Vernon Ricks and his sister, Barbara Ricks Thompson, have been active worshipers at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church on 29th Street since their childhood years in the 1940’s and 50’s. Vernon and Barbara describe how living in Georgetown, attending Mt. Zion church, being educated at Philips, Wormley, and Armstrong schools, and being part of a close, supportive family and community gave them the foundations upon which they each created successful lives.
Vernon was born at home during the war years at 1404 26th Street, attended by Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, dedicated physician to the community in Georgetown. He was in the first class to graduate from Armstrong High School after Brown versus Board of Education. Barbara describes playing house with her friends in Rose Park, where the mud pies and stone biscuits were sampled by Vernon and other, younger siblings. She also recalls difficulties she faced venturing into areas of the greater Washington community as segregation came to an end. In this warm and personal interview with Cathy Farrell and Henry Courtney, both reminisce about Rose Park, riding the bus to the end of the line on Sunday afternoons, their family, schools and community, with joy, gratitude, and a good dose of humor.
Ricks, Vernon Jr., Thompson, Barbara Ricks 6/16/16
Henry: The oral history project of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, is wholeheartedly grateful to Barbara Ricks Thompson, and Vernon H. Ricks Jr., who have graciously agreed to be interviewed today. This interview occurs on Thursday, June 16, 2016 in Northwest DC, at the home of Cathy Farrell. The other interviewer is Henry Courtney.
Cathy: Welcome, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Vernon Ricks Jr.: Thank you.
Barbara: Thank you.
Cathy: Mr. Ricks, on your card, it says that you are Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, and that Church is considered the cradle of black Methodism in the Washington, D. C. area. Would you explain that to us, please?
Vernon: Mt Zion was not always United Methodist. Before 1968, it was Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, there was a group of individuals who decided that they wanted to worship together in a venue that they could have of their own. They were relegated to the balcony of the white Church called Montgomery Street Methodist Church.
It was in the area of 28th Street and Olive Avenue in Georgetown. They were successful in pulling away from the church, and they established a small church at the corner up near the area of 27th and P Street which was then called, I believe, Mill Street and West Street or Bridge Street which is now P Street.
They stayed there for many years, and with a fire and all of that they finally decided that they wanted to build a church. They acquired some land from an individual who lived at 29th and O Street. They bought the land for $2,500. That is where the present church was built. Prior to that, there were no black churches in Washington D.C.
It is also the oldest African American church in the city of Washington D.C. That’s why it’s called the cradle of black Methodism.
Cathy: Was the church entirely of African American…Was your parish…
Vernon: Traditionally, yes.
Cathy: The parishioner and the pastor were African American?
Vernon: We could not have black pastors at that time because back then during slavery times, they did not want blacks to assemble because there were curfews and all of that. They had to have white pastors. Because of that, there were a number of people at Mt. Zion at that time who decided that they wanted to pull away from Mt. Zion.
Somewhere in the 1850’s or so, there was a church that broke away from Mt. Zion. It was called Ebenezer. Ebenezer, they put a church together around on O Street. The building is still there, between 27th and 28th Street on O Street.
Since then they have bloomed into a mega church, and they’re out in Prince George’s County. There were several other churches where people had decided that they wanted to pull away so that they could have their own African American black pastors then. We are the mother church to several other churches as Dumbarton United Methodist now is the mother church to our church.
Barbara: I want to back up for a moment to help us understand why we didn’t have a white pastor in the beginning. Methodism in this country began in the late 1770s. Dumbarton Avenue, now known as Dumbarton United Methodist Church, was one of the places where Francis Asbury, one of the great leaders in Methodism, preached at that site.
Methodism is a connectional church. We are not independent churches so that our church and all Methodist churches are related by structure to one another. We have bishops who make appointments of pastors to churches.
The bishops would not appoint a black pastor. They didn’t have anybody to name to be a pastor from Mt. Zion, nor was there the desire at that time. It’s the connectionalism, the structure of the church that created some of the difficulty for the congregants who wanted to have their own pastor.
Later, the structures relented, and that is when black pastors were appointed to Mt. Zion. It’s that connectional system that also stood in the way of not having black leadership for the congregation.
Cathy: Very interesting. I was not aware of that.
Henry: You’ve described so nicely the spiritual aspects and the doctrine of the Methodist Church. In what ways was Mt. Zion a cultural center? I think that plays were performed there and training for children and community leadership. I’d love to hear a little bit about that.
Barbara: One of the things about the church and the black community is not really unique to the black community. Cultural groups tend to congregate together around a common theology or a common practice, common customs.
That the church was a gathering place for people brought them together, brought the leadership as well as those who would eventually be just followers. It became the place where those teachers and the maids all went to the same congregation.
People with skills would find at the church others who were willing and wanted to be trained, who wanted to learn so that in addition to teaching about the tenets of the religion of our beliefs, they also had the opportunity to be educated in the ABCs and arithmetic and those kind of things.
The church really began to be the gathering place where people shared all their skills, shared any information they had, any resources they had. It was the central point for that to happen, a focal place. That’s still true today, but it was especially important at that time.
Vernon: In the early years, that was the only place that they were allowed as slaves to congregate.
Vernon: They could come to church. There were curfews, and so they were monitored in the time that they had to leave to get back to their owners or what have you. That was a central place for them. It was also a place where they could exchange information about movements of people. We have records at our church that show there are people who were said to have gone away, gone north, or what have you.
They’ve stolen away, and so not only was it a social place for them to gather, but it was also a point of information, and point of ability to learn what their next move might be in their life.
Cathy: Were you a part of the Underground Railroad?
Vernon: We were. In our cemetery, at 27th and Q Street, there was a vault there, that they would store bodies in, during especially the winter months, because of, they couldn’t dig.
Barbara: The ground was frozen.
Vernon: Yeah, and ground was frozen. It’s our understanding, because it was right there near 27th and P Street, where the church was. The original church was called “The Little Ark,” and they could go right up Mill Street, and they could be hidden in the cemetery there.
Barbara: It was right off Rock Creek, also, which was a passageway.
Vernon: Which was a passageway, Rock Creek. Some of the ways that they knew direction to travel… because we know that moss grows on the north side of trees. The rivers flow normally south, and so these clues were ways that they had to make an exit of this area, probably going up to places like Sandy Springs, maybe, because Quakers there, and the Friends organization, would help them as they headed north.
Then, some of the books written talk about the fact that people from this area moved north, and they had moved through our facilities. People wonder, I’ve had people ask me, “Did they hide slaves in our church, where it stands today?” I want to say to them, “Yes,” but we can’t, because the church wasn’t built until 1880.
Vernon: Slavery was over then, but the fact was that people were still indentured and all.
Henry: There were still reasons to want to be sequestered somewhere, and to be kept safe.
Vernon: Right. As a kid, I always thought that they hid them under the altar up there. [laughs] Under the altar up in front of the church, were the choir loft is and all of that. Those are the kinds of unique stories that we always keep in our minds as kids. Our church we bought, that land was purchased from a guy named Alfred Pope.
Alfred Pope, his wife Hannah was enslaved at Tudor Place. He was a business person, and he was chair of the board of trustees at Mount Zion, on the board of trustees. He had an ice field, and coal, and all that, and that was where his business was located, where the church is today.
Cathy: Oh, that was his business location?
Vernon: Yeah, they had ice fields in there, I understand.
Cathy: He owned considerable amount of property in Georgetown.
Vernon: Property, right. He had belonged to, I understand, a Mr. Carter, or an officer in the military, or something. When he passed, he gave him his freedom, but that’s what the story was.
Barbara: That’s one of the points I wanted to make… that not all of the people who started Mount Zion were slaves, that there were free people, also involved in that group that started Mount Zion.
Henry: As I think of people gathering at the church for one reason or another, and I think your insights are so wonderful for readers of the interview. It had to draw the families closer together, in its rituals, and traditions, and the symbols of the church. Tell us a little bit about family life, and I’d love to know about your family.
Vernon: Let me just start that by saying that you’ve probably heard the saying, “Be careful of who you talk about, because they may be in your family,” when you talk about somebody. We’ll start from there.
Cathy: We’ll be careful.
Henry: Barbara, you’re just beaming. I can’t wait to hear about your family.
Barbara: Our family was not an old‑time Georgetown family. Our parents moved to Georgetown in the very early ’30s, after my sister and I were born. My sister was probably about a year old when they moved to Georgetown. My parents lived in Northeast and Northwest Washington, and when they had the family, they had to find space.
They moved to an apartment building on 26th Street, 1404 26th Street, and the building is still there. I understand they’re now expensive condominium apartments, but at the time that they moved to Georgetown, it was across the street from Rose Park Playground.
We were in a one bedroom apartment, one bedroom, a living room, a huge kitchen, and a huge center hallway, and one bath. That’s where the two of us grew up for five or six years, until.
Vernon: The great thing happened.
Cathy: And Vernon appeared.
Barbara: Vernon appeared, midnight or something like that. Until that time, I’m in the apartment with my mother, father, sister, and my mother’s mother, and we lived there together. We grew up in a neighborhood, everybody in the apartment complex was African American.
There was a wonderful place right across the street from the playground, which, for all we knew, was our playground, because we played there, all of our activities were there. On the playground, there was a field house, which had a nursery school in it. My sister and I attended the nursery school before we were eligible to go to kindergarten, at five years old.
The playground offered great opportunities because the parents could put us across there and they could watch out the window or sit on the stoop.
Georgetown was pretty safe as far as we knew. We had a wonderful view overlooking Rock Creek Parkway, what there was of it at that time. It was narrow. On the Fourth of July, we could see the fireworks from the monument. Across the creek we could see Francis Junior High School. Francis Junior High School was the school that our father attended when he was of school age.
It also was the school that all of us attended eventually as we grew to that age. The nursery school was held in the playhouse at the playground. We had all kind of activities there. One of the leaders, I remember, was Ms. Gertrude Butler. Another was Ms. McKinney who was a head of the playground. We did crafts, the children sang and we played at that point.
When I became eligible by five years old to go to kindergarten, I went to Phillips School. Phillips was on N street and 28th street. The odd thing is right behind Phillips was Corcoran School which was a whites’ school. To look at the difference, Corcoran had roses on the fence around the school and some grass in the playground.
Our school didn’t have any flowers and it had cinder surfacing along the playground. That didn’t interfere with us. From my recollection, we had a fabulous time in school. I went to Phillips from kindergarten to the fifth grade, and then I went from the sixth grade to Wormley School. Phillips and Wormley were paired and Wormley was up at 33rd and Prospect Street.
Cathy: You walked to school?
Barbara: We walked, oh yes, we walked to school. Lots of interesting things happened. One of the things that always comes to mind, there were several of us from the lower Georgetown which is where we live near the park who would walk up to Wormley together. We would trudge up O Street from Rose Park. Even in the snow, up the hill we would go.
The buses, it wasn’t really convenient and it would have been expensive for us to take the bus. In the elementary school, most of the time I was at Phillips and then Wormley. Anna Jackson was the president. I’m sorry, was the principal. Ms. Anna Jackson was the principal.
I remember my kindergarten teacher’s name was Ms. Raymond. The first grade was Ms. Hamm. Can’t remember the second grade. Then there was Ms. Cornish. I don’t remember the others.
Cathy: Did the teachers live in the Georgetown community as well or did they come from elsewhere?
Barbara: Some of the teachers lived in Georgetown but some did not. The teachers that I remember, the first in elementary. Sorry, the kindergarten and first grade teachers, Ms. Hamm and Ms. Raymond. One of the things I remember most about them was they took their classes on a train trip to Baltimore so that we would have the experience riding the train.
Before that trip occurred, Ms. Hamm came to our house to look at the clothes that mother was going to put us in to wear, so that she would be sure that we were appropriately attired to take this train trip and to appropriately represent Phillips as we traveled. The teachers would call the parents if there were problems. They disciplined us.
I remember very clearly, I was in probably around the fifth grade when one of the girls, in fact, in the school had misbehaved. I don’t remember what it was she did but something that was so serious that the principal called an assembly. In the assembly, the child’s mother whipped the child in front of us.
Cathy: Oh my gosh.
Henry: Oh my goodness.
Barbara: Today, we look back on that as horrible discipline, but it impressed…
Cathy: Wasn’t so uncommon at that…
Barbara: [laughs] But it impressed us. I think it may have been a lesson to a lot of us. After that, nobody else wanted to be whipped in the public, in the assembly.
Henry: Nobody ever did that awful thing…
Barbara: Apparently not.
Barbara: We never had another one. Never had another one. Parents did that in…
Cathy: It was the school and the parent working together.
Barbara: Yes. The neighborhood worked together because if you did something wrong before you got home, the person who saw you do, the adult who saw you do it, would reprimand you. The message was at your house by the time you got home, and your parents took care of the rest of it.
Vernon: We had no cellphones.
Vernon: No message like that.
Cathy: It just traveled very quickly.
Barbara: It traveled very quickly over the…
Cathy: Oh, it was a very tight supportive community.
Barbara: A very tight community. Very tight. Everybody knew everybody.
Henry: The rearing of the children was very central to village life.
Barbara: Your child was my child.
Vernon: If you think about this being the young son and brother to two older sisters.
Vernon: Barbara had mentioned how dad went to Francis Junior High School. Barbara went to Francis, Anne went to Francis, and then I went to Francis. By the time I got to go into junior high school, it was, “You better do like your sisters or better than your sisters were, because you got to behave, this and that. In the end, you can’t let them be embarrassed by your behavior.“
Cathy: You didn’t have a chance.
Vernon: There was one teacher at Phillips who did live in Georgetown. I remember she was my first or second, maybe my second grade teacher, was Ms. Andrews. Ms. Andrew. Again, Barbara mentioned Ms. Raymond as her kindergarten. She was my kindergarten teacher, too. You had that continuity of people knowing the family, knowing the individuals. They knew how you grew up and all of that.
My sister Anne always teases me because as an older sister and an older sister at Phillips School, she was there before I was because it’s a four‑year difference.
Barbara: In age.
Vernon: In age. She, one time, had the opportunity as an older student to look at the kindergarten class while the teacher had to go to a meeting or off some place. She said that, of course, I got up and showed off as they called it. I’m going to sing this song in the class that I wasn’t supposed to be singing.
She had sent me back to one of those discipline place. They used to call it the cloak room. Coat room, because that’s where you hung the coats and you go back there and that’s where you had to stay until the teacher will let you go. I was in the coat room. The teacher came back and I was found in the coat room and Anne explained it to her. “He didn’t behave when I told him to.”
I ran on home and Anne had told mom. I got the whipping. Back then….
Vernon: …you got a whipping. You could call out help police…
Vernon: …or anything you wanted to. Mama said, “OK, you want the police to come? They will have something to come for.”
Vernon: You had the discipline back then. You had discipline, you had kids respected. You had to respect your mom and dad. No matter who it was that you were around, if whether you were in church, whether you were in Sunday school, you were subject to discipline and it made a better person out of us.
Cathy: And a code of conduct.
Vernon: I don’t feel bad for any of the whippings that I got.
Vernon: Because I knew that I deserve them. Back then I didn’t deserve but of course, but it was a family thing.
Barbara: The other thing about that is, which in your adult life you understand better, our parents often said, “You can cry. This hurts me more than it hurts you to have to do this.”
Cathy: I heard that as well.
Barbara: Yes. You heard that, you didn’t understand it or appreciate it at that time, but now you can understand it as an adult. You understand what it means. Discipline is important. There’s certain rules and regulations you have to obey. The same thing would happen to church. At church, you could be disciplined there and the message would get back home.
The community was so important and knowing each other was so important. Having common bonds and common goals I think made a great deal of difference. Now that is not to say that everybody was perfect and everything was perfect. Humans are not perfect, but it was an environment that provided the opportunity for you to be the best you could be.
Cathy: If you understood the expectation, you could meet it?
Barbara: You could meet it.
Vernon: I begged to differ with my parents on who it hurt the most.
Henry: These experiences are…
Cathy: Maybe they suffered the same fate at the same age.
Henry: These experiences of your childhood and education and your church life are richly detailed and wonderful. As you grew older, what community experiences helped to shape you?
Barbara: I think, for me being at Phillips School and on the playground, I was provided opportunities to develop leadership skills. When I was in elementary school, I was on the student council. One year I was May Queen. I participated in the…this was back during the war, during the Second World War in the ’40s.
You had newspaper drives and you had stamp drives to buy saving stamps. You tried to save enough to buy a jeep, so many stamps. The school would get the credit for buying a jeep, or they would buy a certain piece of equipment.
Those of us students, we tried to get our parents and anybody in the neighborhood possible to participate in these things. Which meant you had to develop the skills to go out and ask for things, to be confident enough to explain what and why, and those kind of things happened.
Then also being a part of the student council, you had an opportunity to meet with other student council people from other schools so you began to know more about the city beyond Georgetown and beyond Phillips.
I think for me, I believe that’s the point at which I began to develop the leadership skills that eventually carried me into doing other kinds of things beyond Georgetown and beyond Mount Zion.
Cathy: Becoming a successful adult.
Barbara: Hopefully a successful adult, yes, but I think those were important opportunities that the church and school…
Cathy: And your school provided those.
Barbara: The church and the school provided, because in church every special occasion the children were expected to have parts to rehearse.
We had to learn the Bible, which meant…not the Bible, but learn scripture, which developed memory skills, which also would teach principles that should last you into adulthood. It would teach you to be more structured and more organized. People picked up various kinds of skills working both in the church and in the community at the school.
Also, most of us had chores at home. The kids in the family decided that my father painted the woodwork white in the house just so we would have a job to do on Saturday of scrubbing the woodwork, because that was the children’s responsibility to keep the woodwork clean.
We grew up knowing that we had chores. On Saturdays we had work to do. We had to fold laundry. We learned how to cook, for example. We learned how to keep house. One of the things we did, as the girls ‑‑ I don’t know what the boys did ‑‑ play for us was playing house.
Out back of the apartment building were coal boxes and the girls in the apartment complex would each have a coal box that represented our household. We had little play dishes. We would use stones as meat and cut weeds to be the greens and something else to be potatoes.
We learned how to prepare meals and serve meals. We had our little china, the toy china dishes that we would serve each other with. We had our dolls we had to dress, we had to keep the diapers clean on, because that was the time when you had the little babies that you put the water in their mouths and…
Cathy: It went right through.
Barbara: It went right through. You had diapers that you had to clean. We learned all of those kinds of things at home right there playing together.
Vernon: Now Barbara says she didn’t know what the boys did. I had to eat rocks and mud cakes.
Cathy: You were the younger brother so “eat that rock.”
Vernon: For me I had to learn some leadership skills from my sisters and the other older kids because their charge was to make sure that us younger kids stayed safe.
One of the great things that I can remember is that on Sundays, back then, people bought passes for the bus. Every week they would buy this pass that would allow them to ride the bus all week. The kids would all get the passes on Sunday. It may be 10 or 15 of us would get together, and we would get on the bus in Georgetown.
Barbara: The people in the community had given us the money to buy the passes.
Vernon: Or they would buy the passes. We would borrow them. We could get on the bus in Georgetown, say, and we could ride all day to the end of the line. Sometimes we would go all the way out to the Aquatic Gardens.
We would ride the Pennsylvania Avenue streetcar that would take us all the way out to Sousa Bridge, or we would ride up to Friendship Heights. You could catch the streetcar and you would go out to Glen Echo area. Couldn’t go to Glen Echo, now. We could not go in Glen Echo.
Cathy: You could not go to Glen Echo.
Barbara: No, it was segregated.
Vernon: It was segregated.
Barbara: They did not allow blacks at Glen Echo.
Vernon: To this day I don’t want to go to Glen Echo because of the segregation. But we could right out to the end of the line and we could come back. They had responsibilities. The older kids had responsibilities to make sure that us younger kids behaved and did…
Cathy: And didn’t get into trouble on the bus.
Vernon: If we had…one of the things that I always remember is that when we would get through with the ride sometimes we would get off at Dupont Circle because there was a High’s ice cream store on P Street. We would walk the rest of the way. You could go in and get an ice cream cone that looked like it must have been 20 inches wide for a nickel.
Cathy: A nickel?
Vernon: You would…
Barbara: It only looked that way.
Vernon: That ice cream cone would last you all the way until you got home. Those were some of the things when you talk about responsibilities, you learn responsibilities in different ways.
Cathy: You were children off with other children on the bus going to the bridge…
Vernon: Other children, yes. No adults.
Henry: By yourselves?
Vernon: By ourselves.
Cathy: To Friendship Heights by yourselves?
Vernon: Heights, by ourselves or way out to the northeast.
Barbara: There was usually someone who was maybe 10 years old, 10 or 12 years old, in that…
Cathy: Who would be in charge, sort of?
Barbara: The older children would be in charge. There’d be several of us that age.
Cathy: In terms of today that’s rather remarkable.
Vernon: Oh, that’s radical. That’s radical.
Henry: Yes, you’re absolutely right.
Vernon: You wouldn’t…parents today would not…in some cases wouldn’t consider that kind of responsibility.
Cathy: I remember just teaching my own children at an early age how to manipulate the Metro when it started. I had a child who went over at Catholic University to be tutored. I’d put him on the Metro here and the tutor would get him off on the other side.
Vernon: You talk about responsibilities.
Cathy: It was the ’80s. [laughs]
Vernon: When you talk about responsibilities, I learned a lot of responsibilities from persons in Mount Zion. Our superintendent of the Sunday school was Miss Garner. There was another lady who was like the dean of kids, Miss Polly Robinson.
Barbara: Miss Polly Robinson.
Vernon: Like Barbara said, you had to learn parts. You had to learn this. Some responsibilities you may have had to count the money in Sunday school. You had to read verses, as she mentioned, and remember them.
Cathy: Did you participate in the choir and the musical events?
Barbara: Yes, we had junior choir.
Vernon: Yes. We had children’s choir and at Christmas, now, at Christmas…
Barbara: We had a bathrobe pageant.
Vernon: We had what they call a bathrobe pageant.
Vernon: That was where you had to…everybody got a rag tied around your head if you were a shepherd.
Cathy: Wings if you were an angel.
Vernon: You’re absolutely right.
Henry: How about the shepherds?
Vernon: Yes, the shepherds got a stick or cane. There were enough canes around for everybody to lend you a cane. You participated.
That was the spirit of the community. Even persons who did not belong necessarily to that church would come to these pageants. If you got a good part in the pageant….
Cathy: Do you still do it?
Vernon: Not like we used to. They maybe…
Cathy: I was going to say I’ll be there at Christmas Eve… [laughs]
Vernon: Now they may have dungarees on.
Cathy: They don’t wear bathrobes anymore.
Vernon: The bathrobes are gone now.
Barbara: Still at church it is important that we do continue having the young people participate in the services so that they develop reading skills, announcement skills, leadership skills, singing skills in the choir, dancing, or the confidence to perform in public. Some of that is still done in the congregation.
Cathy: That’s wonderful.
Vernon: I went on from Mount Zion, and I went into show business. This started in Mount Zion. There was a group of us. We had what they called the Methodist Youth Fellowship. We would all get together on Sunday evenings at the church. It may be kids from all over Washington would come to youth fellowship because it was such a great program and everything.
In order to raise money for that, we would sell coffee and donuts Sunday morning at church. There were a couple of guys there who we would be doing what we shouldn’t have been doing. We would be in the kitchen where the coffee was being made and we would sing. We got to sing together.
We put together back in that time in the ’50s a “doo wop” group. You know how you hear about guys getting together on the corner and sing, and the girls would swoon and everything? It was three of us who were at Mount Zion and then a cousin of mine.
We put together this vocal group, and just for the fun of it we went down to a radio station here in Washington, WOOK, and they allowed us to sing, because we sang a capella. We had a great harmony. They allowed us to sing on the air.
One of the DJs there heard the group and decided that he wanted to record, see if he could be our manager. He did. We went to New York, first time in New York, recorded in the studio, and came back. It was played on the air, and the lights lit up on the phone because people kept calling in for requests, and all the young ladies were screaming and hollering.
Henry: And you’re smiling. [laughs]
Vernon: We even got to sing at the Howard Theater here in Washington and other places.
Cathy: Did you really?
Vernon: Yes. I still have the recording.
Henry: You and your group sang at the … what year would that be, Vernon?
Vernon: That would be back in the ’50s, late ’50s, ’57, ’58.
Barbara: The Bel Airs.
Vernon: The Four Bel Airs.
Henry: The Bel Airs formed at Mount Zion United Methodist Church. Sang at the Howard Theater.
Henry: And the girls swooned.
Vernon: Oh, goodness gracious.
Cathy: Sounds pretty wonderful.
Vernon: That was life. Then I decided that show business was really killing me. My mom and dad were saying, “Hey, you got to do something different with your life.” I had a good background in electronics. I had studied in school.
When we moved out of Georgetown…when my mom and them bought a house…
Cathy: When did you move out of Georgetown?
Vernon: We moved out of Georgetown about ’48…
Barbara: It was about 1948.
Vernon: …’49, somewhere around in there, during gentrification.
Cathy: During the gentrification?
Vernon: They called it gentrification.
Barbara: It was probably closer to ’47 because I went to high school, and I was still in Georgetown when I started but not when I finished high school.
Henry: Your family and many others were displaced in the name of gentrification.
Vernon: I call it deportation.
Cathy: That’s exactly…I remember Professor Jackson called it deportation.
Barbara: The reality also was the family had outgrown the building, and we couldn’t afford anything else in Georgetown because at that time taxes started going up.
Cathy: Was this after Georgetown was declared an historic site? There was that Georgetown…
Barbara: I don’t know the date.
Cathy: Mr. Waters was involved in…
Vernon: Yeah, Neville Waters.
Cathy: Father was involved in…
Vernon: Our pastor then, Rev. James D. Foy, was very concerned because blacks were being pushed out of Georgetown and that was going to cause us to lose our congregation. He was one who protested heavily and even went to testify in front of Congress.
Cathy: Against that designation of an historic district because it would raise property values and change the nature?
Henry: Mount Zion held its importance for your family because you continued to go back there for church…
Henry: …for years and years and years and no doubt saw not only displacement, deportation as you call it, and gentrification, as others called it. No doubt other changes were apparent to you as you experienced Mount Zion after the ’50s, after World War II. Those were tumultuous times.
Barbara: Right. Before you move to that era I just want to mention that Georgetown had what I considered a very vigorous…the African Americans in Georgetown had a vigorous civic association. We had the Rock Creek Civic Association. Mother was secretary. Dr. C. Herbert Marshall was the president of the…
Henry: May I interrupt just for one second?
Henry: We know your dad’s name because you are Vernon, Jr. I would love to know your mother’s name.
Barbara: Eleanor Coburn Ricks.
Cathy: That’s perfect for the interview. Thank you.
Barbara: Thank you. [laughs]
Cathy: We need her name.
Barbara: Yes. Our sister was Anne Coburn Ricks. That’s the five of us.
Cathy: That’s the five of you.
Barbara: Yes. Mother was secretary of the Rock Creek Civic Association. The Civic Association ‑‑ we’re talking about protests and things like that ‑‑ did a lot of things in terms of trying to care for the better experiences of African Americans in Georgetown.
They would testify at the district building on hearings and things like that. They provided an opportunity for the African Americans in Georgetown to have their voice heard.
There were, as I can recall, a few occasions when the Rock Creek Civic Association and the Georgetown Citizen’s Association, I think, worked together on a few things. I don’t know the details of that. I just have some faint recollection of mother talking about those things.
Vernon: My mom was also an air raid warden during the war.
Henry: Oh, she was.
Henry: What did the air raid warden do?
Vernon: As a kid I can just remember she had a helmet that she would put on.
Barbara: She would go out and we would have to pull down the black shade.
Vernon: Pull down the black shade…
Barbara: Blackout shades.
Vernon: …blackout shades, during the war, and we would…
Barbara: When the sirens would go off she had to go out and we had to stay inside.
Vernon: When the sirens would go off she would go out.
Barbara: One of the things I remember at the end ‑‑ I think it was VJ day ‑‑ one of the members of our church, Morgan Brown, who lived two blocks up the street from us, on that day there was a great deal of celebration all around the nation.
Morgan, from someplace, had what was a gas alarm device, and he sat on the hill over the Rock Creek Parkway, and it was something that you cranked. In case of a gas raid, I guess…
Cathy: Mustard gas or something of that nature?
Barbara: You couldn’t use electricity because it would set the gas off. He had this device. I don’t know where he got it from. It was something that he cranked that made a very, very loud noise that was supposed to let people know that there was a gas raid and that you had to take certain kinds of precautions for that. I remember that so vividly with that noise as part of the celebration on VJ day.
Cathy: On VJ day. Isn’t that interesting?
Vernon: I’d like to quickly go back to where some of my leadership skills came out of Mount Zion.
When I finished high school and before I went into the military I had met two Jewish guys who had a TV shop. They took me under their wing because I could not get jobs. They were not allowing blacks in apprenticeship jobs and all that. I learned the radio and TV business.
From there I went into the military and got great training and education in the Air Force. I came out, went to work as one of the first blacks at a major Fortune 500 corporation, Xerox Corporation. Got into management skills, helped to write Xerox’s affirmative action program, went on to be a member of the city council of Takoma Park, Maryland, the first black elected in Montgomery County and from there on.
All of that started at Mount Zion. I can attribute it all back to Georgetown to Mount Zion and to those skills that I learned as a kid they gave us.
Cathy: …in a community that cared for you.
Vernon: Yes, in a community that cared.
Barbara: My experience is similar except that much of my experiences grew through the church. As I mentioned earlier Methodist is connectional. That means your local church is connected to other local churches into a district. Districts are connected into a conference, conferences into a jurisdiction, and jurisdictions into the national church.
Mount Zion provided the opportunity for me to participate in each one of those levels so that I had precious opportunities that grew out of learning to be a person in Mount Zion. I became an executive for the General Commission on Religion and Race, which is a national level agency for the United Methodist Church. I was a part of the Central Committee of the World Council of churches.
Through that I’ve had the opportunity to visit something like 14 or 15 foreign countries. Today that’s not a lot, but at that time, it was. I’ve been to all, except two, of the States, and I’ve done many things. In the Federal Government, I was a part of the staff of the assistant commissioner for administration, as an equal employment opportunity officer. Worked with corporation tax returns.
I have to attribute all of that to my upbringing in Georgetown, and in Mt. Zion, and in the public schools. Whatever they did, it at least enabled me to be able to move forward, and I’ve tried to help other people to do that.
A basic philosophy for me is like a glass of water that’s full of water. If you don’t pour some of that water out, it stays there and gets stale. For me, I always want to try to give out so that I can have space to learn something new. That’s what pushes me to push other people, to try to do the best they can.
I can only attribute that to Georgetown, the experience, the community of the church, and the family. Those were important parts of my background and my upbringing.
Cathy: What a wonderful statement both of you are. You’re a living example of what a community can do for an individual.
Henry: What a powerful thread the church has been through your lives. I think of two phrases that you have used. “Precious opportunities that came to you.” I think of the gift that you have given in this interview. Your warmth, and engaging, and being forthright, I think it is such a splendid gift.
I’d like to use another phrase that you used about the park. “For all we knew, it was ours.” Right this minute, for all I know, your experiences are ours too. I do so thank you for talking with us.
Vernon: Let me just add quickly to that. Washington, DC and Georgetown was a segregated city, but that didn’t seem to really bother us because we had our own theaters. We had our own schools. We could go to the library, I think.
Barbara: Yes, the Georgetown Library was used a lot.
Cathy: It was not segregated, correct?
Vernon: There were other facilities that we had as a segregated society. Well, I was in that first class to graduate from the public schools in Washington, DC after the Brown versus Board of Education.
Henry: May I ask what year that was?
Vernon: I finished high school in ’57. Back then they had the February, they had a half year of classes. I could have come out in ’56, but I stayed until February ’57 because of my birth date.
Cathy: The change in semester was February.
Vernon: Right. The decision was made, came out in ’54. I was in high school at Armstrong, which was the black high school then. I was at Armstrong, one of the black high schools. Barbara went to Armstrong.
Cathy: What high school did you go to?
Barbara: I went to Armstrong, and my father and mother went to Armstrong.
Vernon: Armstrong. These were family traditions to go to these schools, but one of the things that when I graduated from high school being in that first class to integrate the public schools, I saw how segregation and separate, and unequal. Because in our black schools when I got to the white school, the facilities were so much different and better, more equipment and all those kinds of things.
Where it really hit me on segregation was when I was in the military. I went into the Air Force, and I was in Texas. A friend of mine and I were going downtown in this little city in Texas, and we went to the USO which is where soldiers and military people would go in a new town and what have you.
We walked in, and the lady said to us, she said, “Oh, you guys must be new here.” We said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, you guys got off of the bus at the wrong USO.” She said, “You go back out, and the bus will pick you up and carry you to the other USO.”
We got a chance to be inside this first USO, and we saw that they had couches and magazines. They had coffee, they had juices. They had pastries all that laid out for them, beautiful place. When we got on the bus and went to the one that was for us, crossed the railroad tracks, literally. They had one ping pong table, two paddles, one with no handle, and a ping pong ball with no air, and two magazines, one Jet and one Ebony in there. That was it.
Barbara: That was it.
Vernon: Having lived through segregation, integration, served my country, I got to see what separate and unequal was. In my childhood life in Georgetown and everything, I never knew unequal because we just didn’t see it. We had nothing to compare.
Cathy: Because your community was so supportive…
Barbara: The community was supportive infinitely.
Cathy: …and such a wonderful experience.
Vernon: There was nothing to compare it.
Barbara: There were a few white kids in Georgetown that came to the playground and played with us. A couple of them lived in the Carlin Apartments, right at the bridge, P Street Bridge, as you crossed in. There were a few of them who came to play on the playground. Georgetown was sheltered. You really did not have those kinds of experiences.
There were black businesses there. The drugstore, the cleaners…
Cathy: You had black physicians.
Henry: The physicians.
Cathy: Some very fine physicians.
Barbara: Right. Those kinds of things were there. As children, we really didn’t recognize it except, as I mentioned, the school that had the roses around it and we didn’t have flowers or anything at our school. A few of those kinds of incidents, but it was when you went outside of Georgetown that sometimes you would confront it. I went on a date with a guy in the military.
This was during the 50’s when we had heard that the theatres in Washington were open to blacks to attend. The guy and I went on a date and he had on his military uniform, and we went strutting down to the Trans‑Lux Theatre on 14th Street, and they wouldn’t let us in.
Cathy: They would not?
Barbara: There were experiences like that, but generally they were avoided because your parents and the community told you don’t do it, and then you don’t get your feelings hurt or get hurt in the process. You just knew what the structure was, and you tried to live into it. It was during the transition time that you ran into real problems because it was spotty in terms of being open and not open.
Cathy: I imagine that time was very difficult.
Barbara: It was difficult.
Cathy: Because your expectations were changing, but the reality was not necessarily.
Barbara: The reality was not. That is correct.
Henry: Some pain awaited you when you were outside of Georgetown.
Vernon: I guess it wasn’t pain because I had learned. I had been conditioned to accept certain things. I knew in my mind that I was better than those things.
Henry: You both learned Christian charity at Mt. Zion. You really did. You took that into your hearts.
Cathy: Your life has primarily been in the Washington area?
Cathy: Except when you were…
Vernon: In the military.
Cathy: …serving in the military. It’s a comfortable haven.
Barbara: It is, and it’s where everybody is. Unlike many families, our whole family still is in the Washington area. We can get to each other inside of an hour if the traffic permits. We’re all very close, the family. We don’t have anyone who’s moved away. Many families do that. I’m not condemning that, but I’m just saying that we’ve all stayed in this area and found it comfortable.
Vernon: We catch heck if we don’t contact each other if something goes wrong. Barbara…
Cathy: Bells are still ringing?
Vernon: Barbara carries the whip. “I didn’t hear from you on this, that, and the other.” She keeps us in line.
Cathy: The other thing that strikes me is your wonderful recollections and the praise you give to your public school experience.
Cathy: Those must have been remarkable teachers.
Barbara: Yes. I think they made so many of us who we are, all of us who we are.
Barbara: It probably was not easy for them because they worked with what we now know were less sufficient resources that should have or could have been made available.
Cathy: They must have had some sort of training or at least an understanding with one another as to the nature of the environment they were creating for you children that seemed so supportive and wonderful.
Barbara: I think they had hopes and dreams and anticipated that one day, not knowing when that one day was, there would be the opportunities that we needed to be ready to take advantage of.
Cathy: Yeah, they certainly prepared you for them.
Vernon: Some of them grew up in the same kinds of situations.
Cathy: It’s a continuing of the community responsibilities.
Vernon: They were able to bring their life experiences. 99 and 44 100th percent of them were trained in African American colleges, whether it be Howard, Miners Teachers College, other black colleges.
Cathy: Miners Teachers College was in the District. Did that become the…
Vernon: That was the…
Cathy: …University of the District of Columbia?
Barbara: University of D.C.
Vernon: Yes. Eventually it did.
Barbara: It became a part of that.
Vernon: It was Washington Tech.
Cathy: All right. It was called Miners Teachers College?
Barbara: Miners Teachers College.
Vernon: Miners Teachers College.
Henry: Your teachers trained there?
Vernon: A lot of them.
Barbara: Most of them probably did.
Cathy: Or at Howard.
Vernon: At Howard.
Cathy: Or at Howard.
Barbara: MinersTeachers College was located across the street from Howard University.
Cathy: Oh, it was?
Barbara: They were all up right there. For a long time many of us thought it was the same campus until we really understood it was different.
Vernon: Black colleges back then, that’s where there was Tuskegee. There was Fisk, and other universities.
Barbara: Rust College. Morgan State.
Vernon: Rust. Morgan. All of those were the schools that our teachers went to. Not only did they have a cultural training, they also had training of being able to educate…
Henry: Education then had moral overtones too.
Henry: Your community really stressed that sort of thing.
Barbara: That is true because back at that time in this country, it was OK to say the Lord’s Prayer and have devotions at the opening of the school. You said the Lord’s Prayer and you had the flag salute. Those were a part.
Cathy: You did salute the flag?
Vernon: Oh, yes.
Cathy: I did growing up, every morning.
Barbara: Yes. We had the flag salute and the Lord’s Prayer. You developed patriotism not knowing that’s what you were doing, but that was a part of…
Cathy: You shared common values.
Vernon: Common values.
Barbara: Good times.
Cathy: How wonderful.
Cathy: Anything else that you feel you’ve got to include?
Vernon: Just the fact that since growing up in Georgetown here of recent years it’s great that people are beginning to recognize the fact of the importance of Georgetown as it grew from a part of Maryland, because Georgetown was a port city, and it was a part of Montgomery County, Maryland. I have learned here of recent years, I have just been inundated in my mind with history of Georgetown as it started.
Those who came before us, people like Yarrow Mamout, who was here as a business person. Shadrach Nugent who was one of those persons who helped to start Mt. Zion. There are so many other people and so much other history. I’ve learned about the Edmondson’s sisters who were…
Barbara: On the Pearl.
Vernon: Escaped on the Pearl.
Barbara: And the Dodges who went after them.
Vernon: The Dodges who lived in Georgetown and it’s just been… I can’t explain how it has helped me to learn or know where I’ve come from and what I’ve been a part of, my life. In fact I was born in Georgetown. Back then most people were born in a hospital.
Cathy: You were born in…
Vernon: I was born in that apartment at 1404, in apartment 4.
Cathy: …at midnight, right?
Vernon: It was on the 25th of January. The way they tell me, it was a blustery day, cold morning and everything and windy and that my cousins who lived in the apartment next door came over to help birth me. Dr. Marshall, C. Herbert Marshall was the doctor who birthed me. I know where my roots are.
Cathy: You’re proud of those roots.
Vernon: My family’s a third generation Washingtonians. I’m from third generation. Even prior to that on my father’s side we were from Quince Orchard, Maryland.
Cathy: Montgomery County.
Vernon: Montgomery County. Now I live in Montgomery County. Up in the area of Quince Orchard, Maryland, Route 28 and Quince Orchard Road, there is a cemetery and a site up there called Pleasant View, historic site in the old colored school where some of my ancestors went to school. There’s a cemetery where some of our people are buried with the name Ricks on their tombstones up there. I’ve just been…
Cathy: You feel like you’re home.
Vernon: I know. It’s been enlightening to me for all that I’ve learned about myself. It’s given me a sense of pride. I know my direction in life. I’ve had a family life here. So many people don’t have family lives, family around them to support them.
Cathy: That’s true.
Vernon: Even though I’d get a whipping from my sisters ever so often, it’s been great.
Cathy: You’re keeping him in line.
Henry: Yes. Barbara, it’s your turn to finish us up a little bit.
Barbara: I guess what I would like to share is that life is not easy for anyone, but in an environment where people care for you and people love you and people are willing to work with you, almost anything is possible. I think that is the kind of experience that I came out of from Georgetown. That it really felt like a community that cared about who I was.
When we talk about Georgetown, for us, it really was not a huge geographical area because basically for us it was east of Wisconsin Avenue even though we went to school at Wormley, beyond that. It was basically east of Wisconsin Avenue and west of Rock Creek Park way west of P Street Bridge and south of the cemetery and R Street and north of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Basically, that was where you could roam and you could move, and everybody felt safe. We could go to Montrose Park. We could go there at that time. I’m not quite sure why we were not kept out of Montrose Park, but we were able to go there. We went to the library. When we went to M Street, which was the commercial area, you couldn’t sit down and eat, but you could go in the stores up there and buy things.
The 10 Cent Store was where we did all of our Christmas shopping. All the children would go up to McCrory’s Dime Store, and that’s where we did our Christmas Shopping. That was our community where we were able to do things. The stores on P Street, they “ran books”. That is that people who needed food, if they didn’t have the money at that time, they could go up there.
The grocer wrote purchases in a little book, and at the end the month you came and you paid off your bill. Some people did that, and it was helpful for the community. Those are the kinds of experiences that when you look back on them, some of them good, some of them not so good, but they molded us into who we are today.
I think that’s the important thing, the church, the community, the school, and the families, all of that made a difference, the businesses that we had here. Those were the things that made a difference for us, I think.
Cathy: I’m overwhelmed at the joy and…
Henry: I am too. Maybe one last sentence. Barbara Ricks Thompson and Vernon Ricks Jr. are extraordinary people.
Henry: Thank you.
Barbara: Thank you.
Cathy: Thank you.
Barbara: For the opportunity.