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Authors: Stephen; Birmingham

Certain People

BOOK: Certain People
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Certain People

America's Black Elite

Stephen Birmingham


C. E. L

“You have to live with yourself and so …”


“Oh, they're the upper crust all right. They ought to call themselves the National Association for the Advancement of

—A cabdriver in Atlanta


A book grows from many sources—from people, of course, but in a variety of ways. Some books are painful to research, others pleasant. Some seem almost to research themselves.

When I first mentioned to friends (white) that I (also white) planned to write a book about the black upper crust in the United States, the first reaction of my friends was, inevitably, “But won't you have trouble getting to them? How will you get to know them? How will you get them to talk? After all, you're white. They're black.”

What happened was that they got to know me.

Along the curiously convoluted but powerful grapevine that keeps the black aristocracy of America informed, from city to city, of what is going on, word spread very quickly that I was interested in the lives and histories of these “certain people.” Letters arrived from people who had heard of this project—people offering to help, inviting me to their cities, their homes, and offering to share with me their experiences, feelings, and memories. Other people telephoned. All were enthusiastic. The feeling seemed to be that enough—perhaps too much—had been written about “problem” blacks, and blacks with problems. There was a feeling that ghetto blacks have been overexposed, even glamorized, and that the time had come for blacks of social achievement, education, and economic success—and who, in many cases, belong to families who had been achievers for many generations—to put aside their traditional reticence and step forward, and do a little boasting.

It would be impossible here to list all the people who stepped
forward in this way and volunteered their lives and stories to this book, nor was it possible to use every life and every story that I got to know. But there are a number of people who deserve special thanks. First, I am enormously indebted to Mr. David Grafton of Chicago, who, hearing that I was writing this book, spent an extraordinary amount of time setting up appointments, arranging interviews, seeing to it that I overlooked few of his city's black elite, and pushing the news along the national grapevine. In Chicago, I also owe a large debt to Mr. and Mrs. John H. Johnson, to Mrs. Gertrude Johnson Williams, to Mr. Basil Phillips, and to other editors and officers of the Johnson Publishing Company, who not only supplied me with valuable personal and corporate information but also gave me generous access to the
photo library. Nor should I overlook other Chicago Johnsons—none of whom are related to each other—such as Mr. and Mrs. George Johnson, Mr. Al Johnson, and Mr. Bob Johnson, all of whom deserve words of thanks. Not everyone in Chicago is named Johnson, and I am also grateful to Mrs. Etta Mouton Barnett, Mr. Bill Berry, Mr. Alvin Boutte, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Dr. William C. Clake, Mr. George Coleman, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Dibble III and their children, the late Dr. T. R. M. Howard, Mrs. Jewel Lafontant, Mrs. Barbara Proctor, Mrs. Bettie Pullen-Walker, and Dr. and Mrs. Lowell Zollar.

In Atlanta, my old friend Dr. Charles Turner was especially helpful. In that city, I would also like to thank Mr. Owen Funderburg, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cooke Hamilton, Mrs. Freddye Henderson, Mr. Donald Hollowell, Mrs. Edward Miller, and Dr. and Mrs. Asa G. Yancey. In Memphis, I must thank Mr. Ronald Anderson Walter, who, throughout the two years it took to prepare this book, maintained a lively interest in the project and a lively correspondence with its author. I would also like to thank Mrs. Lois Conyers, Mrs. Dorothy Dobbins, Mr. and Mrs. John W. Fleming, and Mrs. Margaret Hough—all of Cincinnati.

In Washington, D.C., for their help and interest I would like to thank the Hon. Henry E. Catto, Jr., Mrs. Beverly Gasner, Mrs. Mary Gibson Hundley, Mr. Warren Robbins, Mr. and Mrs. John W. Syphax, Mr. William T. Syphax, and Mrs. Anne Teabeau.

In New York City, a number of people were particularly helpful, including Dr. George Cannon, Mr. Christopher Edley, Mrs. Josephine Premice Fales, Mr. Butler Henderson, Miss Gerri Major, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lee Moon, Mr. Guichard Parris, Miss Frances
Sanders-Bisagna, Mr. Bobby Short, Mrs. Jane White Viazzi, and Mr. Carl Younger.

I would also like to acknowledge the pleasure it has been to work editorially with Mr. Ned Bradford of Little, Brown, and to remember the early help and support of another brilliant editor, the late Mr. Harry Sions. As always, I am indebted to my friend and agent, Mrs. Carol Brandt, for her coolheaded guidance of the project from the outset.

While all the above people contributed greatly to the book, I alone must be held responsible for any of its omissions, errors, or shortcomings.




1 Polish


2 “How I Got Over”

3 Apartment Hunting

Johnson vs. Johnson


5 Family Trees

6 Roots

7 Rebel


8 Memberships

9 “Let Us Pray.…”

10 Business Ups and Downs


11 Embattled Washington

12 South of the Sudan

13 Passing

14 The Power of the Press

15 Strivers' Row

16 … And Other Good Addresses

17 Taste

18 “Sweet Auburn Avenue”

19 “King's Wigwam” and Other Unhappy Memories

20 “Interpositionullification”


21 Dollars and Cents

22 Heroes

23 Peeking Ahead

Image Gallery

Name Index

List of Illustrations and Credits

Unless otherwise noted, the photographs in this book are reproduced courtesy of

1. 1833 slave sale poster

2. Charlotte Hawkins Brown

3. John H. Johnson and his mother, Gertrude Williams

4. Mrs. John H. Johnson and Marc Chagall

5. Mrs. Lowell Zollar outside her Chicago home (Courtesy of Mrs. Zollar)

6. Mrs. Lowell Zollar at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton (Courtesy of Mrs. Zollar)

7. Bettie Pullen-Walker at kickoff party for
magazine (Courtesy of Ms. Pullen-Walker)

8. A Links dinner

9. A Links cotillion

10. Barbara Proctor

11. George E. Johnson and Senator Charles Percy

12. Mr. and Mrs. George E. Johnson

Fashion Fair model

14. The audience at
's Fashion Fair

15. Dr. T. R. M. Howard

16. Mary Gibson Hundley (Photograph © 1973 by Fred J. Maroon)

17. Mr. and Mrs. William T. Syphax (Photograph © 1973 by Fred J. Maroon)

18. Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy (Photograph © 1973 by Fred J. Maroon)

19. Dr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill Willoughby (Photograph © 1973 by Fred J. Maroon)

20. Strivers' Row

21. The Beaux Arts Ball Committee (Photograph by Cecil Layne; courtesy of Mrs. Henry Lee Moon)

22. Mollie Moon at the Urban League's Beaux Arts Ball (Photograph by Cecil Layne; courtesy of Mrs. Henry Lee Moon)

23. The John Wesley Dobbs family of Atlanta

24. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cooke Hamilton (Courtesy of Mrs. Hamilton)

25. Jewel Lafontant in her office (Courtesy of Mrs. Lafontant)

26. Jewel Lafontant at home

27. Vaughan family reunion

28. Chicago luncheon for the Coalition for a United Community Action

29. Haley Douglass and Mary Church Terrell

30. Three generations of Atlanta Yanceys (Courtesy of Asa G. Yancey)

31. Mary McLeod Bethune


The Gentry



For nearly fifty years, during the first half of the twentieth century, one of the most dominant, though comparatively little known, forces in Negro life in America (before the term “black” became fashionable) existed in the person of a doughty little dark-skinned woman named Charlotte Hawkins Brown, the founder and headmistress of a school called the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, not far from Greensboro. Mrs. Brown, who—since she had received a number of honorary degrees—preferred to be addressed as “Doctor Brown,” was originally from Boston, and Palmer Memorial Institute was named after her late friend, also a Bostonian, Mrs. Alice Freeman Palmer.

Most Palmer graduates assumed that Alice Freeman Palmer was also black. She was, in fact, white, and was the second president of Wellesley College, from 1881 to 1887. When Alice Freeman Palmer and Charlotte Hawkins Brown met, they became friends, and both shared a concern for the quality of education that was then being offered to young Negroes in the South (Wellesley was one of the earliest women's colleges to admit blacks, and Booker T. Washington's daughter attended Wellesley). And, with Mrs. Palmer's help, Charlotte Hawkins Brown had been able to get financial backing from certain wealthy New Englanders, and was able to open the doors of her school in Sedalia in 1902, the year that Alice Freeman Palmer died.

It had been Alice Freeman Palmer's idea that Palmer Institute should be a school for needy black children in North Carolina. But
Dr. Brown had not exactly followed her late friend's wishes to the letter. The school that she founded was not at all a school for impoverished local Negroes. It was, instead, an exclusive preparatory school for the wealthiest and best-born black children in the United States. There were only a handful of day students from Sedalia and Greensboro. The rest, who were boarders, arrived by Pullman and in chauffeur-driven limousines. “We accept,” Dr. Brown used to say, “only the
crème de la crème
. Anybody who is anybody sends their children to Palmer. They come to us, and we polish off any rough edges.” Palmer Institute was, in other words, the first and only private black coeducational finishing school in America.

It was quite a thing to go to Palmer, and Dr. Brown never let her students forget it. The enrollment was small—between two and three hundred boys and girls. The tuition, though somewhat lower than that of the great New England prep schools, was high enough to make a Palmer education available only to the moneyed. Correct speech, manners, decorum, and deportment were stressed. So were neatness and cleanliness. At Palmer, if you arrived with a “colored accent,” you were expected, by graduation, to have got rid of it, and to have learned to emulate Dr. Brown's own precise New England speech. Dr. Brown had a fetish about posture and another about table manners. There were no slouchers in the classroom or at the dinner table, and girls were taught to sit with their knees together and boys, when they crossed their legs, could do so only at the knee. At Palmer, you were taught never to blow on your soup to cool it, never to spoon it toward you, and never to slurp when swallowing it. Everyone had to study French. Everyone was required to learn piano, plus one other instrument, and there was a piano in every dormitory. Tennis was also emphasized. There were uniforms—three sets for the girls: gingham dresses for spring, navy blue skirts, blouses, and ties for fall and winter, and dress uniforms, which consisted of white, formal-length gowns and white gloves. The boys wore Palmer blazers, and there were formal dinners once a week for which the boys were required to wear tuxedos. There were also regular formal teas, where the boys wore cutaway coats, stiff collars, white shirts, black ties, and black shoes.

BOOK: Certain People
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