Washington, D.C. in the mid-1950s was a city in turmoil and mayhem. D.C., as everyone called it, was not unlike the rest of the country. Discrimination would outlive another war. Public facilities, transportation, restaurants and the like were still segregated in the summer of 1945, but in 1953, a law was passed to outlaw discrimination in public restaurants and a year later, in 1954, the national case, Brown vs. the Board of Education, won desegregation of public schools. These were gains, but much more needed to be done.
That was the climate of change that Diana Mae Johnson stepped into when she set foot in D.C. for the first time in January 1955. It was a cold and overcast day that afternoon, as she pulled her coat tightly around her. Winter snow storms were such a rarity in her native Texas, but she couldn’t help feeling excited at the prospect of her children seeing snowflakes fall from the sky for the first time.
Diana could feel the curious stares from the other passengers on the bus. It was same everywhere she went. With so many other more important things to look at from the photos she had seen of D.C., it was a beautiful and exciting city, she was hoping things would be different there.
With light brown skin, above-average height, long dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and a nice figure, Diana was a beautiful woman and smart too, but she was not conceited. She had married her high school sweetheart three years after graduation, had a son a year later, but now she was two months pregnant with her second child.
The problem was she didn’t want to be married anymore. She was so unhappy and she knew Ben, now three years old, was too young to realize what was happening to their family, but it was only a matter of time before he would pick up on his parent’s misery, and dreaded that day.
Andrew Johnson, her husband of nearly four years, had come home from the Korean War a changed man, but he was no longer anyone she recognized or wanted to be around. What had the doctor called it? ‘Shell-shock’ was a mental disorder that a lot of young veterans had returned home to struggle with, but the government did not seem to be able to help Andrew.
The drinking and the abuse had started about six months ago, and after months of tolerating Andrew’s abuse and his drinking, Diana refused to allow herself to become one of those women. She had her children to protect, so she packed what little she had and left her husband and her home behind.
Diana refused to have her young son influenced by a man who no longer believed in himself or their marriage. She had given her husband more chances that she could count, but how many chances do you give a person before you just can’t do it anymore? She wasn’t sure, but she knew deep inside she couldn’t live like that anymore. There must be something better for herself, her son and her unborn child and she intended to find it.
So, there she was sitting on a bus traveling to Washington, D.C. to a new life and an uncertain future. She had no job prospects, no money, and only enough to travel with her son clear across half the country. As she glanced at sleeping little boy, he snuggled against his Mother’s side as if he could sense her unease. She smiled and stroked his cheek and pulled his blanket tighter around him, and wondered how this was going to affect him. Ben was the image of his father, a beautiful little boy and so well-mannered most of the time.
Glancing out the window and pulling Ben close to her side, her eyes drifted shut and then the memories returned of the last time she saw her husband.
It was after midnight and Ben was down for the night. She didn’t want to close her eyes but it was unavoidable. Moments after her eyes closed, Andrew slowly opened the door which meant he didn’t want to wake her for fear she would smell the liquor on his breath or sense his drunkenness which could lead to a scene.
Diana closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Andrew undressed carefully, but he was making far too much noise so Diana sat up and watched him for a minute. “I’m awake, Andrew.” She said. “You can stop tiptoeing around.”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“I lost my job today,” he confessed head down ashamed.
Diana should have been surprised but it wasn’t the first time. “And how are we supposed to live?”
“I’ll find something, don’t worry.”
Diana was fed up with this. It was his second job in as many months. She got out of bed, slipped on her robe then decided to tell him about the baby. “Andrew, I’m going to have another baby.”
Shocked, Andrew didn’t’ know what to say. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Andrew, Ben and I can’t live like this anymore. The drinking is getting worse and I’m afraid of you Andrew.“ She paused to gather her composure. “You hit me, and I never thought you would do that to me, to us. I called my Mother and she will take us in until you get your life back on track.”
“What did you say?” He slurred his words, but his mind cleared for just a moment. “You can’t leave me, you can’t.”
“I’m leaving in the morning and don’t try and stop me.” He walked toward her, lost his balance and tripped over the bed. He was so drunk that he didn’t even know what he was doing. He begged her over and over not to leave him, that things would change, but Diana wasn’t listening. She was packing. The truth finally sunk into his fogged brain. Andrew had lost his family then he burst into tears.
Diana was done. It was time to move on.
Back to the present, Diana sighed heavily and glanced out the window but saw nothing familiar. Washington was a great city, the capital of the United States, and she was a small town girl from Huntsville, Texas. Her Mother told her that there were plenty of jobs there, and she could stay with her until she got back on the feet, but the closer she came to Washington, the more scared she became.
What did the big city have in store for me and my children?
Evelyn Bennett, Diana’s mother, was no different than most mothers, always wanting to see her children happy. But it was the way she went about it that rubbed Diana the wrong way sometimes. Usually, she was sweet, affectionate, a good nature, and always ready to listen. Evelyn had survived being a World War II widow raised three children, Bernice, the oldest, Diana, and Albert, the youngest, who was married and living in California. Diana had not seen her Mother since she had moved to Washington and remarried.
After gathering her bags, Diana waited for her Mother to pick them up from the station. Leaving the station, she waited by the curb. She looked up then and saw her and step-father drive up and waved them down.
“Mama, Mama!” Diana yelled happy to see her. She took Ben by the hand and went to greet them. Even though they were undoubtedly different, Diana loved her Mother dearly.
“Diana!” Evelyn yelled in return. She enfolded her middle child in her arms and held her tight. “You’re here safe and sound. I’m so glad.” She pulled away after a moment. “I’m sure it was a long trip and you must be exhausted, honey.”
“I am, Mama.” Diana leaned down to her son. “Ben, this is your Grandma Evelyn. Say hello, baby.”
“Oh, Diana, he’s even more beautiful than the pictures you sent me.” Evelyn picked up her grandson. “Hi, Ben, I’m your Grandma.”
Ben stared at his grandmother. “Grandma,” Ben said and touched her cheek.
“Yes, honey, I’m your Grandma,” Evelyn said, close to tears. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“John, come on over and meet my daughter, Diana and her son, Ben.”
Diana held out her hand in greeting. “It’s nice to finally meet you, John.”
“It’s nice to meet you too, Diana and welcome to Washington.”
“Thanks, John.” Diana looked around at all the sights and sounds of the city. “Everything looks so big and close together here.”
“You’ll get used to it soon enough. We wanted to show you around the neighborhood to familiarize you with the local shops as well as places that we are allowed to go. It’s pretty important.”
“Of course; I understand and thanks, John. I’ll look forward to it.”
“Alright, then, let’s head on home. John, could you get their bags, please?” Evelyn asked her husband.
“Sure, honey,” John replied happy to help.
They traveled for about twenty minutes taking in a few familiar sites. Diana and Ben could not help but be in awe of what they could see. They traveled for a bit and took in a few statues and monuments, as well as streetcars, buses and so many cars. This will take a lot to get used to, Diana thought. The station was located downtown and Evelyn and John’s home wasn’t far away.
They pulled up to the house on Fourth Avenue for the first time, and Diana was impressed. It was a three-story row house, red brick on a lovely tree-lined street. She also noticed that directly across the street was an impressive stone building.
“What’s that building, Mama?” Diana asked curiously.
“That’s a government courthouse, honey. As I said before, the center of government is here in D.C., and there are plenty of jobs with your typing skills.”
She frowned not interesting in that at all. “Mama, I like typing and all, but that’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
“Well, you don’t have to decide now. Come on inside and I’ll show you to your apartment. It’s downstairs and it has a private entrance.”
As they stepped inside, Ben pulled on his Mother’s skirt. “Mama, is this our new home?”
“Yes, Ben, we’ll be living here with your Grandma Evelyn and Grandpa John for a little while. Everything will be fine, sweetie.” Holding her son by the hand, she stepped into their new home and into an uncertain future.
Evelyn took them on a quick tour. The house was narrow, but the rooms were good size. It contained three bedrooms, full bathrooms on each floor, one bedroom on the main floor, along with a kitchen and dining area, and in the basement, was another bedroom and a kitchenette. Diana and her son would occupy the basement apartment. It was cozy, clean and the furniture appeared in good condition as well. It would definitely be sufficient for their use. The private entrance pleased Diana greatly.
After checking out her new living space, Diana was happy for a place to stay, and thanked her Mother so very grateful. “Thank you, Mama. Ben and I will be very comfortable here. I actually appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”
“Aw, honey, there’s no need to thank me. I wanted to help you in any way I can. Let’s go upstairs and talk for a while. John can look after Ben for a few minutes.”
“Be a good boy for Grandpa John, Ben,” Diana told her son.
They left them alone to get better acquainted while they went upstairs to talk. “Honey, let’s go to the kitchen for a few minutes,” Evelyn said. She watched her daughter as she made them some tea.
Diana sighed to herself. She was familiar with that look. “Alright, Mama, go ahead and ask. I know you’re dying to know what happened between Andrew and me.”
“Honey, please don’t take offense. I won’t pry, but do you want to talk about it? I won’t judge you. I’m on your side.”
“Really, Mama? I was truly hurt when you took Andrew’s side against me.”
“I’m sorry about that, but I didn’t know the whole story. I guess I was in shock. You two practically grew up together.” Eventually, Diana had confessed everything about Andrew’s drinking. He had hit her several times. The late nights with no phone calls and the verbal abuse were unbearable. The drinking had changed her husband into someone she didn’t even recognize. To make matter worse, he had stopped going to therapy.
Evelyn urged her daughter to come to her. No marriage was worth what she had suffered. Her son being so young and the fact she had nowhere else to go, coming to D.C. had been Diana’s only option.
Diana stood up from the table, went to the window and thought about the past six months of her marriage. She put her hand on her stomach and sighed. “I had to make a better life for my children, Mama. I couldn’t take the chance that he would lash out at Ben and hurt him. He’s so young and I didn’t want him to witness anything bad happening. Abuse breeds abuse, Mama. It’s a known fact. I couldn’t live with myself if that happened to them.” She lowered her eyes for a moment.
Evelyn was confused. “Did you say children?”
“Yes, Mama; you see, I’m pregnant. The baby is due in about seven months.”
“Oh, honey, you made the right decision to come here. We will work this out,” Evelyn told her firmly. She went to her and gave her a comforting hug. “Have you thought about what you want to do as far as finding a job?”
“I wanted to get settled first and then check out the government. There must be other jobs besides secretarial positions and I thought I would put in a few applications.”
“Yes, there are, but jobs are going fast. The war is over and a lot of men will be re-entering the workforce. You don’t want to wait too long.”
“I promise I won’t.” They sat back down at the table. “So, how’s Bernice doing?” Bernice, Diana’s younger sister, also lived in D.C. along with her husband and their four children. Bernice was also tall like Diana, but not as tall as her sister. They had similar features, although Diana’s eyes were more exotic than Bernice, but they were both beautiful women.
“I’m glad you asked about her. John and I purchased the house next door for investment and rental income. Bernice and her husband want to live there. She got a job and it’s located just up the street. She can walk to work, and be there for the kids when they get out of school.”
After her mother’s speech, one thing stood out in Diana’s mind. “Mama, I didn’t know you owned another house.”
“Yes, we purchased it several years ago, but the tenant had to move out. He broke his lease, but he did pay me for several months in advance, so Bernice and Alan jumped at the chance. They’ll be moving in this weekend.”
“So, my sister and her husband, their four kids…” Diana began thrilled with the news.
“And another one on the way,” Evelyn told her smiling. “She told me just last week. The baby will be here by the end of the year.”
“Wow, five kids’ right next door! Ben will be so thrilled, with four cousins, no make that five, plus a sibling for him coming in about six months.” She chuckled. “I can’t wait to see Bernice, Alan and the kids again.” Shaking her head, she said, “Well, Mama, talk about family togetherness, we definitely have it now.” Diana couldn’t be more pleased though and having Bernice so close would be wonderful. She really couldn’t wait to see them again. She had missed them all very much.
Bernice had met Alan Jones in Huntsville, Texas, but there were just not enough jobs in the area. Both Bernice and Alan had found good jobs and moved to Washington several years ago.
“I know, but I’m thrilled to have my two girls and my grandchildren so close. Come on, honey, it’s been a long day. Let’s get you settled, you can rest for a while, and then we can have dinner.”
“Yes, it has been a long day. Thank you, Mama.”