and have children. The men work harder, particularly now in the slight economic decline, and they work later. And people don’t spend as much money.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Evangeline Bruce, I remember a friend saying she was walking her dog in this beautiful Chanel suit she said it was the only kind of thing that I would only buy for a fancy dinner party but that’s what she lived in. We lived in a richer way of living then.

Annie Lou: Right. I guess most people did dress up a little bit more years ago.

Frida: Yes. But, the exercise of coming into style where you should exercise has us one way more casual and also the economy. Also, there isn’t that Kay Graham social level.

Annie Lou: Where were some of your favorite places to go for dinner? Was there anyone that threw really great dinner parties?

Frida: Well, it was fun at Polly Wisner’s. Kay’s were more big and informal. A lot of the embassies. The Burka Myers in the Peruvian embassy was very social under the Burka Myers. And then, the Chilean embassy was under the…for a while and of course the French and the British were always high status and they gave good parties. Actually, I did a benefit or two at the British Embassy, which was fun. And there were other things.

The French residence is a marvelous place for a party. They had a fairly good number. As a building, the French and British embassies where I think the two most beautiful places to have parties. They do them so beautifully of course. Lots and lots of people, lots and lots of servants at the tables and decorations and they’re so beautifully furnished anyhow. They were high spots.

Annie Lou: Now so many houses like Halcyon House, even Tudor Place, Evermay for a while, would rent out their facilities for people to throw parties. Was that not happening years ago? Or were people doing that kind of thing?

Frida: They didn’t have to. They had it in their own homes. But no, now I guess.

Actually, my great aunt bought Halcyon House at one point. She owned it before it was fixed up and nice the way it is now. She bought it when it was run down and just too big, and she and her daughter lived there for a while. Then I think they sold it to Georgetown who put students in it and made it even worse. Then the new owner fixed it up so beautifully. But I think it’s now for sale.

But there were the Bliss’ up at Evermay…the big one on the Hill.

Annie Lou: Evermay.

Frida: Is that Evermay?

Annie Lou: Yes.

Frida: And Eddie used to play tennis there. And then, the Belin’s had the one along the side that they rent out to.

Annie Lou: Right. Dumbarton House is right up here?

Frida: No, I guess we’re mixing them up. I guess Evermay was the Belin’s wasn’t it? On 28th.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: That’s the Belin’s. That’s where we went to parties. They gave some nice parties and they had a wonderful birthday party. They had a new room they built on where we had a dance. We had dinner in the other room first. They entertained very well, Harry Belin and what her name was. But, now the kids have rented it out, and now the kids have to sell it because the neighbors won’t let them rent it out anymore.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Which is too bad.

Annie Lou: It’s a lovely place.

Frida: I think that’s the transition of Georgetown from the early pre‑civil war era, sleepy Southern town, to an emerging New Deal stimulating town and then to a more progressive town. Then with more and more vital young people coming in and transferring it from socially active to family active with little ones, and social things became less important.

Now that’s where you get into fund raising benefits. Now the way we do the socially swanky parties are for benefits. That’s where Tina Allstar and then the Joe Alsop house around the corner gave a party for the Rose Park benefit. These houses that we had normally gone to for dinner parties we would now use for benefits.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Because they are so beautiful and people are eager to see them. The owners are kind enough to let us use them and they’re proud of enough of how they have fixed them up, they’d like to show them off, and it makes it very nice.

I don’t think I’ve stressed enough I think there is such a warm Georgetown feeling where we do go to each other’s parties whenever we can, each other’s benefits and we help one another and I’ve been up working on the Georgetown House Tour for maybe 20 years because it’s fun and you put these beautiful houses on tour that they can see. Then you raise money through selling tickets to that for the good causes like the Georgetown Ministry for the homeless or the Bright Beginnings for the Babies, so it’s all for a good cause.

The whole community goes along with you on that. You help each other. It’s very friendly. You go out the door to get your paper and there’s a friend walking by, and it’s a small town village neighborhood.

Annie Lou: Right.

Frida: Which is what we love about it.

Annie Lou: And it’s unusual too, to have that here.

Frida: And we really love it.  I can’t think of anything else for you right now.

Annie Lou: Let me pause this now. Thank you so much.

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