When She Climbed From The Pool

 Since they opened the public swimming pool for white folks only on Volta Place, right across the street from her Aunt Ina’s house, the pleasures of Higgins Hole were diminished for Johnnie Mae. In that public pool the water was so clear! Clara said it must be ice water. Clara said they must get big blocks of ice from the ice man on Potomac Street and put them in there. She was certain of this because the white boys and girls they saw through the fence and bushes surrounding the pool were always shivering.        from RIVER, CROSS MY HEART

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In the 1990’s my mother tape-recorded her oral recollections of having grown up in Georgetown in the 1920’s, 30’s and forties. When she retold incidents related to the segregated swimming pool on Volta Place, her voice changed dramatically. Much of her story was like all the anecdotes she and my father told and retold on our summer rides through this mostly affluent part of town. Georgetown in the 1960’s was where Kennedy-era politicos built townhouses and bought up the historic mansions that had always been located there. Because of the Old Georgetown Act of 1950, most of the African American community had been forced out in the early 50’s. My father’s family owned one of the houses on “P” street that became the last block of African American residents in Georgetown.

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James Sheridan Clarke, Jr., my father, and James Sheridan Clarke, Sr., his father in front of 2721 “P” St. N.W. Georgetown,  Washington, D.C.

My parents’ recollections  of Georgetown were vivid and complex. They told fairly frank stories about the segregation they lived with, but had as well many stories of community, camaraderie and achievement.

When my mother spoke on the tape about the pool on Volta Place her voice changed so distinctly that I had a visceral response. I think my head snapped to attention. I’m sure I listened to her again and again. It was not the particulars of the tale. I’d heard all of the stories many times. I knew she’d been a fierce, bold, athletic swimming girl. But I’d never before heard the great change in her voice. Her voice had not been light and airy – that wouldn’t ever have been my mother’s voice — but it was relaxed and carefree. I recognized that she was softening and brightening her narration for my benefit. She was taking this project seriously so she was trying to give me helpful, positive information. When she began to talk about her feelings of wanting to swim in the whites only pool that was across the street from her aunt’s house, but that barred any colored/Negro/Black /African American people I felt arrested, compelled, riveted. My mother was not always self-revelatory. She was sometimes a secret- keeper and a grudge-holder. The change was in the timbre of her voice – a change that was not shrill or more vehement, but changed. A bell rang – sort of. It signaled that she was expressing certain childhood feelings, but I was to know that she no longer felt this small, raw way. I thought she did very much still feel those angers and that she was justified and I knew then that I’d write the novel that became RIVER, CROSS MY HEART just for this reason. I could make a novel of it because this was a story I could lift and carry for a while.

“How come we can’t go in that pool and swim?” Johnny Mae had repeatedly asked Aunt Ina since the beginning of summer.

“You don’t need to be over there anyway,” Aunt Ina had answered time and again.

from RIVER, CROSS MY HEART

My mother became an outstanding swimmer. She had her first lessons at Francis Junior High School’s pool. She no doubt already had the rudiments of swimming because she told me they really did dip into the C&O Canal for swimming. A young medical student who would later become Dr. Charles R. Drew (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_R._Drew), the renowned African American physician, taught her formally at Francis pool. My mother called him Charlie Drew and always mentioned his handsomeness and his brother’s and spoke of his generosity in teaching all of Georgetown’s African American children to swim. A large part of my parents’ Georgetown narrative reflects a staunch optimism and wry humor with examples of uplift, misfortune, haplessness, foolishness, bravery, compassion and meanness added. They were all good stories.

The only childhood photo we have of Edna Higgins is this very young one. Her swimming exploits mostly took place after this was taken and before adulthood.

Little Edna Edna Higgins in Georgetown circa 1920.

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Dr. Charles R. Drew

By the time I accompanied my parents on automobile rides through the old Georgetown neighborhood, the carriage houses and servant’s quarters of the rich and famous had become the luxury townhouses of the nouveau. My parents liked to point out places where they’d lived and played, their favorite landmarks. Despite legal desegregation, Black children still weren’t swimming in the pool on Volta Place.

On the tape, despite all efforts to thwart it, my mother’s young girl self showed up to talk about her feelings. All of those years later she’d remembered and was articulate and analytical. She still recalled that deep sense of thwarted opportunity. I can no longer remember her words. I have the cassette tape and some written answers to specific queries I made. (She gave me the 411 on menstruation in her era in a frank, specific, helpful and surprising way.) I don’t think I used any of her actual words when I created the character Johnnie Mae Bynum in RIVER, CROSS MY HEART, but my mother gave me a model of access. She helped me to formulate my key – my trigger — to an emotional voice that takes on the timbre of true/deep.

Blue Breena   Breena Clarke in Pershing Field Pool, Jersey City, N.J.

“River, Cross My Heart” is available in all formats. Link here to purchase: http://bit.ly/BuyBreenaClarkeBooks

My most recent novel, “Angels Make Their Hope Here,” is available in paperback with Reading Group Guides on July 14th.  Link here: http://bit.ly/1S8f8Wb for my “Angels” blog. To purchase a copy, link here: http://bit.ly/BuyBreenaClarkeBooks

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