By Michon Boston
With each family death another door closes, another photo album disappears. It becomes a detective job without the actual witnesses to piece together the lives they lived.
I can only remember the faces from some family albums during visits especially unexpected faces. Sepia or black and white photos of relatives who were of different races. Who served in WW I and WW II. Incredible fashion from another era.
My father rarely shared his family or their stories with me. There were one-off occasions when he’d take my mom, sister and me with him to visit his siblings (our aunts and uncles) in “the country” — that’s what McLean, Virginia looked like before it became an affluent built up suburb. Three of my father’s siblings lived within walking distance on a narrow road. On one of those rare visits we decided to walk to his older brother’s house for a visit.
We sat at the dinner table. My father and uncle Mervin had little to say, but he and my aunt Emma (his sister-in-law) got into a conversation about Duke Ellington. I can’t remember the exact words but there was a familiarity in their exchange, something deeper and more familar than fandom.
My ears perked up to understand their chatter. I heard the word “cousin”. Was Ellington my cousin? Why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t my father tell me? I was entering my final year at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a magnet high school in DC. I was a music major and earning credits in photography outside my select major. I wasn’t sure to ask my father for more information as he was prone to exagerations to put it midly.
One-by-one my father’s siblings passed away including uncle Mervin and aunt Emma. My father would die after. His youngest sister collected the belongings left behind including aunt Emma’s photo albums. And that’s when Duke re-appeared in photos: young, energetic, a happy teenager. There were several photos of him where my Aunt wrote “Duke” either below or above his face.
My aunt Susie, the last surviving sibling told me the story of Aunt Emma coming to DC to live with her uncle and cousin Edgar McEntree. Ellington mentions Edgar in his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress.”
“I had a chum, Edgar McEntree (he preferred the accent on the “en”), a rather fancy guy who liked to dress well. He was socially uphill and a pretty good, popular fellow around, with parties and that sot of thing. I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship I should have a title. So he named me Duke.”Duke Ellington
A tiny photo of the two chums was in Emma’s photo album. Edgar was a few year older than Ellington. That gave me the impression that Edgar could’ve been role model for Edward/Duke. In the photo Duke is looking up towards Edgar, and Edgar looks directly into the camera lens.
Ellington was a few years older than Emma. There were schools for whites and schools for Blacks in their time. He attended the Armstrong High School where “all the creative kids went” according to my mother (an Armstrong alumna). Emma attended Dunbar High School, a college prep type “colored” school where “all the smart kids went.” Emma Gordon (maiden name) would become a nurse.
In DC’s city within-a-city, that confined your movements based on race, young Ellington was within walking distance and had access to a conservatory of music, teachers who taught advanced music theory and composition in their homes, and the Frank Holliday poolroom next to the Howard Theatre where Pullman porters, Howard University professors, musicians could be found for Ellington to grow his music chops as ragtime transitioned to a new sound to become known as jazz. The churches, fraternal orders, private parties, school dances, clubs and speakeasies in the all-black enclave of U Street and Shaw provided opportunities for Ellington to gain exposure.
There is another photo I enjoy and that’s of aunt Emma Gordon, 16 years old, in her flapper dress. These photos tell a story of the segregated community that my family, Edgar, and his chum Edward inhabited in the nation’s capital before 1954. A community of school dances, house parties, where they dreamed their dreams through the race riots of Red Summer 1919 and the horrific lynchings of Black men and women in the US. They lived in a time when, by law, being born Black categorized you as “inferior.” In these photos, they don’t look like they swallowed that pill.
I scanned Aunt Emma’s photos and am glad I did. I shared them with other family members. After the passing of my aunt Susie I have no idea what became of the photo albums. I refuse to withhold the information in the photos my Aunt Emma kept of the young Duke. These photos are proof evidence of defiance to the racism and injustice of their times by living, loving, and creating. That the youthful exuberance of any era is a time of possibilities.
Michon Boston is a writer, playwright, and media consultant based in Washington, DC. She’s led walks through DC’s Shaw and U Street neighborhoods sharing history and stories about the social, literary and music communities surrounding DC-born Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.