Bernice Hemby, 72, of DC’s Petworth neighborhood attended the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. As the nation’s first African-American president is about to be sworn in, Hemby talks about that August day in 1963 and about four decades of change in the city.
I rode over to the Capitol, from Adrian Street in Southeast where I lived, with my brother. He’d come down with a group from New Jersey. There was busload after busload.
We arrived before it was even light out but still had to park far away. We expected problems that day; at least I did. I’d read about all the violence and deaths of Freedom Riders and activists in the South. And yet it was so quiet. It was almost eerie. As we marched, you could hear people’s footsteps. I didn’t see any of the counterdemonstrators. The only problem I saw was people fainting because it was so hot.
When Dr. King spoke, the crowd was nearly silent. Only every once in a while would someone shout out. There were a lot of tears, though. I heard every word of the speech. I had a very good spot, close to the podium. I don’t think we really knew what a historical moment it was going to be.
I lost my job at the Peoples-drugstore lunch counter because I went. My boss had made an announcement: Anyone who took the day off would be fired. He was from the deep South, and he didn’t like what was happening in the country. I was a single mother of three small children, but I felt it was important to go. So I took the day. Only three of us did. When we returned to work, we were fired.
Believe it or not, I felt the effects of racism more in Washington than I ever did growing up in rural North Carolina. We were farmers but not sharecroppers. My father owned his land. All our neighbors were white. We played together as children. We couldn’t go to school with them, but otherwise we had good relations.
I’ll never forget my prom night. There was a dance, and we’d each had a drink or two. I wore a long white evening dress, off the shoulder, with little roses that stood out on the material. I thought I was sharp—sharp enough to go someplace I had no business going. A group of us went to a whites-only establishment. But do you know? They let us in. Nobody said a word.
In Washington, where I moved in 1958, I felt that we were allowed to think we had rights when in fact we didn’t. We had no relationships with whites except as employees. In department stores, black women couldn’t try on clothes. We could buy something and take it out, but not try it on. My friends and I would go to Garfinckels, which I couldn’t afford anyway, just to see if they’d let us. They never did. The salesladies were nice about it. It wasn’t hostile.
When I moved to DC, it was mostly black. The only whites living here were elderly. Gradually that changed. I’ve got five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In some ways, I think it’s harder for youth today. Back then, there just wasn’t the crime we have now. When I lived in Northeast in the ’60s, I’d get my kids settled in bed and then walk my laundry down to the H Street Laundromat. Sometimes I was the only one on the streets. I didn’t think anything of it.
I never thought I’d see a black person become president. Originally, I was a Hillary supporter. I didn’t know much about Barack, but I’d followed Hillary’s career even when she was first lady. She seemed like a strong woman. And women get things done. But then Hillary became negative in her campaigning. I didn’t like that.
I’ll be watching the inauguration from home. I don’t do crowds that well anymore. But I have relatives coming in from all over. Again, busloads. I’d like to say I wish my parents were alive to see this, but they were happy with their lives. The only person I do wish could be here is Martin Luther King. I keep thinking back to the speech he gave in Memphis, right before he was killed. He said, “I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, we will get to the Promised Land.”
It was like he knew he was going to die but that we would keep fighting for justice and for change. Maybe this is what he was talking about. When I think that a black man is getting ready to lead this country, I can hardly believe it. This would have meant so much to him.This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.