INTERVIEWEE ORAL HISTORY AGREEMENT
Historical Societv of the District of Columbia Circuit
Oral History Aaeement of Charles T. Duncan
1. In consideration of the recording and preservation of the oral history memoir of
my late husband Charles T. Duncan, by the Historical Society of the District of Columbia
Circuit, Washington, D.C., and its employees and agents (hereinafter “the Society”), I, Mrs.
Charles T. Duncan, as a representative of the estate, do hereby grant and convey to the Society
and its successors and assigns all of my rights, title, and interest in the tape recordings,
transcripts and computer diskette of interviews of Charles T. Duncan, as described in Schedule A
hereto, including literary rights and copyrights. All copies of the tapes, transcripts and diskette
are subject to the same restrictions herein provided.
2, I also reserve for myself the right to use the tapes, transcripts and diskette and
their content as a resource for any book, pamphlet, article or other writing of which I am the
author or co-author.
3. I authorize the Society to duplicate, edit, publish, including publication on the
internet, and permit the use of said tape recordings, transcripts and diskette in any manner that
the Society considers appropriate, and I waive my claims I may have or acquire to any royalties
from such use.
Mrs. Charles T. Duncan Date
a dayof 200~
My Commission expires CJ$3[ul?
,2007, by Stephen J. Pollak, President of .Pp ACCEPTED this & day of
the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.
Tape recordings and transcripts resulting from the three interviews of Charles T. Duncan
on the following dates:
Interviewer Number of Tapes
August 15, 1997 Myles V. Lynk —
May 11,2002 Gregory L. Poe 1-112
April 23,2003 Gregory L. Poe 1-1/2
Pages of Transcript
1 – 30
92 – 138
The transcripts of the three interviews are contained on one coinpact disc.
INTERVIEWER ORAL HISTORY AGREEMENT
Historical Societv of the District of Columbia Circuit
Oral Historv Agreement of Charles T. Duncan
1. Having agreed to conduct an oral history interview with Charles T.
Duncan for the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, Washington, D.C., and
its employees and agents (hereinafter “the Society”), I, Mvles Lvnk , do hereby grant and convey to the Society and its successors and assigns, all of my right, title, and interest in the tape
recordings, transcripts and computer diskette of interviews, as described in Schedule A hereto,
including literary rights and copyrights.
2. I authorize the Society, to duplicate, edit, publish, including publication
on the internet, and permit the use of said tape recordings, transcripts and diskette in any manner
that the Society considers appropriate, and I waive any claims I may have or acquire to any royalties from such use.
3. I agree that I will make no use of the interview or the information contained therein until it is concluded and edited, or until I receive permission from the Society.
SWORN TO AND SUBSCRIBED before me this
,qO dayof /nQ Pd? , 2002.
MY Commission expires 3/9 /a/ /
ACCEPTED this 11 ‘ ‘day of did , 200L by Stephen J. Pollak, President of
the Historical Society of the Distric of Columbia Circuit. I
@$& Stephkn J(9llak
Tape recordings and transcripts resulting from the three interviews of Charles T. Duncan
on the following dates:
Date Interviewer Number of Tapes
August 15, 1997 Myles V. Lynk —
May 11,2002 Gregory L. Poe 1-1/2
April 23,2003 Gregory L. Poe 1-1/2
Pages of Transcript
1 – 30
92 – 138
The transcripts of the three interviews are contained on one compact disc.
INTERVIEWER ORAL HISTORY AGREEMENT
Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit
Oral History Agreement of Greaory L. Poe
1. Having agreed to conduct an oral history interview with Charles T. Duncan for
the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, Washington, D.C., and its employees
and agents (hereinafter “the Society”), I, Gregory L. Poe, do hereby grant and convey to the
Society and its successors and assigns, all of my right, title, and interest in the tape recordings,
transcripts and computer diskette of interviews, as described in Schedule A hereto, including
literary rights and copyrights.
2. I authorize the Society, to duplicate, edit, publish, including publication on the
internet, and permit the use of said tape recordings, transcripts and diskette in any manner that
the Society considers appropriate, and I waive any claims I may have or acquire to any royalties
from such use.
3. I agree that I will make no use of the interview or the information contained
therein until it is concluded and edited, or until I receive permissiocom the Society.
Gregory L. Poe date /
SWORN TO AND SUBSCRIBED before me this
dayof )I% ,2005.
Beth L. Fowler
Notary Public, District of Columbia My Commission expires –2010
, 200z by Stephen J. Pollak, President of 44 ACCEPTED this & day of BP&
the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.
Tape recordings and transcripts resulting from the three interviews of Charles T. Duncan
on the following dates:
Interviewer Number of Tapes
Myles V. Lynk August — 15, 1997
May 11,2002 Gregory L. Poe 1-1/2
April 23, 2003 Gregory L. Poe 1-112
Pages of Transcript –
1 – 30
31 – 91
92 – 138
The transcripts of the three interviews are contained on one compact disc.
Oral History of Charles T. Duncan
August 15, 1997
This is an interview of Charles T. Duncan conducted as part of the Oral
History Project of The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The
interviewer is Myles Lynk. The interview took place on August 15, 1997.
Mr. Lynk: Mister Duncan, can I call you Charlie?
Mr. Duncan: Please. C’mon what are you talking about?
Mr. Lynk: And of course, your full name is Charles T. Duncan.
Mr. Duncan: Right.
Mr. Lynk: What does the T stand for?
Mr. Duncan: Tignor. T-I-G-N-O-R.
Mr. Lynk: Tignor. Are you any relation to the Judges Tignor?
Mr. Duncan: Yep. Might as well get to it, out of the way. My natural father was
Doctor Charles A. Tignor. And my original name was Charles A.
Tignor, Jr., and my dad died; my natural father died in 1935, or
thereabouts. And my mother remarried Todd Duncan, and in due
course, I was adopted by him and assumed his name, but I retained
the “T” as my original family name. My full name is Charles Tignor
Duncan. But the Tignor is indeed from the Tignor family of
Washington, D.C. which –
Mr. Lynk: There’s Michael Tignor.
Mr. Duncan: No.
Mr. Lynk: Mitchell?
Mr. Duncan: Before him.
Mr. Lynk: Okay.
Mr. Duncan: What else.
Mr. Lynk: Okay. When were you born?
Mr. Duncan: In 1924. Halloween, October 31st, 1924.
Mr. Lynk: October 31, 1924.
Mr. Duncan: Yes, yes.
Mr. Lynk: Were you born at home or in one of the hospitals?
Mr. Duncan: I was born at home. That was done in those days; at 473 Florida
Avenue, N.W., right where New Jersey Avenue runs into Florida
Mr. Lynk: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
Mr. Duncan: I’m an only child.
Mr. Lynk: Can you talk a little bit about your early years in Washington?
Where did you go to school?
Mr. Duncan: Kindergarten through fourth grade: Mott School; that’s Fourth and
Bryant Streets, N.W. The school is still there, but the building’s
been torn down and moved over to R____ by University. Do you
know where it is?
Mr. Lynk: Yes I do.
Mr. Duncan: Segments of the old wall are still there on Fourth Street. Grades five
and six, I went to Morgan School and Garnet-Patterson Junior High
School through the ninth grade, and then I went away to school to
preparatory school – Mount Hermon School for Boys, now called
Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts.
Mr. Lynk: How did you happen to go away to Mount Hermon School?
Mr. Duncan: One day my mother came in and said, “You’re going to Mount
Hermon School,” and I said, “Where’s that?” And she said, “It’s up
in Massachusetts.” And she had heard about it otherwise.
Mr. Lynk: Now this would have been in the 1930s?
Mr. Duncan: I started there in ’39, graduated in ’42. I graduated from GarnetPatterson in June of 1939.
Mr. Lynk: I would imagine it was very unusual for an African-American, at
that time, after just coming out of the depression and all, to get that
opportunity to go away to school.
Mr. Duncan: That’s probably true. I should say, with modesty, that my natural
father, Dr. Tignor, was a physician. My mother, Gladys, who is now
101, by the way, was a school teacher. So I came from, by any
definition, a middle-class family, even in those days. I should tell
you that in 1934, 1935, my mother had remarried Todd Duncan, and
by 1939, he had done Porgy and Bess, so he was beginning to
prosper economically. So, as an economic matter, it was not a big
thing. I was, by no means, the first person from here, from
Washington, to go to Mount Hermon; John Tyler Phillips had gone
there before I had. I’m sure some other people. I had gone to school
in England for a year in 1938. My stepfather, Todd Duncan, was
over there in a show, so I had a year in English schools along with
the Garnet-Patterson experience. So, by the time I went to
preparatory school at Mount Hermon, I was very well, academically,
Mr. Lynk: I was just going to say, you were probably one of the most
sophisticated kids in your class.
Mr. Duncan: Well, I don’t know about that, but I must tell you that GarnetPatterson, in those days, segregated though it was, was a superb
Junior High School, as Dunbar was a Senior High School and people
to this day don’t believe that, at Garnet-Patterson, when I graduated,
I had two years of Latin in the ninth grade under Mary Delaney
Evans. We had studied The Odyssey and The Iliad. So, when I went
away to prep school, I was equal to or ahead of the other kids there,
most of whom were white; all of whom were white.
Mr. Lynk: You just alluded to the fact that your stepfather, Todd Duncan, had
performed in Porgy and Bess. You told me earlier a fascinating fact
about his relationship to Porgy and Bess and George Gershwin. I
wonder if you could tell me that again.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. In 1934 – that was the actual year he married my mother – he
was a professor in the school’s music department at Howard
University, and he was active in local musical circles. He headed
the choir at Plymouth Congregational Church, which used to be at
17th and P Streets, N.W., and now is out at Riggs Road and North
Capital Streets, N.W. Gershwin had, somehow, heard of him and
auditioned him for the role; he was chosen for it. So he was the
original Porgy in Porgy and Bess, which I think opened for the first
time in ’35 or ’36. That launched his career as a singer and later as a
Mr. Lynk: Did he tell you any stories about how he first met George Gershwin?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes. There are books on that. One of the stories is that he was
invited up to New York in 1934 to meet Gershwin. When Gershwin
first wanted him to come up, my father said, “Well, I can’t come
because I have a singing engagement. I can come the next weekend.”
The singing engagement was the choir in front of the church; that’s
what it was. He went up the next weekend and knocked on the door
of the Fifth Avenue apartment – this is all documented – and
Gershwin opened the door and said, “Where is your accompanist?”
And my father, not knowing he was supposed to bring an
accompanist, said, “Well, I don’t have one. You play, don’t you? Or
if you don’t, I can play.” So, he went in and Gershwin said, “What
do you want to sing?” So, dad selected an aria from something,
which surprised Gershwin because most of the people that he
interviewed were singing “Old Man River,” or a spiritual or
something like that. Dad selected an aria. He got quite – according
to the story, I wasn’t there – he got fifteen-twenty bars into it.
Gershwin stopped him and said, “Can you sing that without the
music?” And he said, “Yes, sure.” Gershwin said, “Sing it.” So dad
sang it a capella and Gershwin heard a little bit and he said, “Will
you be my Porgy?” So, dad said, “Well, I don’t know. Let me hear
some of your music.” (Dad thought Gershwin was Tin Pan Alley at
the time, and therefore was below his dignity.) They got together
and he became Gershwin’s original Porgy and created the role in
Porgy and Bess.
There was an obituary in the newspaper a day or two ago of
someone named Kay Halle. I think it was in Monday or Tuesday’s
paper. She tells the story of having been there at the audition.
Washington Post, August 12, 1977, B4, Obituaries, Kay Halle,
“Washington Grande Dame Dies at 93.” It says, “She made a career
of knowing and cultivating famous people. Her chief one was
Gershwin.” Let’s see. It mentions the people that she had met. It
goes on to say, “In the natural course of things, Ms. Halle met
Gershwin after a concert in 1934. President Roosevelt and family
invited the composer to come, and Ms. Halle, to New Year’s Eve at
the White House. That the president requested Gershwin play the
piano. It was with Gershwin that Ms. Halle met Astaire and Waller –
Fats Waller – and such musical luminaries as Cole Porter, Richard
Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Levant. She was
present when Todd Duncan, the head of the voice department,
Howard University, auditioned for the part of Porgy in Porgy and
Bess. Gershwin gave it to him. Ms. Halle and Duncan were friends
for life.” I called dad and I read this to him and I said, “I
remembered the name, but I didn’t know that she was there when
you sang.” “Oh, oh, yes. That’s true.” And I told him that it also
said, “You were friends for life.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s true,
that’s true.” In my personal knowledge, they never communicated in
the last 20 years. But that’s the way it is.
Mr. Lynk: That’s the way it is. So, you came back from Europe and then you
went to –
Mr. Duncan: I went to Mount Hermon in 1939.
Mr. Lynk: How many years were you at Mount Hermon?
Mr. Duncan: Three.
Mr. Lynk: Three years.
Mr. Duncan: Graduated in 1942. The war had happened in the meanwhile. I went
straight from Mount Hermon to Dartmouth.
Mr. Lynk: Dartmouth College?
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Lynk: Tell me a little bit about that. One of the interesting things about
Dartmouth is the number of very accomplished people in this area,
you just mentioned them earlier, Bob Wilkinson and his family, who
were there. What was your experience at Dartmouth? How did you
Mr. Duncan: This is interesting to me. I had a very good academic record at
Mount Hermon. I was class salutatorian and on the ski team. I
learned about skiing at Mount Hermon. I chose Dartmouth because
it was a prestigious school, but primarily because it was a big ski
school in those days. I only applied to Dartmouth. In those days,
you could do that. I only applied to Harvard Law School, four years
later, five years later, and was accepted. In Dartmouth, in the whole
school of 3,000 students, maybe there were four, five, six Negro
students, black students; two or three of whom were from here, the
rest of them elsewhere. I guess, in a word, black students at
Dartmouth in the early ’40s were numerically so insignificant that we
were not a problem; nobody paid attention to us. And there was a lot
of anti-Semitism, and I’m sure there was a lot of other stuff. There
was racism, to be sure, but again, we were so insignificant,
numerically, that nobody paid a lot of attention to us. In my case,
because I skied and played tennis and could sing, I was accepted as
the EXception. You’re different. I was one of the boys, by and
large, not totally, as things went in those days. My college career
was interrupted by military service. I completed three years, then
went in the Navy and came back in 1946 and completed my fourth
year of college and graduated in 1947.
Mr. Lynk: So, you spent one year in the Navy?
Mr. Duncan: Two years.
Mr. Lynk: Two years in the Navy. Where did you serve?
Mr. Duncan: That’s a story, too. I was drafted. But first I was deferred. People
talk about Clinton staying out of the war. You tried to stay out of
the war in those days if you could, if you were black, in particular,
because the armed services were strictly segregated; STRICTLY,
strictly, strictly segregated. We _______ as we do now, less than full
service. So this business of going down and signing up after Pearl
Harbor did not exist in the black community. And I stayed out of the
military as long as I could through a chemistry deferment. But I
finally got caught up with and was drafted in February of ’45. Went
to boot camp at Great Lakes.
Mr. Lynk: Great Lakes Naval Station?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. Great Lakes, Illinois. Happily V-E Day happened while I was
in boot camp. While I was in boot camp, long story, but I finally got
sent to midshipmen’s school at Cornell in the summer of 1945. And
while I was in midshipmen’s school, V-J Day occurred. So I came
along at the very end of the war. I was commissioned in November
of 1945, and I served into the next year. Then I returned to
Dartmouth in September ’46, graduated in ’47.
Mr. Lynk: Now you referred to a chemistry deferment. Were you a chemistry
Mr. Duncan: I became a chemistry major. I was an English, political sciencetype, but it was possible to be deferred if you were majoring in
chemistry or physics, so I became a chemistry major. I wasn’t the
only one, I might say.
Mr. Lynk: Now during this period of time, the thirties and forties; to the midforties; let’s say from 1936 to ’46, you had gone from junior high
through high school, college, the Navy, and then had completed
college and that was also at a time when, I gather, a lot of changes
were taking place in Washington as a place, which you would have
seen directly through ’39, and then on visits back and over the
summers after that. How was Washington, or did you, in fact,
experience it as a changing environment?
Mr. Duncan: Oh, hell yes! It didn’t change that soon. It didn’t begin to change
until the early fifties. In the thirties when I grew up, Washington
was strictly, strictly, strictly segregated. The only white people that I
knew, forgive me, operated the “Jew’s store” across the street; that’s
what we used to call it, “the Jew store.” I lived at 16th and T Streets,
N.W. If you go by there to this day, on the northwest corner, 16th
and T Streets, there is a store. It’s no longer a “Jew store,” to be
sure, but when I was growing up, that’s what it was known as. The
people were perfectly nice. They were operating in this mixed
neighborhood, but we used to call it “the Jew store.” It didn’t
connote any conscious-level disparagement; that’s just what we
called it, “the Jew store.” Except for that, I didn’t have any contact
with any white people. Ever, ever, ever, ever. Certainly not in
school. You go downtown to the stores, you’d see white people, but
in those days, you couldn’t try clothes on; you’ve heard all the
stories: couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that. But you still, you know,
had to buy clothes. The store called Palais Royale; it was on 7th
Street on the north side of F Street, N.W.; I think that Hecht’s was on
7 Street on the south side of F between E and F Streets, N.W. Now th
if you go there, Hecht’s is no longer there. The big department store
known as Palais Royale, down the street on 7 was Lansburghs, and th
there was Goldenberg’s, I remember all that. It was a segregated
town, there was nowhere to go to a restaurant, you couldn’t go to
theaters, downtown theaters. There was Lincoln and Republic and
the Booker T, of course, on U Street. The changes didn’t really
occur until the early fifties. I guess it was the Thompson’s
Restaurant case in ’53 or ’54 in which Charlie Houston, the revered
Charles S. Houston, discovered something called “the lost laws.”
You ever heard of them?
Mr. Lynk: No, please.
Mr. Duncan: Okay. He was the leader. He was local, but he was also national.
But in his local capacity, he discovered a post-Civil War statute, a
congressional statute that prohibited discrimination on the grounds
of race. I think what it really said was that any – the word disorderly
was in there – you had to admit anybody except disorderly persons,
that’s what it said.
Mr. Lynk: Was it in the District of Columbia?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, yes. It was a congressional statute, but it applied to the District.
And he looked at that and he said, “Hey, this would cover us.” So,
he carried that case to the Supreme Court. I think it was 1953 or
1954, Thompson’s Restaurant. It was sort of like an original sit-in
case. And in the District, the Supreme Court held that that law was
in effect and the local restaurants could not discriminate on the
grounds of race. So that in ‘53 or ‘54, restaurants became public
accommodations, legally were open. It began to happen and then
came the civil rights acts of the ‘60s.
Mr. Lynk: What was it like growing up in a segregated city; in a city where you
did not interact with whites at all? You saw them, literally, in a
variety of certain situations?
Mr. Duncan: Those of us black kids, Negro kids, in those days colored people, if
you will, who grew up in the middle class were very protected by
our parents. We were shielded from this and we had our own little
clubs and Jack and Jill, you’ve heard of. You only went downtown if
you had to, and you couldn’t eat, you couldn’t get a hot dog at
Woolworth’s. My mother used to tell me, “Well, let’s wait ’til we get
home because the hot dogs at home and the food we have at home is
better than these down here.” And I could never understand why you
couldn’t go to the bathroom. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve
gone like this, waiting to get to the bathroom at the public library at
7 and Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. th
Mr. Lynk: The Carnegie building?
Mr. Duncan: Is that what it is?
Mr. Lynk: Yes.
Mr. Duncan: That used to be the central public library. And, for whatever reason,
that was open and down in the basement there was a bathroom and
many was the time I’d run in there and gone to the bathroom on the
way up 7 Street to home. But our parents shielded us. You can
have this conversation with contemporaries of mine, as I did just
recently, and they will tell you that we didn’t notice any segregation,
we had everything we wanted. There are people who thought that
way. And in a sense, I did, too. But I was also aware that there was
something funny about why you couldn’t get a hot dog at
Woolworth’s; had to go up to the public library to go to the bathroom
at Mount Vernon Place. I suppose, if you look around the world
today, whatever you are born into, whether it be abject poverty or
the situation in Russia, wherever you’re born; that’s what you’re used
to and that’s what you adapt to and we adapted to segregation. We
didn’t have to ride on the back of the streetcars, but then, in my
situation, we didn’t ride the streetcars anyway because our parents
drove us around wherever we were going to go. That’s a terrible
thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s true.
Mr. Lynk: That reality, many people who did not live through it really cannot
understand it, because it makes perfect sense that certainly the
parents and the community would try to ameliorate the effects on
Mr. Duncan: Yes, like there’s nothing wrong. We were certainly exposed to socalled cultural things. All the little boys in my group took violin
lessons up at Howard University; all little girls took piano lessons at
Nickerson’s. I’m talking about 10, 11, 12, 13 years old. I’ve friends
to this day that I met in violin class. There was a nursery school,
Mrs. Howard. Mrs. Howard’s nursery school in the 800 block of
F Street, N.W.; all the kids went to the nursery school. I can’t tell
you how many times I was dragged down to Constitution Hall.
There was a little section up in the balcony where you had to sit to
hear Yehudi Menuhin, Gloria Perkins; that was a cultural ritual, we
were exposed to that. We could hardly claim to have grown up in an
educational or cultural ghetto because we didn’t; that term wasn’t
really known at the time, ghettos. Within the context of segregation,
our parents carved out for us a comfortable upper-class life, by
Mr. Lynk: I was going to say that while there was not a lot of contacts with
whites, there was also, I gather, not a lot of contact with poor blacks.
Mr. Duncan: Ah! You got it, you got it. My mother wouldn’t let me go into the
Boy Scouts, for example, because she didn’t know who “those
people” were in the Boy Scouts – not a doctor’s and school teacher’s
son! So I couldn’t join the Boy Scouts. I did not, I was not exposed
to poorer, less-educated blacks until I was in the Navy in boot camp.
And this was in ’45; that was my first exposure to people who
couldn’t read or write, or who were, what we would now call, “off
the streets.” That was the best thing that could have happened to
me; I didn’t know it at the time, in retrospect, but you’re absolutely
right, I led a very sheltered life.
Mr. Lynk: Were you active in any sort of formal, extra-curricular activities at
Mr. Duncan: Oh, yes. I was a BMOC (Big Man on Campus) at Dartmouth, oh
Mr. Lynk: Tell me a little bit about that.
Mr. Duncan: Well, academically, as I said, I was very good. Graduated Phi Beta
Kappa, eventually; ski team, tennis team. This was during the war
years, so it was an unusual college experience for all of us. There
was no Winter Carnival; gas was rationed, and basically we went
into a summer semester which was grand. I did three years in two,
and I lost two years in the military so I could graduate a year behind
when I normally would have.
Mr. Duncan: I guess before the war, staying in school and studying was about the
only thing. After the war, it was in the dormitory. We didn’t have
any bosses or black alumni associations; they didn’t have that
because there were two or three of us altogether, so I mean, there
just wasn’t that. There was no Afro-American this or that, so I can’t
honestly pretend that I was active in the civil rights movement in
those days because I wasn’t. There wasn’t any civil rights movement.
I’m sorry, not at the undergrad level.
Mr. Lynk: Now, those two years in the Navy; I see you shaking your head, talk
a little bit about that. Clearly a different experience.
Mr. Duncan: As I told you, I was drafted. They finally caught up with me.
February of ’45, I remember. Is that when Roosevelt died, in ’45?
Mr. Lynk: Yes.
Mr. Duncan: Okay. I was in boot camp in April of 1945. I got drafted. I was sent
to Great Lakes. Great Lakes, of course, was segregated. Starboard
side was all black; the main side was all white. Somewhere toward
the end of the boot camp experience, April, May, somewhere around
there, we had a black petty officer, third class, something or other,
one-stripe, which was in those days, quite exalted, by the way. His
name was David Jakes; he was out of New York; I’ll never forget
him. He called me over one day, he said, “Charlie, they are opening
the fleet.” No. “They are opening midshipmen’s school to the fleet.”
Meaning that you were eligible for midshipmen’s school if you had
three years of college. I’ve forgotten a big story, which I’ll go back
to. He said, “You have three years of college. You should apply to
midshipmen’s school.” So, becoming an officer in the Navy was
like, you just didn’t think in those terms, that’s ridiculous! An officer
in the Navy?! A Negro an officer?! Ridiculous! But anyway, he
said, “Go do it!” So I wrote my mother and said please send me a
transcript from Dartmouth and Howard. And to make a long story
short, I presented all these credentials. They hemmed and hawed,
but I finally got sent to Cornell.
Let me back up. When I was inducted in the Navy out of
Washington, D.C., I got on a train to Baltimore. This is the point of
my story. And this is an interesting story. We were all going
through a line, blacks and whites together. There was a white
lieutenant commander in the Navy with – everyone was going into
the Navy those days, because the war in Europe was basically over,
gearing up for the big push in Japan – so this white lieutenant
commander said when we get in the next room, “Take the RT test.”
I didn’t know what the RT was. So I get in the next room and
someone says, “Anyone want to take the RT test.” So I put my hand
up. And the guy next to me put his hand up. And they said, “You
two go over there.” They sent the two of us to Great Lakes.
Everybody else in my group went to Perry Point; right up here
(Maryland), which was a cooks and bakers school. I would have
been sent to cooks and bakers school, and would have still been in
the brig. I’m satisfied of that, but for this white lieutenant
commander who said, “Take the RT test.” Now, what was the RT
test? It turned out it was radio technicians test; that’s what it stood
for. The guy next to me, I later asked, “Why did you put your hand
up?” He says, “I saw you put yours up.” That’s the way the world
works in the Navy, in the Army, in the military. We got sent to
Great Lakes. I guess we must have taken the RT test somewhere
along the way. But, you know, whatever. We ended up at Great
Lakes and from Great Lakes I went to midshipmen’s school. But for
that, I would have been sent to Perry Point cooks and bakers. I was
Midshipmen’s school at Cornell was interesting. There had been a
number of black officers specially commissioned. You read the book
these days about the “Golden Thirteen,” and all that. They were
specially commissioned in order to have some black officers. I and
five others, there were six of us all together, were sent to
midshipmen’s school. We were the only six in whole history of the
United States Navy and those days who went to regular everyday
midshipmen’s school. I went to Cornell, others went to Columbia,
Northwestern, and it was a big experiment. They were going to
commission us and send us aboard ships. I’m not making this up!
This is a good story. To find out whether white officers would take
orders from, I’m sorry, whether white enlisted men would take
orders from black officers. Just like Tuskegee; make us fly airplanes.
So I got sent to, after graduation in November in ’45, I got sent to an
oil tanker which was then in dry dock in San Diego, California. For
the next six to eight months, I was an officer aboard that oil tanker.
You want to know the answer to the question? The white enlisted
men, most of whom were southern kids, had no problem whatsoever
with taking orders from a black officer. They saw the gold bar; the
gold stripe. I didn’t know their minds, I didn’t care what they
thought. But, you know what I’m going to say. The only people
who I had any trouble with on the ship were the six cooks and
bakers, who weren’t exactly sure who this black officer was, but we
got along fine. There’s more. The ship, the USS Platte, A024, since
replaced. There’s another ship by the name USS Platte, which I’ve
since seen. But this was a fleet-going oiler. It had four 5″ 38 guns.
Ocean-going, fighting tanker. They had been alerted that this person
was going. So, I got there. They were cordial, they were nice. The
captain tried to assign me to a room. No. He tried to assign me a
room, stateroom X. And the guy who was in there was supposed to
move out so I could be in there by myself. The guy that was in there
said, “Why do I have to move out?” “I don’t know,” I answered. “I
want to stay here,” he said. So he ended up staying there. It worked
One other Navy story. I’d been on the ship for about two weeks.
And a new captain came aboard the ship. He was a four-striper from
the Annapolis Naval Academy. The fact that he was assigned to this
oil tanker that late in the war raised a little question, but, whatever. I
was given an order by the executive officer right after this new
captain came on board. I was supposed to tell the steward’s mates
that they could not attend the ship’s party, which was being paid for
out of funds from the ship’s store which everyone contributed to,
officers and enlisted men alike.
Mr. Lynk: Including the steward’s mates?
Mr. Duncan: Including the steward’s mates, to be sure. But they were to be given
their share of the fund, whatever it was, in cash. So I said to the
executive officer, “You all just assigned me to the navigation
department; I’m the assistant navigator. Why do I have to tell this to
the steward’s mates?” “Captain’s orders,” he replied. So, I’m not
making this up. I went back and I thought about it and I said to
myself, You’ve been an officer in the Navy for three weeks, now.
You’ve been a Negro for 22 years. What do you want to be? So I
requested permission to go speak to the captain, which you could do.
The executive officer wanted to know, “What do you want to see the
captain about?” So I told him. And he said, “Good luck.” So I went
up to see the captain and I said, “Captain. You’ve given me this
order and I don’t think it’s fair that the steward’s mates contributed to
the ship’s fund.” And I said, “President Roosevelt has just been
talking about issuing an order to do away with discrimination in the
armed services.” Mrs. Roosevelt, in fact, had said, “We’re going to
do this.” It hadn’t happened yet. That was the wave of the future.
Having said my piece, I got up to leave. The captain said, “Sit
down. You don’t stand up until I tell you to.” He read the riot act to
me. He says, “You’re obligated by, you’re in no position to
challenge any order that I give. Whatever I tell you, you do. By act
of Congress, you are obliged to obey me.” He said, “This is
insubordination. If ever, ever, ever you do this again, you will be
court-martialed.” I thought, Oh shit. Three weeks in the Navy as an
officer and I’m about to be court-martialed. Oh, Jesus Christ. He
then went on to say, “I did not give that order about the steward’s
mates. The departing captain gave that order. As far as I’m
concerned, the steward’s mates can attend the ship’s party.” To
myself I said, Oooooh, Oooh. Run into that one, didn’t you, Charlie?
Yeah. The word got around among the enlisted men that Ensign
Duncan stood up to the captain. I was God for the whole rest of the
next day. So help me, nothing I could do with the enlisted men was
wrong. Got in trouble with the captain a little later. The story got
around and I was secure and it lasted the whole time I was there. I
could do no wrong. I just sat around after that, smoked cigarettes
and played bridge. Oh yes, yes, that’s what literally happened.
Mr. Lynk: That is phenomenal. That is a great story.
Mr. Duncan: Yep, yep. I’m not embellishing.
Mr. Lynk: No, I’m sure that’s the real truth.
Mr. Duncan: That happened. Got out. I was eventually sent to the Office of
Public Information here in Washington, down Constitution Avenue
where they used to have Navy temporaries in those days. They’re
gone now. Released from active service in September ’46. Went
back to Dartmouth, graduated in ’47.
Mr. Lynk: And you graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth. Now, did you
go straight to law school?
Mr. Duncan: Straight to law school. You didn’t go to Europe in those days, by
God. Had the GI Bill by then. So when I went to law school, most
of the people in my class were 98% veterans, all on the GI Bill; 20%
married, as indeed I was, by the way. No fooling around; no bosses,
no ballot, no Afro-Am, let’s just get out of here and get started.
Because everybody’s life had been interrupted two-to-six years;
some people had been killed. So those were not protest years, those
were “let’s get out of here” years. That was everybody there. No
demonstrations, no nothing. Let’s just go to class, take your exam,
hope you pass and leave.
Mr. Lynk: Now you alluded to something that we haven’t touched on at all and
that’s the fact that by the time you went to law school you were
married. Can you tell us a little bit about how you met your first
Mr. Duncan: My first wife’s name was Dorothy. She was in our little group. Her
mother was a school teacher.
Mr. Lynk: So she was here, from Washington, D.C.?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. Her father worked for the Fire Department; he was a fireman,
which in those days was just as good as being a doctor, lawyer,
fireman, postman, Pullman porter. I mean those were all good, solid
jobs. I don’t remember when I met her, but we were courting
through the Mount Hermon years, and we got married between
college and law school in July ’47. Married for 25 years.
Mr. Lynk: And then, Cambridge. You said law school was a no-nonsense time,
people wanted to get through and get out. Any classmates or
professors or anything stand out in those years?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I made one lasting friendship in preparatory school and made
one or two in Dartmouth, and I made one or two at the law school,
some of which carried all the way through. In fact, just last weekend
I was in Maine to help celebrate the 50 anniversary of my fourth- th
year Dartmouth roommate who was in my wedding party here in
July of 1947, and a week later I was his best man up in Maine in
August of ’47. He had a 50 anniversary and my new wife and I just
went up there.
Mr. Lynk: What’s his name?
Mr. Duncan: Edward Lane-Reticker. I have a dear friend from Dartmouth days,
Norman Weissman, whom I just talked with on the telephone this
morning. From law school, two very good friends that we’ve stayed
friendly from then until now. In January of this year, Pam and I
went down to Florida for a visit to a law school study group
member, Martin Cohen, and the wife of another member, Victor
Baum, at their condominiums on the Gulf of Mexico. So the answer
to your question is yes, there are some two or three or four college
and law school friends who have remained such over the years.
Mr. Lynk: Were you in law school the same time as Bill Coleman?
Mr. Duncan: I met Bill Coleman in law school. My recollection is that he was
Class of ’48. I think he was finishing his LL.M in ’48 or ’49. I knew
him then, that’s when I first met him. You also mentioned professors.
I remember professors. Nothing really close. Griswold, Erwin.
Griswold was a very austere, Zeus-like man of Harvard Law School.
I don’t think I ever spoke to him the whole time. I took his tax
course. Fast forward to 1977, ‘78, ‘79. Howard Westwood of
Covington & Burling; you’ve heard that name, who was great for
integrating things, including the Association of the Bar of District of
Columbia, the voluntary bar. He had a lot to do with opening it.
Metropolitan Club. He decided he was going to integrate Burning
Tree, so I was his nominee for Burning Tree. So he carried me out
there. I was eventually admitted to Burning Tree as part of that
process. Dean Griswold was a member, wrote this wonderful twopage letter about what a wonderful person Charlie Duncan was. I
read the letter. I felt like Flip Wilson, “He doesn’t know me.” You
know like Geraldine who says, “You don’t know me.” He wrote this
glowing letter about what a wonderful student I’d been and what a
great scholar I was. Later, we became friends. Griswold. I
remember Archie Cox for constitutional law. Thorn, he’s the one out
of all of those people that if I had to say who was the best, it would
have to be Thorn. I had Cox, I had Seevy, I had Morgan on evidence
and Scott on trusts, Casner on ______ and property. But being in
law school, I hated it, just hated it. Because, you know, I’d been to
Dartmouth, that was relaxed, easy, do what you want to, drink beer
from cans, throw them out the window. I never did. They did that!
Then you get to Harvard and you go up these steps and down these
steps. I hated it. I just did not like law school.
Mr. Lynk: And then three years in Cambridge. And then you came back to
Mr. Duncan: No. That’s another whole episode. In those days, we used to
interview during Christmas holidays of your senior year. None of
this second-year internship. You do the rounds during Christmas
holidays. So I have to get the name of the Dean; he sent me to 15 or
20 Wall Street law firms: White & Case. The one I remember and
love is: Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. By now I’m a
Democrat. I went to firms called Dewey Ballantine; Dwight Royal;
Donovan Leisure; you name ’em, I went to them. And rather
personally, without exception, they all told me, basically, “Mr.
Duncan, we are ready to have a Negro associate, but our clients are
not ready. So therefore we cannot give you an offer.” In harc verba,
which probably violated New York law in those days, in 1950,
something called SCAD, State Commission Against Discrimination,
one of the early, early, early anti-discrimination statutes. Never
mind that, they all said this. Later, it turned out that I was sent to
these firms because it was part of their education process. I was not
on the law review. I was right on the line of upper fourth of the
class. They used to grade you just like the Naval Academy, from
one down. I was right on the line, the truth to tell, and this is one
thing I’ve always misrepresented on my résumé. I said I was in the
upper fourth of the class. If you do the numbers, the upper fourth is
like 125. I was 126 or 127, but they were so close that I said, “Well,
nobody will notice.” So I said that I was in the upper fourth, right on
the line. I was given an offer by one of the two Jewish firms:
Rosenman, Goldmark, Colin & Kaye, who up to that point had only,
only, only ever hired Harvard, Yale or Columbia Law Review
graduates ! Jewish. But Rosenman, being a Jew, they said, we’re
going to make an exception in this fella’s case and give him a
chance. Early, early, early EEO, before it was called EEO. You
could call it that or you could say, do it like that. So I was hired
there. I went there for three years.
Mr. Lynk: This was the first time you’d ever lived in New York as well as
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Lynk: Other than your school years.
Mr. Duncan: Other than school and military.
Mr. Lynk: And so you were a newly minted lawyer and you were just married,
and in New York City, of all places, at a very exciting time in the
early 1950s. What was it like?
Mr. Duncan: For some reason, it was one of these things, I decided in my own
mind that New York was the only place to go. Don’t ask me why. I
had no New York contacts, didn’t know anybody in New York. I’d
never lived in New York. So I went there. To make a long story
short, I hated it. Just hated it. I did what associates did in those law
firms in those days. I just didn’t like it. Get divorces, and do things,
and meet clients. So I stayed there for three years, voluntarily left
and came to Washington. Been here ever since.
Mr. Lynk: Now, how did you like living in New York?
Mr. Duncan: I hated it. That’s what I hated. I hated the firm and even more I
hated living in New York City. It was dirty. I had to give up my car.
I couldn’t drive to the tennis court and park next to the court and play
tennis like I’d done all my life. I just didn’t like it. I was not for
living in New York. Some people like it, some don’t. I didn’t like it.
So I got out of there.
Mr. Lynk: I can certainly understand that.
Mr. Duncan: Nothing unpleasant; I wasn’t fired or anything like that. I looked at
the partners. Believe it or not in those days, the Rosenman firm had
the non-partner, 18 associates, two for one. Now I don’t know how
big the firm is. I’m sure Rosenman himself had nothing to do with it.
I just didn’t like living in New York, working for the firm.
Mr. Lynk: So about 1953 you came back to D.C. Did you go straight to the
U.S. Attorney’s Office?
Mr. Duncan: Oh no. There was a lawyer in Washington named Belford Lawson.
Belford V. Lawson, who approached me in New York about coming
to the law firm and I didn’t need much persuading. We had a threeperson firm: Lawson, McKenzie & Robinson. McKenzie was his
wife, Marjorie McKenzie, who later became a judge. The Robinson
was Aubrey Eugene Robinson, Jr.
Mr. Lynk: Oh, yes.
Mr. Duncan: Later became a district judge. I stayed with Belford, Robbie –
Aubrey – had been with Belford since 1948. Belford did not have
the reputation for being the most ethical attorney, and I stayed there
for six months. I said I didn’t want to be there. I told Robbie one
day, I said, “I’m leaving.” “When are you going to do it?” he said.
“Now, Robbie, now, I’m fine so I’m going in,” I said. So he and I
left the firm somewhere in the summer of ‘54 and opened the law
firm of Robinson & Duncan at 473 Florida Avenue, N.W., which is
where I was born and which I had inherited. It was just a row house,
but it was in a commercial neighborhood. So we could practice law
there and I lived there. So, we must have spent $500 to straighten
the place out. A year later Frank Reeves joined us.
Mr. Lynk: Yes.
Mr. Duncan: And the firm from ‘54 to ‘61 was known as Reeves, Robinson &
Duncan. And that would be a good place to stop.
Mr. Lynk: Okay. Belford Lawson, is that the father of the –
Mr. Duncan: Yep, yep yep yep yep.
Mr. Lynk: Belford Lawson is now at Howard.
Mr. Duncan: Now where?
Mr. Lynk: There’s a Belford Lawson, III.
Mr. Duncan: Belford, III, yeah.
Mr. Lynk: Okay, that’s his father.
Mr. Duncan: Belford V. Lawson, Jr.
Mr. Lynk: Oh, okay.
Mr. Duncan: So, this would be the III, yeah. And he was in the Corporation
Mr. Lynk: Oh, okay.
Oral History of Charles T. Duncan
May 11, 2002
This is the second interview of the Oral History of Charles T. Duncan, as part of
the Oral History Project of The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit.
The interviewer is Gregory L. Poe. The interview took place in Mr. Duncan’s home at
1362 Myrtle Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland.
Mr. Poe: My name is Greg Poe. I am an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the
District of Columbia, and I am here with Mr. Charles Duncan. Mr.
Duncan, may I call you Charlie on the tape?
Mr. Duncan: Please do, yes.
Mr. Poe: Let me start with the very beginning, Mr. Duncan. Where were you born?
Mr. Duncan: Uh, in Washington, D.C. I like the sound of that – a native
Mr. Poe: Describe a little bit about your very early childhood experiences if you
Mr. Duncan: I was born in 1924. Born at home, as a matter of fact, and that was not too
unusual in those days. The address was 473 Florida Avenue, N.W., in
Washington, which I mention only because it later became the site of our
law offices, Reeves, Robinson & Duncan in 1953 and 1954. My mother
was a public school teacher. My father was a physician. My father was a
good deal older than my mother, twenty-one years, as a matter of fact.
But it was a first marriage for both of them. The city, of course, in 1924
and until 1954 and thereafter, was strictly segregated, by race, and the
particular neighborhood in which I was born was then known, and is now
known, as LeDroit Park, which is close to Howard University. And again,
by further coincidence, it is in the same block, physically the same block,
where Walter Washington now lives. He’s 408 T Street, and I was 473
Florida Avenue. Because both my parents were professionals, I was born
in a relatively well-to-do family.
Ms. Poe: Could you discuss a little bit your recollection of your parents and how
they came to take the positions they did.
Mr. Duncan: In my father’s case, and I should just clarify now in case anyone should be
confused, my natural father was Dr. Charles Andrew Tignor, and my
name was Charles Andrew Tignor, Jr. The Duncan part came in later
when my natural father and my mother were divorced, and my natural
father died shortly thereafter. My mother remarried Todd Duncan, who
was a singer, who adopted me, and I changed my name to Charles Tignor
Duncan, as I’m known today. I just throw that in because some people
don’t know that. Anyway, in my father’s case, I’ve always – I don’t know
a lot about his ancestors and history, not nearly as much as I should – I’ve
always been amazed that in 1924, he was a medical doctor. As best I can
figure out, he was born in or about 1878, which was not too long after
slavery. And it’s always interested me that he was a physician, having
been born when he was. Now whether – I really don’t know much about
his ancestry. I do know, I just recently came across, the names of his
father and mother. His father, according to the record that I saw, came
from the island of Martinique. But that’s absolutely and totally all that I
know about his forebears. It was my understanding at an early age that
my father’s parents or relatives lived in the Anacostia part of the District
of Columbia, but I don’t really know that. I should point out that he died
when I was eight years old, so I don’t remember a whole lot about him,
except I remember him fondly and favorably. My mother, who was 21
years his junior, is still living. She’s 105 now. She and her family – she
was from Charlottesville, Virginia – and she had two sisters and a brother.
Both sisters came to this area. Her brother remained in Charlottesville.
Her family name was Jackson. According to Jackson family lore, they
were descended a la Sally Hemings from Thomas Jefferson. Whether
that’s true or not, I don’t know. We have family historians who say that it
is, and they can trace it back, but I never paid much attention to it, and it’s
my view that if so, so what? You know, so what? Who cares? Anyway,
she came to Washington, D.C., as a relatively young girl, 16, 17, 18, to go
to what was then called Miner Normal School. It was later called D.C.
Teacher’s College. And now I guess it is part of UDC. But she went to
Miner Normal School. And when she was here, she lived with her sister,
my aunt, at 402 U Street, N.W., in the old LeDroit Park neighborhood, one
block up from Walter Washington, who was 408 T. And my cousin,
Elizabeth, still lives in that house – 402 U Street. So, some things go way
Mr. Poe: On that issue, and by the way, I should note we’re speaking here on May
11, 2002. But on that score, is 473 Florida still standing?
Mr. Duncan: It’s still standing. It’s, I believe, unoccupied, vacant, and has been for a
number of years. That whole block of Florida Avenue, which used to
have Harrison’s Café in it, hasn’t been yuppified yet. U Street is moving
that way, but it hasn’t quite reached over that far. Nor has Howard come
that far south. It’s still sort of a desolate neighborhood.
Mr. Poe: Well there’s a lot of redevelopment in some surrounding areas, so it seems
Mr. Duncan: Oh sure. Oh it’ll happen sooner or later. Yeah.
Mr. Poe: Let me ask you, Charlie, about the Tignor family. Is there any continuing
Tignor family line in the District?
Mr. Duncan: Oh sure. The one I know best is, I guess she would be a cousin-in-law,
Catherine Tignor, and her son is the Superior Court Judge Robert Tignor.
There are other Tignors about. There was one Tignor who was active in
Prince George’s County politics, and the name is sufficiently odd so that I
just assume that we’re related, but I’ve never met her. But there are some
Tignors still about. All the folk will remember a Madison Tignor who
taught and was a major presence at Dunbar High School for many years.
Mr. Poe: Now, did you have any brothers and sisters?
Mr. Duncan: No. I was an only child.
Mr. Poe: I take it you were quite close with, and remain quite close I should say,
with your mother.
Mr. Duncan: Oh indeed. Absolutely.
Mr. Poe: She lives in the area?
Mr. Duncan: I’m sorry?
Mr. Poe: Is she living in the D.C. area?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes. She lives, as a matter of fact, it’s not very far in terms of houses –
she moved, when she married Todd Duncan, from 473 Florida Avenue to
1600 T Street, Northwest, and that was in or about 1934. They moved to
1600 Upshur Street, N.W., in or about 1958 and have lived there ever
since. My stepfather Todd died in 1998, and my mother still resides there.
And when they moved to 1600 Upshur Street, I was living at 1812 Upshur
Street, just two blocks up the street. I lived up there until 1995 when we
moved down here to this house.
Mr. Poe: And we’re here in –
Mr. Duncan: We are here in 1362 – we’re here in Arundel on the Bay. Myrtle Avenue.
This is my parent’s former summer home. They having acquired this
property – they, now, I’m talking about Gladys and Todd – having
acquired this property in or about 1954 or 1955, and it was their pride and
joy. They both loved it very, very much. My mother just lavished care on
it. My father loved to work out in the yard. They both were great
fishermen and crabbers. And there came a time when they were of the
nature they couldn’t use it, and the house just went unused for a couple of
years, and my wife Pam and I decided to accept my father’s offer and just
move down here, which we did.
Mr. Poe: Very nice. And I should say that we are looking out over the bay as we
Mr. Duncan: Right.
Mr. Poe: On a beautiful, sunny Saturday.
Your mother’s name, I take it then, her maiden name was Gladys
Mr. Duncan: Nancy Gladys Jackson.
Mr. Poe: You mentioned her marriage to Todd Duncan, the singer. If you could
talk about that a little bit, and Mr. Duncan.
Mr. Duncan: First let me say overall that given my age when he came into my life, eight
years old, he and I became very, very close and I never think of him as my
stepfather, I think of him as my father.
Mr. Poe: I see. No offense intended.
Mr. Duncan: No. No, no, no, not at all. Not at all. A lot of people who only met me in
later years were surprised to find that he is my stepfather. But I never
dissembled about that, and it’s just a wonderful relationship that I’ve had
with him. He was a professor of voice at Howard University, and
according to the story, my mother became a voice student of his. She
sang, because she had always sung in the choir, as I remember very
vividly, she sang in the choir and had a rather nice voice. Whether she
innocently went there, or whether she had ulterior motives, I don’t know,
but the story is that very quickly she was his last student of the day
[laughter], and they became very friendly. In one of his biographies, it’s
stated that he always, after the second or third lesson, he said “May I kiss
you?” You know how these things get cleaned up, and I don’t know
exactly happened, but in any event, they did get married in June of 1934.
And they had a very lovely, lovely life together. Shortly after they were
married, he was “discovered” by George Gershwin, and in 1935, he
created, as they say, the role of Porgy in the original Porgy & Bess, having
interviewed with Gershwin, and his career sort of took off from that. He
immediately went into concert work, and between the late 1930s and by
the mid- to late-1950s, he sang all over the world to great acclaim. Much
more so overseas than here because, again, he performed at the time of
Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson – you know, racial situations,
segregation, the whole business.
Mr. Poe: Limited, but strictly limited to where he could perform?
Mr. Duncan: In this country. But overseas he was quite a success. He appeared in a
couple movies. Not big ones, but some movies. He appeared in one of
the, the first revival of Porgy & Bess in 1940, 1941. And then he was in a
couple of movies, Unchained, Cabin in the Sky. I’m sorry, he was on the
stage in Cabin in the Sky. He was in the movie Unchained. He was not in
the movie Cabin in the Sky. He had quite a successful career, very well
Mr. Poe: Was his career, did it take off after he met Gershwin? He was a professor
at Howard then. And the Porgy & Bess experience led to fame, I take it.
Mr. Duncan: Absolutely, a big break. It was a biggie.
Mr. Poe: Sure.
By the way, what’s your date of birth Charlie?
Mr. Duncan: October 31, 1924. Halloween, by the way.
Mr. Poe: A good day.
Mr. Duncan: Absolutely.
Mr. Poe: You mentioned the segregation that your father Todd Duncan experienced
as a singer, and growing up in D.C., obviously you lived in times of strict
segregation as you mentioned, and what are your thoughts, as you look
back on your childhood, about those experiences?
Mr. Duncan: Well, you know, time passes, things change, attitudes change. The story
is, it’s a very common story, kids who were my peers, and you will hear
this repeated 10 years, 20 years later, of kids the same age, our parents
went to great lengths to protect us from segregation. It was never openly
talked about as such. We used to go downtown to shop, for example, but
you couldn’t eat at the lunch counter, and different parents handled that
differently. “Why can’t we sit down and eat at the lunch counter?” “Oh
well, let’s wait until we get home because the food at home is better.” To
this day, I remember that you couldn’t go to the bathroom anywhere, in
any of the stores downtown. And I’m talking about Woodies, and
Hecht’s, and there was a Lansburgh’s then, and something called Palais
Royale. And they were all over on the 11 and F Street area. And the th
present public library on Mount Vernon Square – what is that? H Street?
Mr. Poe: 7 and Mass.? th
Mr. Duncan: Yeah, that library, that beautiful building which is still there, was then the
central public library, the main public library. And many a time, I walked
in there, you know, just holding it until you could go in and go down to
the basement and go to the bathroom. To this day, walking by that place, I
remember that. Very, very funny.
I was saying that we were protected. We had our own life. There was U
Street, and movies for us, at the Lincoln, Republic and Booker T. You
would go downtown occasionally, but basically you stayed uptown. You
only went downtown to go shopping for clothes, or something like that.
You did not go downtown to go to the restaurant, because you couldn’t go
to the restaurant. You did not go downtown and go to the movies, because
you couldn’t go to the movies. So basically, it was just to shop. Public
transportation in this city was not segregated, interestingly enough. And I
don’t know historically why that was so. But in any event, that’s just the
way it was. I grew up that way. Everyone grew up that way in my peer
group. And I went to public schools. I went K-4 grades to Mott School, th
which is still standing, although it’s been rebuilt. Fourth through sixth
grades to Morgan School, which is, I think that’s gone through an
incarnation, it’s now called something else, at 18th and Champlain Streets,
Mr. Poe: I think Mott School was at 4 and Bryant? th
Mr. Duncan: Mott was at 4 and Bryant Streets, right. And, then I went to Garnet- th
Patterson for 7 through 9 grades. It’s still there, at 10 and U Streets, th th th
N.W., at Vermont Avenue. So, you know, who knows what scars you
grew up with, but whatever ones there are, are the same ones that all black
kids had at the time. Again, you know, I’m talking relatively well-to-do
people at that time.
Mr. Poe: Well, and that’s – I wanted to get to that. You obviously came from a
relatively well-to-do, highly educated family. And what was, from sort of
a class perspective, do you have any thoughts about that? Because
obviously within any racial group there are class distinctions. What kind
of experience growing up in that regard can you recall?
Mr. Duncan: Let me put it this way. When I graduated from Garnet-Patterson and went
away to a preparatory school, it was one of these preparatory schools
where you had work assignments, and I got assigned to the classroom
building cleaning toilets! And I reacted volubly. I said, “I don’t clean
toilets. Where I come from the maid cleans the toilets.” And that was
literally true. From the time I was born we had a live-in maid and, so, I
don’t quite know how to play the class angle, but there isn’t any doubt but
that I, and people I still am friendly with, were of an upper-middle-class in
black society. I’m not comparing it to white society, but certainly in black
society. And I was raised in a very elite way. There were things I
couldn’t do because – I couldn’t join the Boy Scouts because the local
Boy Scout colored troop was not made up of the same class of kids that I
came from. All of us – not all of us, but it was quite common for the girls
to take piano lessons at Nickerson’s and for the boys to take violin lessons
at Howard University. Not everybody, but I mean it was the kind of thing
we did. I was taken to Constitution Hall and had to sit in that little
segregated section up in the balcony. Every time Gloria Perkins or
Yehudi Menuhin, or any child violin prodigy came to town, you know,
you’d go down and hear that, because, you know, you played violin. So,
there was a class structure, and there was an interesting overlay of color,
which was true then; it’s still, to a lesser extent, still true.
Mr. Poe: Now, did you have any interaction with whites to any significant extent?
Mr. Duncan: No. Practically, no. The only – as a child, the only interaction you would
have with whites at all would be in downtown stores, the streetcar
conductor, or the – what used to be called in those days without any
malice on our part – “the Jew’s store,” meaning the corner grocery store.
This wasn’t the days of, you know, the big Giants and the big Safeways,
but the DGS – the District Grocery Stores – little neighborhood stores all
over the city, in black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods. And they
were called “Jew stores” because more often than not, or quite often, a
Jewish couple would own a store. And that would be the only contact
with white folks, that I recall.
Mr. Poe: And the name was a means of identification that was generally accepted,
and not anything –
Mr. Duncan: I said, and I mean it, it had no negative connotation whatsoever. It just
didn’t. I mean it was just called the “Jew store.” It was owned by Jews.
Mr. Poe: Well that’s very interesting, now, in this day and age, a lot has changed
over 50 years or more, obviously, in dramatic ways. And at the time,
though, that was – I take it people interacted in a way, for example, the
owners of the store were aware that – I take it – that that was what their
stores were called, or do you know?
Mr. Duncan: I don’t know, but it would shock me if they did not.
Mr. Poe: Yeah, and I’m sure it was – it sounds as if groups sort of accepted, they
accepted roles in social structure. I’m just curious about the way – I’m
trying to figure out the way that different groups related, and it sounds like
they related fairly –
Mr. Duncan: Well. Well, you’ve got to remember that the neighborhoods were basically
segregated, and there were mixed blocks, or one block would be black,
and the next block would be white, but basically segregated. So the store
owners, who were in those neighborhoods, knew who they were serving,
and they had no problem with it. You know, they were in the business to
make money. That’s the way the people got their groceries, by and large,
in those days. And they used to extend credit. You know, run tabs, or
whatever you call it. Tickets. On a tick. That’s right. On the ticket.
Mr. Poe: That means what? That means a tab?
Mr. Duncan: Yeah. Your parents would pay at the end of the week, or the end of the
month, whatever the practice was. I remember almost by name, two or
three couples who were in the store that we patronized, they were very
Mr. Poe: You mentioned going to Garnet-Patterson. Did you go abroad one year?
While you were there?
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: Where did you go?
Mr. Duncan: Let me first say that when I talk about – this is further responsive to your
earlier question – when I talk about growing up in a segregated
neighborhood, I always point out that the schools in those days, the
segregated schools, were just first-rate. At Garnet-Patterson, grades seven
through nine, I started Latin in 7B, that’s the second half of the 7 grade,
and by the time I graduated I had a year or two years of Latin. In English
I had read the Odyssey and the Iliad and at Christmastime – and I could
still recite them – we learned Christmas carols, Adeste Fideles, in German
– in Latin, I mean. And, so we got a first-rate education. That’s another
whole story. My mother was a school teacher. It was the only thing open
to her in those days. She would not be a school teacher in this era because
she could do other things. She could go into business, she could do this,
she could do that. But in those days, the wives would be teachers and
even a male Harvard-trained Ph.D. taught at Dunbar High School. That’s
all he could do is teach there. So we had an abundant supply of just firstrate teachers. All along the line, from Kindergarten through 12 grade.
And, of course, at Howard University – you know that story, the same
thing. And if you were the son or daughter of a public school teacher,
then you got double special attention because, you know, they knew your
mother was so-and-so, so they made doubly sure that you learned. An
Mr. Poe: Your mother taught in the D.C. public schools?
Mr. Duncan: She taught in D.C. public schools. Yes. Absolutely. As did my
godmother, with whom I’m very close, and as did my first wife. I mean, I
grew up in a schoolteacher family. My father, my stepfather, was in a
sense a school teacher because he was at Howard.
You asked about going overseas. In 1938. I had been at Garnet for a
year-and-a-half, or something like that, and my father was in a play in
London, and he took me and mother over there, and we lived there for the
better part of a year. The first few months that I was there, I just roamed
around the City of London, and the Underground, and all that, and then
the show went on the road, and they put me in school. They would have
done that anyway, because you know, you couldn’t just not be in school.
So I had a half-year, three-fourths of a year, of British schooling so that by
the time I got back and graduated from Garnet-Patterson and ready to go
to college, I not only had – I’m sorry, to prep school – I had this A#1
public school background, plus a year in an English school. So I was very
well prepared academically, then, when I went on to preparatory school.
And we only came back because of the imminent outbreak of the war.
Mr. Poe: This was in 1938, 1939?
Mr. Duncan: 1938, 1939. Yes.
Mr. Poe: You were how old at that time?
Mr. Duncan: Fourteen.
Mr. Poe: Do you have any recollection of how the social relationships you had, or
that you saw your parents have in England, compared to your experiences
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes, it was totally different. In the first place, there were no – I have to
say this carefully – there was no racial segregation based on color because
the British, at that point, had not had any immigration problems, they
didn’t say anything about colored people. And the school that I went to, I
was mostly an object of curiosity. “What color is your blood?” You
Mr. Poe: Did people touch your skin?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes, absolutely. The kids did on the street, you know, other school
boys. Beyond that, they were perfectly fine. It was my first experience in
a non-segregated society.
Mr. Poe: Did you happen to come across any persons from India or the West
Mr. Duncan: No.
Mr. Poe: Any parts of the British Empire?
Mr. Duncan: No, my point is, and I said I’m going to phrase this carefully, as far as I
remember, India was a part of the British Empire at that time, and I don’t
know that dark-skinned Indians, unless they were in diplomatic service –
no, there wouldn’t be any diplomatic service. I don’t remember ever
seeing any Indians in Britain. Now, I probably did and don’t remember,
but it certainly wasn’t a presence of any kind.
Mr. Poe: You found that, I take it, to be quite an interesting experience living a year
Mr. Duncan: Oh absolutely.
Mr. Poe: So, you indicated the war broke out, and that’s what prompted you, of
course, to come back home.
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: You moved back to –
Mr. Duncan: Back to Washington.
Mr. Poe: To 473 Florida?
Mr. Duncan: No, they had – my father had died by then. When we went over there, we
were living in 1600 T Street, N.W.
Mr. Poe: I’m sorry, you moved there in 1934.
Mr. Duncan: Yes, and so we just came back to there.
Mr. Poe: Now, when you came back, you went off to – how long did you stay in
D.C. before you actually went off to prep school?
Mr. Duncan: It was a year or less. When I went away, I was in the 8 grade, when I th
came back I was in the 9 . And I graduated – with my class, as a matter th
of fact – in 1939, is that right? So it was a year. I finished GarnetPatterson in 9 grade.
Mr. Poe: What do you think prompted your schooling, going up to prep school?
And what prep school was it you went to?
Mr. Duncan: It was then called Mount Hermon School for Boys, and it was associated
with a girls school called Northfield Seminar, which was located five
miles away, but there was a common oversight. The schools are now
combined, it’s called Northfield Mount Hermon, and it’s the largest
residential – it’s the largest prep school in the country. And it’s, I would
say, at the very top of the second tier, or very bottom of the first tier of
school rankings. It’s compared with Exeter and Andover and Choate, and
what used to be Lawrenceville, and it did not – well, it didn’t draw an
Exeter crowd. I mean, Exeter was Exeter and it still is Exeter. But it was
a very good school, and still is.
Mr. Poe: And that’s what I take it your mother –
Mr. Duncan: Sent me.
Mr. Poe: I’m sorry?
Mr. Duncan: She sent me there.
Mr. Poe: She sent you there.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. She told me one day, “You’re going to Mount Hermon.” And I said
“Okay, where’s that?” A friend of hers had sent her son. And there was a
little bit of a history of kids from D.C. going to Mount Hermon, so I was
not the first.
Mr. Poe: And this was a – I take it they had good experiences so it became
something that your mother obviously thought would be good for you.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. Now speaking of elitism, as good as Dunbar was in those days,
Dunbar wasn’t good enough for me in my mother’s book, so I got sent
Mr. Poe: I’m sure very little was [laughter].
Mr. Duncan: Right. I got sent away to preparatory school.
Mr. Poe: And, did you get up there by train? How would you travel back and forth?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. The Montrealer would leave Union Station at 4:00 in the afternoon
and would arrive at White River Junction, Vermont at 4:00 a.m.! And you
would always be awakened by the porter and get up and get dressed, and
get out in the cold, dark. The first time, by car, you know, your parents
would take you up to school, but after that you’d go back and forth by
train, for holidays.
Mr. Poe: So you’d spend, what?, September to June or so?
Mr. Duncan: No, September to – we didn’t come home for Thanksgiving. We came
home at Christmastime. And we’d come home again at spring break and
then in the summertime. So between September and June, you’d come
Mr. Poe: And in terms of the, uh – how big was the class?
Mr. Duncan: My recollection is – 1,200 to 1,500 students overall. So a class would be
200 or 300.
Mr. Poe: So you’d have some familiarity at least with pretty much everyone in the
class, and maybe some close friends, a few close friendships?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, oh absolutely. The classes were indeed small enough so you knew
Mr. Poe: Did kids come from all over the country, or was it primarily East Coast?
Mr. Duncan: Well, primarily East Coast, but they made a point of trying to attract from
all over. They were doing diversity before diversity was thought of, I
mean it was something they did. It was primarily New England, but there
were, you know, a sprinkling of kids from all over.
Mr. Poe: Any experiences there stand out in your mind?
Mr. Duncan: Well, I, you know, I think the real story of my life, a real interesting thing
with my life, is that I’ve developed living on both sides of the street. I’ve
lived in all black, exclusively all-black community, which was basically
living in Washington up through Garnet-Patterson, up through junior high
school, was basically all black. Then, I did a 180-degree turn, and when I
got to Mount Hermon, it was all white, I was the only black person
around. And, uh, so then I lived on the other side of the street. But
because of the year in England, it didn’t bother me. And because of the
very fine academic preparation I had, I fit right in there academically.
And I graduated. I was class salutatorian. I was number two in the class,
and was a member of the I guess it’s called the Formalities Society, like
Phi Beta Kappa for prep school, and I played tennis all my life, and so I
was on the tennis team, and I took up – I was introduced to skiing, and I
learned to ski real fast, and I had a knack for skiing. I was also on the ski
team, the varsity ski team, so I had a ball there. I was a BMOC [laughter].
Mr. Poe: Well it sounds like you would have been.
Mr. Duncan: And I say this not to brag, but I guess I was proud of it at the time. They
used to vote in the class yearbook the most this and the most that – I was
the most – I was five things – the Most Popular, the Most Versatile, the
Most Likely to Succeed, a couple, two other things, I’ve forgotten what
they were – oh, Most Respectful. Yes. I’m telling you this because there
are some magazine articles around about this, you have this, as a matter of
fact, because when I was introduced at the Bar –
Mr. Poe: You’re speaking, of course, about the William Brennan Award you won,
presented by the D.C. Bar last year, in 2001?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. The Bar president had run across this somewhere, in one of the
Mount Hermon magazines. And he, you know, read that out. That was, I
would say, that would probably, in some ways, be the most successful
period of my life. Everything went right. In only three years, and I
enjoyed it very, very much.
Mr. Poe: Everything went right, in the sense that life just felt –
Mr. Duncan: Academically, and uh, socially within the context of what was socially,
you know, this was a New England, uptight preparatory school. Boys,
you know. There were strict rules, and you couldn’t go off campus. You
couldn’t put your foot off the campus boundary. So, you know, you didn’t
go into town and hang out on Saturday nights, or anything like that. You
had work to do. So, yes, just everything went very nicely.
Mr. Poe: Cool. And the war’s going on at this period of time.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I remember vividly.
Mr. Poe: Did that have any effect on those three years, as you can recall, in any
Mr. Duncan: Um, I don’t think at Mount Hermon it did because the war broke out in
1939, that was the same year I got there, ’39, ’40, ’41, yes, it was my first
year there. I should say that it’s a four-year school, but it was very
common to enter in the second year, and some people even came just for
Mr. Duncan: You were asking if the war made any difference, and I was saying as a
practical matter, it did not. That hardly seems possible, but if you
remember, I mean if one was around at that time, for the first two years of
the war, America was getting ready, you know, we went into a war
production phase, we went into a draft phase, went into a manpower
training phase, and we didn’t show up in Europe until, you know, like,
well, Normandy was, what ’44, so it took a little while, you know, for us
to get going. So it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that at
Mount Hermon, 1939-1942, in terms of the way our lives were affected,
that the war did not have any effect on it. Now I’m sure that there were
things that I was unaware of, like there was less sugar available. I’m sure
that people who were concerned with procurement, in the kitchen, for
example, had some problems, but nothing ever filtered down to us, at that
Mr. Poe: Well you ended up, you mentioned, going to Dartmouth College.
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: And how was it that you decided to attend Dartmouth?
Mr. Duncan: Easy. Easy, easy, easy. I would’ve gone to Harvard, but I was big into
skiing, and Dartmouth had a bang-up ski team in those days, so that’s –
and it was an Ivy School, so you know, what the heck. I went to
Dartmouth. That was easy. That was a no-brainer for me.
Mr. Poe: And I take it you had your parents’ support in going to Dartmouth, of
Mr. Duncan: Oh sure, of course.
Mr. Poe: You went straight from Mount Hermon, then, to Dartmouth?
Mr. Duncan: Mmm hmmm.
Mr. Poe: And what was your experience at Dartmouth like?
Mr. Duncan: In many ways, it was a continuation of Mount Hermon, in terms of
academic – fitting in academically, you know, finding the work easy.
Easy. I could’ve gone into the second year, it would’ve been easy. That
part was fine. But by now, this is now 1942, the war has had a dramatic
effect on Dartmouth. And if not when I got there, then shortly after I got
there, there was a “B5” unit there, that was a – does that ring a bell?
Mr. Poe: It doesn’t.
Mr. Duncan: Okay. In lots of schools and colleges, they were taken over by various
branches of the military services. At Dartmouth, there was a, I think it
was called B5 or B12 program. It was a pre-midshipman program, it was
a midshipman program, really that’s what it was. And the kids who went
into it finished their education and were commissioned. It’s like ROTC.
They were all over, everywhere, then, I mean the war was then underway
full blast, the draft was in effect then, there were educational deferments,
which I took full advantage of. The civilian population at Dartmouth
shrank dramatically from 3,000 to 300. And the military population took
up the difference because of the B5, B12, program I was telling you about;
the only civilians who were left were either 4Fs – does that ring a bell?
Mr. Poe: That doesn’t ring a bell.
Mr. Duncan: Geez! In the selective service system there were classifications. One-A
was the highest, meaning you were ready to be drafted, the only question
was when did your number come up. You were prime material. And
when it was time, you went. Four-F was the lowest classification, and in
some people’s minds, the best. They were physically – something wrong
with them. It was a physical deferment. They were ineligible for military
service. And what I was going to say was that there came a time at
Dartmouth when the only civilians at Dartmouth were 4Fs or people with
educational deferments, which I had.
Mr. Poe: Now the educational deferments, was that something that was sought after
or was there eagerness to join the war? What’s your perception of that?
Mr. Duncan: It was very different. Do you remember Vietnam? How old are you?
Mr. Poe: I’m thirty-nine.
Mr. Duncan: Thirty-nine.
Mr. Poe: So I have a vague memory of, a fairly vague memory of the Vietnam war.
The early 1970s I remember quite well. Toward the end of the war.
Mr. Duncan: And there hasn’t been a big war since then. In the Vietnam era, just about
anybody who was in college was deferred, just on the strength of being an
undergraduate, and that’s one of the reasons that Vietnam became so
unpopular. You’ve heard that only poor kids and only black kids ended
up in Vietnam. That’s because they weren’t in college. Everybody else
was in college, so they didn’t have to go. So that was a very unsavory
aspect. In World War II, it was exactly the opposite. You have doubtless
read and seen pictures of the day after Pearl Harbor, which was a Sunday.
On that Monday there were long lines outside Army and Navy recruiting
offices, people showing up, volunteering to join the Army, join the Navy,
fight for their country. And that attitude by and large prevailed. I mean,
most people – most white kids in my educational peer group – went into
one of the military officers’ training programs, B12, B5. And I’m just
thinking of my friends at Dartmouth. They all became naval officers
through the B12 or B5 program. I couldn’t do that because the Army was
segregated in those days. Among the white middle class, people more or
less sought to join, avoided getting deferments, and fulfilled what they
perceived to be a patriotic duty. My attitude was different, and I think on
the part of most black people the attitude was different, the Army was
rigorously segregated. You know from watching television and the
History Channel, what did blacks do in the war? They were in the
construction battalion, drove trucks, or in the Navy, and I have a nice story
about this coming up, in the Navy they went to cooks and bakers school.
They were servants on board ships. They shined the officers’ shoes and
worked in the wardroom serving meals. That’s all they ever did, and that
goes back to the Philippines. It used to be that Philippine kids were mess
men, but then when war came along, you know, the mess men were black.
So there was really no – given my background, there was really no
incentive for me to go into the military service. So I, and many others,
black and white, sought educational deferment as a way of staying out of
the Army. And I did it until they ran out. They finally called me.
Mr. Poe: So that was in the draft, uh –
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I was eventually drafted.
Mr. Poe: When did that happen?
Mr. Duncan: Oh, I blocked it for a long time, uh –
Mr. Poe: You think maybe February of 1945?
Mr. Duncan: February – no. ’45? Yes, that’s right. I finally was inducted in February
of ’45. That’s right, yes, because I was commissioned. Yes, that’s right.
February of ’45. Now, I’ve been a little fuzzy. I went to Dartmouth in
September of ’42, and I stayed at Dartmouth until in or about September
of ’44, and it was during that period that the civilian population dwindled
down from wherever it was when I went there to 300. It was during that
period that we went on – what did they call it? We went year-round. You
finished college in three years rather than four. You went in the
summertime. Because everything was accelerated. Everything was
accelerated, you know, get on with it so you could get in the Army. So, I
finished three years in those two. And by then, rationing had come in,
sugar, you know, the whole thing. The country had gone from ’39 –
idyllic, you know, lovely Pearl Harbor on a Sunday afternoon – Sunday
morning over there – to full warfare. And all that was happening between
’39 and ’42, ’43, ’44.
Mr. Poe: By the way, do you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was
Mr. Duncan: Sure. I was at Mount Hermon. The time – yes, that would be right. I
seem to remember it was early afternoon, that’s right because there was a
five- or six-hour time difference between Pearl Harbor and here. I
remember 1:30, that’s what time I remember. And that works because the
actual attack was at, what, 6:15 or 7:15, and if you add six to that, that’s
1:15, so yeah, that’s right. 7:05, that’s right. Yes, yeah. And I had gone
to bed and was taking a nap. I’m not a big napper, but for some reason I
was taking a nap. And I woke up and heard on the radio, or something
like that, Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I remember vividly.
Mr. Poe: And do you have any – having lived through that, as well as September
11 of 2001, what kind of comparison might you make? In terms of the
emotional reaction, I suppose.
Mr. Duncan: Well, you didn’t. There was no comparison. I’m 15 years old. Neither I
nor anybody else knew where Pearl Harbor was. And to say that Pearl
Harbor had been bombed, that sounded like not a good thing. There was
no count, until a day or two later, over 3,000 people were killed there. So
that number wasn’t floating around. There was no television. You know,
you couldn’t tune it in and say, oh wow, look at that! So it really was
apples and oranges. Contrast it to September 11 when my son called up,
as I turned on the television, and in this chair, we saw the second, you
know, tower hit. In real time! I mean, as it was happening! Yeah, having
seen thousands of pictures of Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Pearl Harbor,
newsreel, that scene we still see today, having seen Tora Tora, having
seen Pearl Harbor. You have a much better sense of what actually
happened then than we did on the day in question. When we heard it on
the radio at age 15. Were the events comparable? Not really. One was a
declaration of war, when there was a war going on. Remember a war was
going on in Europe. And the Battle of Britain had already happened.
France was occupied. President Roosevelt was saying for Christ’s sake
country, we gotta get in this, you know, come on guys, wake up. So, you
know, if I were an historian, I would say to you, Pearl Harbor was much
more cataclysmic than the Trade Center. Much more. Even though I think
the number of people killed at Pearl Harbor was 3,000-something, wasn’t
it? I’m not sure.
Mr. Poe: I think that’s about right.
Mr. Duncan: Yes, so the numbers, you know. But the implication of Pearl Harbor, to
anyone who knew what was happening, even, you know, a kid, was very
different from that, very different. And I take some exception to Bush’s
having nominated the war on terrorism a war, saying the United States is
at war. We’re not at war. War means some kind of sacrifice. In this
country war meant that everybody, everybody, even black people,
everybody was in it together, you know. War meant your brother got
drafted, you got drafted. War meant that the lady across the street lost her
son. Killed. She had a star in her window. Everything was rationed.
Gasoline. You know. EVERYbody was making a sacrifice. Some a
supreme sacrifice. What’s going on today is nothing, nothing. Bush was
asked, what – early on, somebody said, “What sacrifice are you asking of
the American people?” The only thing he could think of was, you know,
putting up with longer lines down at the airport. So to me they’re not
comparable events. But it’s horrible. We will have the newspapers of the
next few days, in the front pages, we haven’t thrown them out. We won’t
throw ‘em out. I mean that’s how much an effect it made on us. But you
know, it’s television.
Mr. Poe: Does the world move faster now?
Mr. Duncan: Sure. Sure.
Mr. Poe: Well, we were at your induction. Did you go –
Mr. Duncan: Excuse me. You may want to say what I just did because I think it’s
Mr. Poe: Well I certainly will. What Mr. Duncan did was get up, go across the
room, pick up a fairly substantial six-inch stack of newspapers and
magazines, and I think the rustling was evident on the tape, and every one
of those was a depiction of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Mr. Duncan: It was The Post and The Times front pages from that week, and you know,
all the news magazines, and Newsweek’s in there. My point being that
that had a fantastic effect, but it still wasn’t World War II.
Mr. Poe: Well that says something about World War II for sure.
Mr. Poe: You went to the Navy, was that right? How was it – were you inducted
into the Navy or did you have any choice in the matter?
Mr. Duncan: [snort] I was drafted into the Navy.
Mr. Poe: And you went to boot camp.
Mr. Duncan: Your question about did you have any choice, uh, strikes me as amusing.
Because in those days you did not have any choice, and I wondered why
you asked that, and then I remembered that in military recruiting today,
pick your own career, go into whatever service you want to, you know,
that sort of thing. Not like that. No, when I was finally drafted, I was sent
to – I remember I was sent to Baltimore. I remember there was a group of
six draftees, four white and two black, and I need not say who was put in
charge of the group. But in any event, we got over there. Why Baltimore
I can’t tell you. And it was getting on toward the end of the war, and it
was foreseen that the Allies would be victorious in Europe, and they were
gearing up for the Pacific. This is February of ’45. So that on the day that
I was inducted, everybody went into the Navy because they were building
up the Navy, and I’ll never forget, as long as I live, I was going through a
line – you need to go through lots of lines of officers sitting at desks,
stamping papers, and this and that and the other – and I was going through
a line and a white commander or lieutenant commander looked at my
record and saw that I had been to college. So he said when you get into
the next room, take the RT test. You know, RT test. And I think by this
point we had been separated by race. And only black people going into
this line. And this officer said to me, get in there and take the RT test. So,
in my mind, just you know being, riding out, this grilling academic career,
a test was, I just ate tests up, I love to take tests, so we get in the next
room. Big room. Several hundred black inductees. Somebody mumbled,
“Does anyone want to take an RT test?” I put my hand up. The guy next
to me put his hand up. You two, step over there. Turns out the RT test is
a radio technician test. It was an aptitude test for being made a radio
technician. This other fellow and I were sent to Great Lakes, Camp
Robert Smalls. Everybody else in the room was sent to Perry Point, right
up here. Perry Point was the cooks and bakers school.
Mr. Poe: Very interesting.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. And I came this far from being sent to cooks and bakers school.
Which I wouldn’t have tolerated. I wouldn’t have tolerated it.
Mr. Poe: And what do you think would have happened had you ended up there?
Mr. Duncan: I don’t know. I’ve often wondered. I’ve often wondered. I’ve often
wondered. I don’t think I would have been insubordinate because that’s
not my nature. I’m certain that I would’ve gone to somebody and said,
hey, I can make a better contribution somewhere else. Three years of
college. You know, I – not to mention the maid-shined shoes, not to
mention that [laughter]. But it didn’t happen. Not only did we get sent to
Great Lakes which was a regular midshipmen’s – a regular boot camp, it
was a huge one. Camp Robert Smalls was the colored one. I did get to
the colored one, but it was still boot camp for the regular Navy, it wasn’t
cooks and bakers. So I just, you know, the luck of the draw.
Mr. Poe: Well how is it that you think radio technician was the only opportunity
apart from cooks and bakers?
Mr. Duncan: No, no it wasn’t the only opportunity. On that day, you know, your
question makes me realize something that never occurred to me. Because
I never became a radio technician. I took the test. Passed the test. It was
just an aptitude test. And I suppose the white guys who took it were sent
to RT school. I was sent not to RT school, just a plain old boot camp.
That had never occurred to me. Never occurred to me. To the guy,
incidentally, who also put his hand up, I said, “Why did you put your hand
up?” He says, “Well, I saw you put your hands up.” [laughter] We
became friends, as a matter of fact.
Mr. Poe: Was everybody in that room at that point black?
Mr. Duncan: Black. Yep.
Mr. Poe: Well that meant you had some good sense, when he saw you put your
Mr. Duncan: Not everybody, not everyone is a redneck. [laughter]
Mr. Poe: So you were in Camp Robert Smalls. This was in Illinois?
Mr. Duncan: Yep. North of Chicago.
Mr. Poe: And the boot camps were actually segregated within Great Lakes?
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: What was segregation like in the Army? It sounds as if it was strict in a
way that couldn’t be, even as bad as segregation was in society at large, it
was strict in an even more deformed way.
Mr. Duncan: Well, an all-segregated military meant that your segregated unit got the
short end of the stick. To be honest, I don’t know where my boot camp
classmates went because I left them. They went there and I went here.
No, you weren’t – you know, there were no Ku Klux Klan, but you just
got the shitty end of the detail, whatever it was, you know, if there was
something bad to be done, you got called on to do it. I don’t mean you, I
mean the unit, the whole segregated unit. It’s the cooks and truck drivers
thing. You know, there were not a lot of blacks in combat in World War
II. By design. It was designed that way. The top people. It was just
designed that way. There are histories and all written about the role of
blacks in the military, and blacks as part of these histories, have fought in
every war, including the Revolutionary War. You know Crispus Attucks,
a black, who was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War.
Certainly in the Civil War, blacks were on both sides. And in every war
since, including World War II. You know about the Tuskegee Airmen,
I’m sure, and all of that. Doris Miller was a publicity stunt. Do you know
Dorrie Miller? Did you see Pearl Harbor?
Mr. Poe: The movie? No I have not.
Mr. Duncan: There was this black guy, he was a cook, and when Pearl Harbor was
attacked, he manned the machine gun. Never shot a machine gun in his
life. He manned the machine gun, brought down a Jap plane. Was killed
in the process. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal
of Honor. Well, you know, we needed a black hero. Not “we,” but they
needed a black hero. That’s a real famous man, Doris Miller. My point
being that blacks were not trained for combat, and, by and large, didn’t go
to combat. I don’t know the actual numbers, but if you look at film
footage of World War II – the Battle of the Bulge – you will not see a
black person. You will not see a black person. And that wasn’t by choice
of the black soldier. That was what was decided somewhere up the line
what our role was going to be. And it was just a continuation of
segregation and denial of opportunity that you had in the more general
Mr. Poe: Reflect another aspect of it.
Mr. Duncan: Yes. Which is why I was not – I didn’t go down and volunteer the day
after Pearl Harbor. You know, I’m not going to volunteer to be a truck
driver or go to cooks and bakers school. Which was generally what
would’ve happened. Generally. I had a chemistry deferment. I studied
chemistry, which I hated and still hate. I never learned very much about
it, but if you were a chemistry major, you got deferred. And make no
bones about it, make no apologies. If I could have deferred my way the
whole way through, I would’ve done that.
Mr. Poe: When you ended up in Great Lakes, and you finished boot camp training,
how long was that, by the way?
Mr. Duncan: Four months.
Mr. Poe: And then after that you went where?
Mr. Duncan: Then the other fantastic story picks up, which I think I’ve referred to. The
Great Lakes company, as I recall it about 150 men, and our company
commander, believe it or not, was a third-class petty officer. One stripe.
The lowest petty officer you can be. It’s like a one-stripe sergeant. He
called me over to his office one day, and said, “Hey Duncan, this directive
came through, and they’re going to open midshipmen’s school to the
fleet,” meaning enlisted personnel generally, fleet-wide, could apply to
midshipmen’s school if you had finished three years of college. Well it
just so happened I had finished three years of college. And so I got my
papers together and after a lot of – after some difficulty, I was accepted to
midshipmen’s school and sent off to Pearl Harbor, and was, in due course,
commissioned in November 1944. Now I’m quick to point out that all
hours of the ending of World War II, I was in boot camp, I was coming
back from boot leave, on V-E Day, June ’45, and I was in midshipmen’s
school on V-J Day, so I totally missed the shooting war, for which I am
eternally grateful. But in both, in getting to Great Lakes and then going to
midshipmen’s school, both because someone happened to say hey, do this
and do that. Which it proves, you don’t get through life on your own, or
Mr. Poe: Well, I mean, couldn’t you also characterize it as someone saw your,
someone saw you, and had the insight to see – that it was easy to say to
you, you know, anything other than —
Mr. Duncan: The first guy was thinking, this makes more sense for the Navy. This
guy’s going to college. Even though he’s black, he’s going to college.
And the second guy, he had another motive. He also wanted to see me go
to midshipmen’s – he wanted to see somebody black go to midshipmen’s
school because that was a first.
Mr. Poe: Was he white?
Mr. Duncan: No.
Mr. Poe: He was the petty officer. Right.
Mr. Duncan: David Jakes. I will never forget. I often wonder what ever happened to
Mr. Poe: Well, at Cornell, how long were you there, in that midshipmen’s school?
Mr. Duncan: Again, four months.
The same old foolishness continued. At Cornell, we – we meaning the
midshipmen contingent – do you know Cornell?
Mr. Poe: I haven’t been there.
Mr. Duncan: Okay. There’s a quadrant, a group of buildings, over there, that the Navy
had taken over, and they were cranking out midshipmen, you know, every
four months. And just routinely, you were given room assignments and
ended up in a platoon alphabetically. The first 15 A’s are in such-andsuch platoon and are in rooms number 1-5, and so on throughout. [Mr.
Duncan’s laughing] There was one single room in the whole complex.
One single room. So. I got that. But it took me out of the D’s and put me
down with the L’s, as I recall. Kids all around me were L. So I
rationalized that in my mind by saying I’d much rather have a room by
myself than to be in with three or four other guys. And I did, as a matter
of fact. I knew it was wrong, but I did. If this is the way they want to
discriminate, that’s okay with me. Sometimes it works to your favor too.
Black people don’t know that, but sometimes it does. And so I’m telling
you all this because the second or third day that I was there we had to,
again, get into one of these lines, and do something, I forget what it was,
alphabetically. So for me to get in line alphabetically, I had to leave my
group and get up where I should have been really. So when we finished
the line and were outside, we lined up by platoon and marched off to
wherever, and since everyone was alphabetical, they were all with their
own platoon, except for me. I’m marching up with the D’s, and I’m
supposed to be with the L’s, so I break ranks. Well, you’re not supposed
to do that. “What’s your name?” “Duncan.” “Duncan, you’re on report.”
So I told him what happened. So anyway, I waited for my people to come
through, and I got with them. Now I’m on report. That means you’re
going to be disciplined. An infraction. So I said, what in the hell? I had
not done – this wouldn’t have happened to me if I had been assigned
where I was supposed to be. It wouldn’t have happened. So, I went – we
had two officers in charge of us. And one of them was the one that put me
on report. So I went up and said, “I would like to see….” I’m not making
this up – “I would like to see the captain.” Somewhere along the way, I
had learned that every enlisted man had the right to request to go over his
commanding officer’s head. You had that right. And I knew that. So I
said, “Sir, I’d like to go speak with the captain.” “What do you want to
see the captain about?” So I told him. That this had happened to me, that
but for the fact that I was not with my alphabet group, this wouldn’t have
happened. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, we didn’t say I’m a
victim of discrimination. We didn’t say that in those days. But that was
the rhetoric we would use now. But then all I said was I didn’t do
anything wrong; it’s not fair, I’ve been penalized. So he said, “You don’t
have to worry, I’ll take you off the report.” I said, “ All right.” The moral
being, however, they never fooled with me after that. They NEVER
fooled with me. A couple of times, “Duncan you’re talking in line.” But
other people got put on, I never got put on report thereafter. Crazy nigger,
you know you’d go jump up and down, they don’t fool with him. Another
little benefit, you know. So I never had any problem after that. I did well
economically, uh scholastically. The kids I was in with, no problem at all.
You know, I’m sure that there was somebody there from Alabama who
was uncomfortable, but what the hell, they adjust the same way I did.
Mr. Poe: You went –
Mr. Duncan: In November ’45 I was commissioned. I was in the Navy.
Mr. Poe: What ship did you go to?
Mr. Duncan: Third story. By then, I was sent to an oil tanker. A ship of the train, socalled. Ships of the line, and ships of the train. Ships of the line were
fighting ships. Battleships, destroyers. Ships of the train, cargo ships, oil
tankers, supply ships. You know, support ships. And I was sent to an oil
tanker, albeit a first-rate one. I learned that I and five others had been sent
to midshipmen’s school around the country – Cornell, New York,
Columbia, I don’t know where all – five of us. The first five I might say
had gone to regular midshipmen’s school. The other officers, black
officers, were all specially commissioned – they were all sent over here,
we were the first ones to go through regular midshipmen’s school, and I
learned, and I think reliably, that they were going to put us on ships to see
if – this is again now we’re getting toward the end of the war now, this is
November, yeah, V-J Day is over, it’s just a matter of the surrender on the
Missouri had occurred, and now it’s just, you know, MacArthur by now
I’m sure is the High Commissioner of Japan, so, you know, doing a little
mop-up, they want to see what happened if you put a black officer on a
ship and see if plain enlisted men would take orders from him. Same
thing as the Tuskegee airmen, can black people fly airplanes. Same thing.
So that’s how I ended up on this particular ship.
Mr. Poe: What was the name of that ship?
Mr. Duncan: USS Platte. P-l-a-t-t-e. A lot of tankers were named after rivers in those
days. AO 24.
Mr. Poe: I’m sorry?
Mr. Duncan: It was designated AO 24. AO meant fleet oiler. O stood for oil. Oiler.
Just like a battleship was BB, and a destroyer was DD. Oilers were AO.
Mr. Poe: I’m learning more and more as we go. [laughter]
How long were you on that ship?
Mr. Duncan: I picked up the ship, let’s see, I was commissioned in November. I picked
up the ship in December. As it happens, it was in dry dock. Up out of the
water. So it was in December ’45, and I left it May, June of ’46. Sent
back here (Washington, D.C.) to the Office of Public Information.
Mr. Poe: Mr. Duncan was describing before going to the Navy Department Office
of Public Information what his experience on the USS Platte was.
Mr. Duncan: I would have to say that I had a running battle with the captain. A captain
in the Navy is a four-striper, like a colonel in the Army, you know, one
rank below flag rank. I think this particular captain was not thrilled to be
commanding an oil tanker. He didn’t have a lot of use for anyone in the
Naval Reserve, which most of us were, not having been to the Naval
Academy. And he certainly probably didn’t have much use for ensigns,
which is the lowest officer there is; it’s like a second lieutenant. And he
never even thought of the possibility of a black ensign. I’m sure that
never entered his mind. Anyway, he came on the ship a week after I got
there. I had been assigned as assistant navigator, and I get this order from
the executive officer that I’m supposed to tell the steward’s mates – of
whom there were six on the ship, and they were all black, referring back to
what I said, all cooks and bakers school graduates, steward’s mates, that’s
what they were called – I was supposed to tell the steward’s mates that
they could not come to the ship’s party – the ship’s Christmas party –
which was being given out of funds from the ship’s store. There was a
ship’s store that you bought toilet articles and clothes and stuff from, and
it generated a profit, and that profit went into the ship’s account. And the
Christmas party was being given out of the proceeds from the ship’s store.
And the proposition was that the steward’s mates would be given their
share of the party in cash. This is San Pedro, California. So I said I didn’t
want to go to the steward’s mates. Someone told me I was an assistant
navigator, why do I have to tell the steward’s mates? “Captain’s orders.”
I said, “Okay.” So, having refreshed myself on this story, I went back to
my room, and I literally thought, I literally – the thoughts went through
my mind, as I recounted before, that Charlie, he was a naval officer for a
month, he had been a Negro, or black person, for 20-however-many years
you are old, you’re always going to be a black person. You’re always
going to be a black person. You’re probably not always going to be a
naval officer. So let’s do it. So again, I went to the executive officer,
who, by the way, I had learned had been to Mount Hermon, and so we had
had a rapport. Again, I said I want to go see the captain, and he said,
“What about?” and I said, “About this order about the steward’s mates.”
So he said, “Okay, good luck.” He set up the appointment, I went up to
see the captain. I really was naïve, but it’s paid off a lot in my life. I told
him what the problem was, that I didn’t think it was fair for the steward’s
mates, who are black, to be excluded from a Christmas party for enlisted
men, which was being given out of the proceeds from the ship’s store.
And I even had the temerity to tell him that Mrs. Roosevelt had made a
statement, parenthetically, which presaged what Truman did not too long
thereafter, about desegregating the armed services. Mrs. Roosevelt had
said something about we should stop discriminating against black
servicemen – she had said something that, you know, what the policy
ought to be. And I had the temerity to mention this to the captain, so he
sat and listened, and having said my piece, and this is where the naïve part
comes in, I stood up to leave. He said, “Sit down.”
Mr. Poe: He said, “You sit down?”
Mr. Duncan: He said, “You sit down.” And he proceeded to read me the riot act,
which was that by act of Congress, as an inferior officer – and I’m using
“inferior” in the inferior officer/superior officer sense – as a lower-ranking
officer, I was obliged by act of Congress to give him my undivided loyalty
and obedience. And I was not in a position to question any order that he
gave. And that he would not court-martial me for insubordination this
time, but if ever, ever I did anything like this, I would be court-martialed.
So I think whatever wind was in my sails was taken out and I shrunk from
my six-foot height, complete with epaulettes of one stripe, down to about
yay-tall. I dared not move because he said sit down. He went on to say
that he had not given that order, that that order had been given by his
predecessor, a departed captain, and as far as he was concerned, the
steward’s mates could come to the ship’s party. I said “Yes, Sir.” I’ve
learned by now. And I was dismissed. Word of that got around right
away, and I was an instant hero. Instant hero. With all the enlisted men.
Not just the steward’s mates, all the enlisted men. Ensign Duncan stood
up to the captain. The new ensign stood up to the new captain. And I
almost led a charmed life the rest of the time I was on the ship. Again,
one of the benefits of being discriminated against. It was wonderful. It
Mr. Poe: Well it’s interesting you say that. I take it that was across racial lines, the
respect you gained because of that, having stood up and done what you
proceeded to do.
Mr. Duncan: Oh absolutely. Oh absolutely.
Ms. Poe: Do you think the captain fabricated his position that it was the prior
captain’s order? As a way to get out of this?
Mr. Duncan: I think he realized he was wrong. It doesn’t matter. He didn’t rescind it.
He let it stand. He adopted it, let me put it that way. And I think that he
realized it was wrong, and he was man enough to correct it. Now the
lovely thing is, the steward’s mates said “xxxx, we’re not gonna go to the
party and would rather have our money in cash.” They didn’t go. I loved
it. Loved it. Win-win.
Mr. Poe: You said, a couple of times you said your approach was naïve, but one
could also say it was courageous to take some of those actions.
Mr. Duncan: You could say that, yes. You could say that. But in my mind, I wasn’t
being courageous. I didn’t look upon it as being courageous. I looked
upon it as – I just didn’t think of it – I just looked upon it as something I
had to do. It was a duty, an obligation I had. I never thought of it as being
courageous. It’s like the people who march in – well, that could be a little
different, the civil rights march. They were courageous because they were
doing something they knew might get ‘em hit in the head, whereas I
wasn’t taking that chance. It could be called that, but it wasn’t courage
that motivated me. It was correctness of duty.
Mr. Poe: Duty would be then the idea that to lead a life of integrity, I have to do this
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: And I take it you always lived by that principle in your life, or attempted
Mr. Duncan: I suppose that as one went along, that principle diminishes, gets less and
less. No, I’m not going to make that claim.
Mr. Poe: When we were off the tape, you mentioned you had a good relationship
with a navigator who had his own problems, and was –
Mr. Duncan: I just meant as a Jewish officer, he was not welcome with open arms
either. I imagine, I don’t know anything specific, we may have talked for
all I know, I just don’t remember, but I mean the Navy in those days was
just very, very inhospitable to blacks and Jews. It was a southern,
aristocratic tradition. The Navy was southern. The Navy today is behind
all the other services in numbers of officers, and all of that. Admiral
Zumwalt, you know, the Father of the Nuclear Navy, was Jewish; he
caught up coming along. The last service institution to have a black
graduate was Annapolis. Right at this very time. I mean we’re talking
about 1947. The first black. The Army had somebody in 1890.
Mr. Poe: It had a southern cultural character inherent in it?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. It was. It was. You know it’s changed some. At that time, oh sure.
Mr. Poe: You went to the Office of Public Information. That was an assignment
essentially, and you were still in your capacity as an officer?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes. I have a funny feeling that that didn’t just happen. My mother
was always active in politics and, such as it was, she fancied she had some
political influence. I’m certain as I sit here that they just didn’t happen to
pluck me off the ship in the Pacific and sit me behind a desk on
Constitution Avenue at the end of the war. I mean, you know, that didn’t
make any sense at all. I talked to her about it, and she denied up and
down that she had anything to do with it. I think she did.
Mr. Poe: Well, were you happy to come back home?
Mr. Duncan: Oh sure. I was going to come back home in six months in any event. The
war was over.
Mr. Poe: I see. A little bit of an acceleration. And that was a desk job? Fairly
Mr. Duncan: Mmm hmmmm.
Mr. Poe: And you finished your time then in the Navy at the Office of Public
Mr. Duncan: Yep. September ’46.
Mr. Poe: Upon release, discharge I should say, you went back to Dartmouth I take
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: And spent another year there?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I had one year to go. I finished three clean, and had one to go.
Mr. Poe: And that went without incident, I assume.
Mr. Duncan: Yes, by and large. There was one thing that happened that I didn’t have
anything, really anything much to do with it. It was just funny, looking
back on it. To the extreme being courageous; I think I’m chicken more
than anything else. I was on the tennis team, and they had scheduled a
tennis match with Duke. Duke had raised a fuss about it, you know, play
with – so the tennis coach came to me and said, he told me what’s
happening, and he said, “We’re not going to take you on this trip.” Well,
it was like the single room at midshipmen’s school. As it happened, I was
working like mad to get good grades the last year because my father had
promised me an automobile if I made Phi Beta Kappa, and I really needed
to kind of study; I did not want to go fooling around, plus I didn’t play
very well, I mean we hadn’t practiced, so I was delighted. But one of my
friends got wind of this, no no no no no no, and he went to somebody, and
maybe they went to the student newspaper. Whatever, the school did the
right thing, they cancelled the match, you know, said we can’t bring our
team, we’re not going to play you. But, I say, that wasn’t my doing, it
was just something that happened around me. If you said, “Did you ever
feel any sense of discrimination at Dartmouth in your last year?” I’d say,
sure, this happened, this happened, this happened, turn of events, story, all
that, but without incident as far as I was concerned. Whatever happened
is, you know, just run-of-the-mill stuff.
Mr. Poe: Stuff you had experienced before and you experienced after?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, and still experience. Routine stuff.
Mr. Poe: That raises sort of a big issue. How has the world changed, in terms of
Mr. Duncan: The world – I’m sorry, let me finish your question, I mean, I’ll let you
finish your question.
Mr. Poe: No, I think you understand where I’m going.
Mr. Duncan: In terms of what?
Mr. Poe: In terms of how issues of discrimination, issues of fair treatment of
African-American people, of various social groups, do you think that the
world has improved?
Mr. Duncan: Oh.
Mr. Poe: Or at least this social world?
Mr. Duncan: I think it has improved immeasurably and spectacularly. I can get some
people in here who will argue that nothing has improved, that things are
worse off than they were, that there are fewer black partners in law firms
than there were ten years ago, that there – you know, this is worse, that’s
worse – and you know, I just don’t agree. I think it’s a very, very, very
different world that you have now. If you are black, in this country,
instead of 40% opportunity, there is 98, 99% opportunity. Colin Powell
would have been a serious, albeit I think a defeated, presidential
candidate. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable. No one
could have thought, no one could’ve conceived that. No, no, I think
things have – you’ve got black millionaires now. When I was coming
along, you know, you had Madam Walker and that was about it. You
have CEOs, heads of corporations, you know, when I did my corporate
thing, they got me and Vernon Jordan, and Bill Coleman, and Barbara
Preiskel. We at least had been to law school. But now we get called to
serve on corporations, because you’ve got people who are legitimate, bona
fide corporate heads themselves who can now do that. Oh no, it’s gotten a
lot better. Perfect? No. It’ll never be perfect. Never. I take my cue on
that. I used to be a utopian when I was at Dartmouth. I used to think that
things would get better and better and better and sooner or later everything
would be fine, but not so, it won’t ever happen. Minor contemporary kind
of funny illustration. The Thomas Jefferson people, and Sally Hemings
descendants, outrageous. You didn’t need the DNA to establish paternity
on Jefferson’s part. Short of an admission by him, historians, everybody
knew that he was the father. It happened all over. Where do you think my
skin color comes from?
Mr. Poe: Why don’t you describe your skin color.
Mr. Duncan: I would call it dark brown, medium brown. It’s not black is what I mean.
It’s not the color of an African from Africa, that’s all I’m saying. And for
every one of us, it means that we have some sort of mixed ancestry
somewhere, and it’s not just all Indian either. This is very common. Very
common. And I think it’s just humorous, ludicrous, but also humorous,
that these people say well there’s not really enough evidence, but maybe
we could have another separate cemetery that they could be buried in. Oh
I whooped when I read this. I said to Pam, “Pam goddammit,” I said,
“You people will never change!” I said here we are back to segregated
cemeteries again. She laughed. So you know, it’s never gonna – and
more serious, and a much more deadly example is, I look at people of
Jewish faith who have been objects of discrimination for 2,000 years. We
only got 200 years’ worth, they’ve got 2,000. And it’s more virulent in
many ways now than it was then. So I don’t think that mankind will ever
live in total racial, ethnic harmony, no. I think there’s something in our
nature that makes us antagonistic to each other. But specifically, as you
put the question, immeasurably. Anyone who says it’s no better, just ask
them, would you rather be born now, or would you rather be born 50 years
Mr. Poe: Well how did you decide when you were at Dartmouth where to go to law
Mr. Duncan: Easy. Harvard. Where else would you go? [laughter]
Mr. Poe: You didn’t think about going to Yale?
Mr. Duncan: Nope. Nope.
Mr. Poe: It was clear as day that that was the place to be?
Mr. Duncan: In my mind at that time, it was the most prestigious law school. And I
may say, I don’t think I’ve said this before, that I only applied to
Dartmouth, and I only applied to Harvard.
Mr. Poe: You knew where you wanted to go.
Mr. Duncan: That and I had enough confidence. Well, I had an excellent academic
record, I mean how the hell are you going to get in there? And, quiet as
it’s kept, it was the little-bitty plus. Not a big one, but a little one. Even
at Dartmouth and at Harvard. You know, they saw the handwriting on the
Mr. Poe: Do you remember, by the way, when Jackie Robinson broke in?
Mr. Duncan: Sure.
Mr. Poe: ‘Cause that was right around –
Mr. Duncan: Vividly. ’47.
Mr. Poe: So this was a – that had a powerful effect, I would think.
Mr. Duncan: Sure it did. But I’ll tell you who had a more powerful effect. Joe Louis.
My recollection picks up at the time of the Schmeling fights. I don’t
honestly remember whether he was champion or not when he lost to
Schmeling. Do you remember offhand?
Mr. Poe: I don’t. Wasn’t this in the ‘30s?
Mr. Duncan: Late ‘30s, ’38, ’39. It was ’38. In any event, at that time, black folk had
precious little to be proud of as a group. I’m not going to say as a race
because I don’t believe in that concept. I think it’s an invalid concept
because it doesn’t really tell you anything, and it’s, you know, not
genetically, biologically conferred. But as a group, as a people, as a race,
as an ethnic group, black folk had very, very little to be proud about. We
used to count progress in terms of whether there had been a decrease in
the number of lynchings from the year before. This was my lifetime, I
remember that. The Urban League and the NAACP used to keep count,
“Well, there were only 13 this year, last year there 40, so we’re really
making progress.” When Joe Louis would win the fight, Schmeling on –
and I forget exactly when he became champ, I think he beat Braddock but
I’m not sure. I was talking to somebody about this the other night. Along
U Street, the minute the results came over the radio, and again, there was
no television. We used to go out in the street and listen; you didn’t have
to be in your house, you could just hear, the minute he would win, the
street would erupt. Erupt. In glee and jubilation. From 7 Street to 14 th th
Street. It would be wall-to-wall people, all out in the middle of the street.
I mean, this is unbelievable, but it happened. He created such a sensation,
so much pride. It’s hard, when you think back on it, that he could have
had that effect. Including me. So that when Jackie Robinson came along,
sure it was terrific, it was fabulous, wonderful, but it really was a step
along the way. It wasn’t the first that it’s thought to be. Joe Louis was the
first who really brought forth racial ethnic pride. Jackie Robinson, yes.
Everyone admires him. I could tell you the story of, you know, Dixie
Walker and Pee Wee Reese, and all of that. But sure, he’s a genuine hero.
In many ways, he’s more heroic than Joe Louis was because at least, you
know, Joe Louis would fight and that was it. But Jackie Robinson was
subjected daily, daily, as he played to, well you know.
Mr. Poe: It takes a special character.
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes.
Mr. Poe: Speaking of which, I’m jumping ahead here for a minute, but who’s the
first person in the legal profession you remember as standing out to you as
a person of stature? A black person?
Mr. Duncan: That makes a difference. Black?
Mr. Poe: Yes, sir.
Mr. Duncan: [Thinking for a moment] George Hayes. Do you know the man?
Mr. Poe: I do.
Mr. Duncan: George E.C. Hayes. George Edward Chalmers Hayes was a black
practitioner in this town. When I came in, in ’53, Cobb, Harrod & Hayes
was the name of the law firm. [Gets up to retrieve a book] “Simple
Justice.” There’s a story about that Supreme Court decision. There’s
bound to be a picture of George Hayes in here, the famous picture you
will recognize it. There’s a famous picture of Thurgood Marshall, Hayes,
Nabrit, the three of ‘em standing in front of the Supreme Court on May
17, 1954. Hmmm. Yep. There it is.
Mr. Poe: And this is in the Thurgood Marshall biography?
Mr. Duncan: Yep. That picture.
Mr. Poe: By Juan Williams.
Mr. Duncan: Yep.
Mr. Poe: Here’s Mr. Hayes.
Mr. Duncan: He was a black practitioner, and he was in private practice when I came in
and went in private practice. And this was really, this was before ’54.
This was before the school cases. Houston had died while I was in law
school, and I should have known of him but didn’t. I learned of him as an
architect, as the architect, as the leading architect of the strategy leading
up to Brown. Thurgood hadn’t become Thurgood then. So George Hayes.
I thought a minute. He immediately came to mind. I thought of him, and
I would say it was him.
Mr. Poe: Well, and Charles Houston, after the fact, based on information you
gained, but not at the time he was –
Mr. Duncan: Right. Well, he was dead when I came in. He died in ’50. ’49 or ’50.
Mr. Poe: Do you recall what the cause of death was? Was it a natural death?
Mr. Duncan: I’m pretty sure it was.
Mr. Poe: Well you, you went to Harvard, but I know that you said you, your father
said he’d give you a car if you graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and did you get
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: What kind of car?
Mr. Duncan: A Chrysler – it’s called a Chrysler Highlander, and it was a two-door car,
and it was called a Highlander because it had beautiful plaid upholstery,
Highlander plaid upholstery. Beautiful car. Got pictures of it over there.
Mr. Poe: Now when you went to law school, were you married to your first wife at
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I got married between college and law school, in ’47.
Mr. Poe: And your first wife’s name was?
Mr. Duncan: Dorothy.
Mr. Poe: Dorothy. If I may ask, how did that marriage come to pass? Had you
known her for some time? Was she from D.C.?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, she was a D.C. girl, a young lady. And I had known her really from
childhood, but we didn’t necessarily pal around. I knew her.
Mr. Poe: Went way back with her?
Mr. Duncan: In terms of knowing her individually, yeah.
Mr. Poe: So you went off to Cambridge together then?
Mr. Duncan: Yep. My father said, “This is wonderful, you know, we love Dorothy, but
what are you going to live on?” Meaning money. And I said I’m going to
live on love. He tells that story. I don’t remember it, but that’s what he
Mr. Poe: And you clearly managed to live on love then?
Mr. Duncan: Love, and 120 bucks from the GI Bill. That’s what it was. $90 if you
were single, $120 if you were married. Plus her mother was generous.
Mr. Poe: The time in Cambridge, I take it, was pretty important to you in your
development, or was it three years that you passed?
Mr. Duncan: I didn’t like it. By “it,” I didn’t like Cambridge. I don’t mean I didn’t like
Harvard Law School. I only went to law school because I was running out
of time, and had graduated from college, and what the hell. I looked upon
it as a nice way to round off, or a long-term profession. After I got there, I
developed a respect and affection for the law. I just didn’t particularly
like the law school. If I had it to do over again, I would still go into the
law. Yale would probably have been a better match for me at that time.
Mr. Poe: Because of the size of the school? Because of the approach to education?
Mr. Duncan: No, not the size. I think the approach. Yale at that time had the reputation
of being more socially oriented, whatever that means, but they had that
reputation at that time.
Mr. Poe: When you were at Harvard, that was a time when you became interested
in the law, you weren’t motivated to go into law because of any specific
thing that happened?
Mr. Duncan: No, it was – well, minister, doctor, lawyer, preacher, teacher. I had those
choices. My father was a doctor, Dr. Tignor, and I sort of grew up in his
office as a little kid. He had an office in the home; when he wasn’t there,
I’d go in and play with the instruments.
Mr. Poe: He was a general practitioner?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. Looking at anatomy books. So I just didn’t want to be a doctor.
Preaching, I thought, was certainly not for me. Teaching is what I really
would have done, and maybe should have done. I’ve always liked
teaching, but I realized it had economic limitations. Even then, I was not
very money-conscious, but then I realized I couldn’t do very well being a
teacher, although I had no idea whatsoever of doing very well.
Mr. Poe: During the time you were at Harvard, you obviously had summers off, I
would think, in between your first and second years. Did you choose to
do anything specific?
Mr. Duncan: I had my very first, absolute first job. I guess you call them summer
interns now, but that’s not what they were called then. For the National
Labor Relations Board. For two summers I worked there.
Mr. Poe: In the General Counsel’s office, or for the Board itself?
Mr. Duncan: Neither. It was neither. It was in something called the Order Unit. That
little part of the shop that actually prepared the NLRB orders, physically
prepared the orders. It may have been organized under the General
Counsel’s office. If so, I didn’t know that, and it had no significance.
Mr. Poe: Were you thinking about being a labor lawyer at that point?
Mr. Duncan: No.
Mr. Poe: Just something you happened to line up.
Mr. Duncan: It just happened to happen. I don’t even remember how it happened.
Mr. Poe: When did you matriculate at Harvard Law School?
Mr. Duncan: September of ’50, no September ’47.
Mr. Poe: And you graduated in the Spring of ’50, June of ’50.
Mr. Duncan: May of ’50.
Mr. Poe: At that point had you formed any interest in doing any particular kind of
legal practice when you graduated?
Mr. Duncan: No. I didn’t know that much about it. In fact, I didn’t line anything up.
Mr. Poe: This was more of a – your time at Harvard I take it was – you were taking
classes, becoming immersed in the law; it was studying, doing the things
that any person does making their way through law school?
Mr. Duncan: Basically. I look upon it as trade school. I also just got married, so my
attention wasn’t fully on the law. We also had our first child during, or at
the end of our first year, so there was a lot going on. And nobody ever
told me about law review or you were supposed to work hard, you know.
I just thought it was a continuation of Dartmouth and studying, and –
Mr. Poe: And all the clerkship, review, and all that?
Mr. Duncan: I didn’t know about that. That sounds stupid, but I didn’t. I’m sorry.
Mr. Poe: Well, no, if one is not plugged into something, then one doesn’t know
Mr. Duncan: And again, see even that has a racial overtone. It was just not something
that – I can’t generalize about black lawyers, that’s not true. Bill Coleman
was a year or two ahead of me, and he clerked for Frankfurter, but he was
on law review, so therefore, he knew about law clerks, but when I got out
of law school, I didn’t know anything about clerking for anybody. It was
Mr. Poe: I’m looking at something here that says that Bill Coleman graduated from
Harvard in ’43. Does that sound –
Mr. Duncan: I don’t think that’s right, and if he did, he was still around when I was
there working on his LL.M. I had thought that he had stayed on for a year
which means he would’ve graduated in ’47, maybe, or ’48, but I’m not
sure of that. I’m not sure. It may be he had taken off a couple of years
and then came back.
Mr. Poe: Your son was born in 1948? ’47?
Mr. Duncan: We got married in July ’47. He was born in September ’48.
Mr. Poe: And that was the beginning of your second year of law school?
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: Well then, you were a busy man.
Mr. Duncan: Oh, very busy.
Mr. Poe: After Harvard, you went to New York I believe. What made you decide
to go to New York, and what did you do there?
Mr. Duncan: What made me decide to go to New York was, again, I’m going to use the
word naïve. I didn’t know anybody in New York, never been to New
York, but somehow I had convinced myself that New York City was the
only place to practice law. The only place to practice law. The placement
officer at the law school –
The practice in those years was that during the Christmas vacation of your
senior year, your last year, you would make the rounds of whatever law
firms you were going to interview, and hopefully would have a job by the
time you graduated. The placement officer at the law school, being a little
ahead of his time, sent me to 15 – 10, 15 – the usual number of the top
New York law firms – Cahill; White & Case. The one I liked was
Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; Donovan Leisure; the firms most of
which are still around; Cleary Gottlieb. And to a person they all told me,
“Mr. Duncan, we are ready to hire a Negro, but our clients are not, so
therefore, we cannot extend an offer to you.” Right up front. I really
appreciated it, no line, you know. “Oh, we’d like to, but you came in third
out of two.” They didn’t do that. Their clients were not ready. Now the
fellow who sent me on this wild goose chase, he knew that’s what was
going to happen, but he thought that it was good for them and probably
wouldn’t hurt me, just, you know, that’s practice, process.
Mr. Poe: He probably thought it was good for the law school.
Mr. Duncan: And the school, yes, and the school. I ended up at Rosenman, Goldmark,
Colin & Kaye. Rosenman being Samuel I. Rosenman who was an advisor
to President Roosevelt, and who was himself a New York State Supreme
Court judge. Supreme Court meaning trial court. And I don’t know how
we got together. They did what nowadays would be called affirmative
action, because normally they only hired from law review, and I was not
on law review. For whatever reason, they said, “Well, let’s give this guy a
chance.” So that’s how I ended up there, and I stayed there for three
years. Oh, I know what I wanted to add. I didn’t make law review.
Maybe I could not have. Let’s assume I could not have, but given my
academic record up to that point, I think if I had worked on it, I might
have, let me put it that way. But again, no one ever told me that this was
important to do. I ended up in the upper fourth of the class. Almost, and
this is the one thing on my résumé that if anyone ever did the math would
be a little bit of a lie. I’m proud of this. They used to give a class ranking,
I mean numerically, one through 500, or whatever the lower person was
based on your grades. How they cut it that fine, I don’t know, but they
did. And let’s assume that there were 500 people in my class, so the top
fourth would have been 125. I was 126 or 127, but always said I
graduated in the upper fourth of my class. No one ever called me on it.
So I wasn’t law review, and I, you know, wasn’t at the bottom of the class
Mr. Poe: What was your time at Rosenman, at the Rosenman firm like?
Mr. Duncan: Oh it was fine, I just didn’t like it, I didn’t like the big-time law firm, I
didn’t like the work, I didn’t like the kind of work I was asked to do,
which was the same that every other associate in the world is asked to do.
Mr. Poe: Reviewing documents and such, drafting memos.
Mr. Duncan: Drafting memos. I remember what really said “I’m outta here” was I got a
job – CBS was a big client of the firm, and the question was could CBS
raise Edward R. Murrow’s salary from the then-level of $50,000, which in
1951 was a lot of money – could they raise his salary during the term of
his contract. I said, “Sure, why not? What’s the problem?” Ever hear
about wasting assets, you know, he has an obligation to finish out his
contract term for $50,000, and to pay more during that term, you could
argue was a waste of corporate assets. So I did that. Then I said enough
already. I wanted to get in court. I wanted to draw wills. I wanted to get
divorces. I’ll never forget that. That was my feeling. I wanted to practice
law. And so I left and came here.
Mr. Poe: And here meaning back to D.C.
Mr. Duncan: Back to D.C.
Mr. Poe: And you ended up with doing what right off the bat?
Mr. Duncan: The real reason – I mean, the precipitating event was Belford Lawson – do
you know that name? Belford Lawson, knowing a good thing when he
saw it, extended an offer to me to come down and join his law firm,
Lawson, McKenzie & Robinson.
Mr. Poe: And that McKenzie being –
Mr. Duncan: Marjorie McKenzie, his wife, still alive, who became a judge in the
juvenile court. Marjorie McKenzie.
Mr. Poe: Robinson, of course, being the late Aubrey Robinson.
So you, and did you have any associates with you in the practice, or was it
the three of you?
Mr. Duncan: The four of us. Three of them and then I joined.
Mr. Poe: How long were you there?
Mr. Duncan: Three months.
Mr. Poe: Would you like to discuss that at all?
Mr. Duncan: Yes I will.
Oral History of Charles T. Duncan
April 23, 2003
This is the third interview of the Oral History of Charles T. Duncan, as part of the
Oral History Project of The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The
interviewer is Gregory L. Poe. The interview took place in Mr. Duncan’s home at 1362
Myrtle Avenue, Annapolis, Maryland.
Mr. Poe: We left off with Mr. Duncan describing his transition from New York at
the Rosenman firm to the practice at Lawson, McKenzie & Robinson.
Mr. Duncan, if you could describe your experience there, we’ll get started
Mr. Duncan: Well, it was not a pleasant one, and I think I stayed there three months. I
found myself doing due diligence and talking with various people about
joining the firm, and then, with one notable exception, everyone said it
would be a great thing to do. My mother being the leader of the pack
because I’d obviously come back home. It turned out that that firm cut
corners and just did some things that were not the way that I wanted to
practice law, so I just didn’t stay there very long. Didn’t have any
arguments or anything, just wasn’t the best.
Mr. Poe: Now when you refer to the firm, I take it you’re not referring to every
individual in the firm.
Mr. Duncan: There were only four of us – Belford, Marjorie, Aubrey, and I. When I
left, I told Aubrey, I said, “Hey, I’m outta here,” and he said, “I’ll go with
ya.” [laughter] He had come to the same conclusion. He had been there
for a while. And there are other lawyers who are around, or used to be
around, who would verify that. I mean they started out there as young
associates, as I did, and they didn’t like it either. In fact, it used to be
something of a joke, oh you used to be an alumnus of the Lawson firm.
Mr. Poe: I take it, as you said, Aubrey Robinson was uncomfortable being there
too, and so he was happy to leave when you left.
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: Could you describe your relationship with him a little, particularly given
his eventual position as chief judge.
Mr. Duncan: Aubrey. We were – I can do this briefly and succinctly – we were very,
very close. I don’t have any siblings, but I felt as a brother to him. And
times were tough, and he and I went through the rigors of private practice
as black attorneys in the 1950s in Washington, D.C. We were very close
friends. He spent many an hour down here in this very house, which was
then my father’s. I got to know his wife, and am godparent to his younger
daughter Cheryl. Just very close. When he went on the bench, our
relationship changed 180 degrees, and he took himself rather seriously. I
think you can get this confirmed a number of different ways. For
example, he gave a party at his home on the occasion of his 20 year on th
the bench, and the first time I had ever been invited to his home. So I
went, and there must have been 50 people there. I didn’t know a single
one of them, except Carl Moultrie. The only other person I knew. Which
is another way of saying he had developed a whole new set of friends, and
considering what we had been through in ten years of private practice, or
almost ten years, I was astonished. I thought, where’s so-and-so? But,
he just got very impressed with himself as a judge, and it was that way to
his death. I would’ve attended his funeral, but I couldn’t do that because I
had just gone back overseas, I think I was beginning to have health
problems, and the thought of coming back for the funeral and then going
back was more than I could do, so my son represented the family. I have
reasonably good relations with Aubrey’s second wife, Doris, whom I did
not know before he married her. I have good relations with the two
Robinson children, Cheryl and Flo. So the relationship ended on a bit of a
sour note. You know, water under the bridge.
Mr. Poe: But back, so I take it that Aubrey Robinson’s appointment as a judge
completely changed your relationship in the sense that it put him in a
completely different context. I take it, it would be fair to say that for any
individual becoming a judge necessarily changes some bit, the types of
interactions one has, although I take it in your case with then-Judge
Robinson, if there was, it reached an extreme point.
Mr. Duncan: Well, I mean, when you move from any job to another job, as you’re
about to do, and it changed things. Bill Bryant, whom I know very well
but not as well as Aubrey, when he went on the bench, he didn’t change.
He hasn’t since. He’s the same guy that he was before. I think you could
say that about Joe Rogers.
Mr. Poe: Well let’s go back to the early 1950s when you first started practicing law
with Aubrey Robinson. At that point you had stated you were quite close,
and you were in business together, given the environment, it was a
difficult time in terms of making a living and practicing law as AfricanAmerican lawyers, is that fair to say?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes, sure.
Mr. Poe: Now, Mr. Duncan, or if I can call you Charlie on the tape, we’ll do that.
Mr. Duncan: Charlie. Please do.
Mr. Poe: Charlie, you left the Lawson firm with Aubrey Robinson and started your
own practice. What was it called?
Mr. Duncan: Robinson & Duncan.
Mr. Poe: Then describe, if you would, what type of law you practiced and how
things went over the next year or so.
Mr. Duncan: Well, the next year? It was just swell, that’s all. We didn’t have retainers,
we didn’t have corporate crimes. Really, whoever walked into the office.
Some were referrals, of course, and others just walked in. It was a very
modest practice. I don’t want to beat the drums too much on this, but I
gave an extensive interview for The D.C. Lawyer, and it was published
within that year. All this is talked about, and if it’s not disrespectful, I said
Mr. Poe: Would it be fair to say, that was something in the D.C. Bar Report that
was published in the June/July Bar Report in 1996.
Mr. Duncan: In 1996? Oh no, that’s not right.
Mr. Poe: Different interview?
Mr. Duncan: No, no, that’s the “Legends in the Law” business. This was someone
wrote an article on the precise question what it was like to practice law as
a black attorney in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s.
Mr. Poe: And that’s something you spoke about at length in that article? Could I
append that article to this to make it essentially part of the interview?
Mr. Duncan: Sure. I’m not sure, they talked to a number of people, it wasn’t just I
Mr. Poe: Did the article in your view accurately convey what it was like in the ‘50s
practicing law as an African-American lawyer?
Mr. Duncan: I thought so.
Mr. Poe: In your experience.
Mr. Duncan: In my experience, yes.
Mr. Poe: What year did you open up the practice of Robinson & Duncan?
Mr. Duncan: 1953.
Mr. Poe: Eventually you invited Frank Reeves to join you?
Mr. Duncan: The next year, 1954, I believe. Frank joined the firm, and the three of us
practiced together until Kennedy came along.
Mr. Poe: How was it that you came to know Frank Reeves? Did you know him
before he joined the practice?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes, oh sure. Remember, the Bar was small enough in those days so
that most black lawyers all knew each other. Even white lawyers. You
knew most of the people that practiced law. So that’s how I knew him.
Aubrey knew him, too.
Mr. Poe: What kind of work was Frank Reeves doing then?
Mr. Duncan: Same thing. He did two things: He had the only retainer the office every
had, and it was from the J&R Pinkett Company to do their landlord and
tenant work. Pinkett was the leading black realtor at the time. Known for
having a wonderful office. I ought to tell you how much it was. $190 a
month, or something like that. And that was our only retainer. I don’t
know that he had an official position with the NAACP. The Inc. Fund, the
NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund. That’s how I got in the
Brown case was through Frank’s connection.
Mr. Poe: When you joined the Brown team, as it were, was that after Frank Reeves
had joined the firm?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. It was really through his invitation that I got into it.
Mr. Poe: Describe that experience. How much time do we have? [laughter]
Mr. Duncan: How much time do you have?
I personally don’t think I fully appreciated the historic significance of the
case. But, in any event, the way it worked was that the voluntary lawyers
would go up every weekend, go up Friday night and stay through Sunday
afternoon. Sit around this big table and hammer out this issue and that
Mr. Poe: When you say voluntary lawyers, you’re talking about people –
Mr. Duncan: The non-staff people. The people who are not on the staff. Bob Carter
was employed by NAACP. Constance Baker Motley was employed, so
was Jack Greenberg.
Mr. Poe: You went up to New York for three days?
Mr. Duncan: Every weekend. Just so we’re talking about the same thing, this was when
we argued. It was really round two, and I think you might find it referred
to that way. There was an earlier brief and argument that was what we
called the sociological argument where sociologists and others submitted
papers, stated laws, and that idea, but it was a great learning experience
for me, and I was lucky to be in on it.
Mr. Poe: You’ve mentioned some of the people, Constance Baker Motley, who
later became a district judge in the Southern District of New York. You
mentioned Jack Greenberg as another individual who was employed by
the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund. You mentioned Bob
Carter as another person on staff. Who were the other members of the
team that participated in these weekly meetings?
Mr. Duncan: There were a couple of dozen people, I just – if I could put my hands on
Mr. Poe: William Hastie?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes. Well, he was an interesting case. He was there to sit as a federal
judge, and he regarded it as borderline as a sitting federal judge to also be
active as counsel in a case that was before the Supreme Court.
Mr. Poe: That’s interesting. What was his relationship with the Fund?
Mr. Duncan: There wasn’t any. You know, he was just like I was.
There was some point I wanted to make. Anyway, I was saying this was
Brown II. Brown I was not decided, and Frankfurter and the Court came
up with these five questions. Does this ring a bell?
Mr. Poe: Yes.
Mr. Duncan: Okay. And that was set for reargument. And it was that phase of the case
that I worked on. Well, that’s the phase of the case that turned out to be
the important phase because the only – remember Kenneth Clark? A
sociologist put in the white doll and the black doll, and the black kids
always picked out the white dolls. And his famous footnote 17 or 23, or
whatever, was really the only evidence that they relied on. I suppose it’s
no secret to say that the Court wanted to reach a certain result, the right
result at the time, so they did it. If anything, the legal precedents were
against us. As I recall, one of the questions, a lot of the questions were
designed to see what the intent of the Framers of the Constitution and
subsequent legislative support, or didn’t support, the unconstitutionality
argument. The one I always had trouble with was when Congress passed
– and I can’t tell you when it passed, it was some statute – on the books
was then a statute that specifically provided the separate schools in the
District of Columbia.
Mr. Poe: That became a companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe.
Mr. Duncan: No.
Mr. Poe: No?
Mr. Duncan: Yes, that was the so-called D.C. case. But the point that I was trying to
make was that from a legal precedent standpoint, it was tough-going.
Mr. Poe: Did you have any contact with your adversaries in the case?
Mr. Duncan: No. It’s there, it’s stated, that in the Library of Congress, Law Library,
they tracked what we were looking at, and we tracked what they were
looking at. But I don’t know whether that’s true or not. Makes a nice
story. I had no contact with them at all.
Mr. Poe: Do you have any recollections of conversations with others on your team
about the other side of the case? About any contacts they may have had
with the other side of the case?
Mr. Duncan: You mean about the case?
Mr. Poe: About the case.
Mr. Duncan: I could be wrong. To my knowledge, there were never any such contacts.
To my knowledge. There may be. I don’t know. Thurgood may have
talked to John W. Davis all the time, but I would doubt it. I would doubt
Mr. Poe: Did you get to know Thurgood Marshall, of course later to be Justice
Marshall, at that period of time?
Mr. Duncan: Yes.
Mr. Poe: Had you known him before you came to the case?
Mr. Duncan: No. I had known of him, you know, the name and all that.
Mr. Poe: What are your recollections of Justice Marshall?
Mr. Duncan: About the same as everyone else’s. He was an enormously interesting
man. He had a great sense of humor, had a big booming voice, a good
listener. He was quite a character, let’s put it that way.
Mr. Poe: Now some of the other people on the team, Charlie, were Bill Coleman, I
believe was on the team.
Mr. Duncan: Bill. Now I knew Bill already.
Mr. Poe: You had known him?
Mr. Duncan: I had known him at law school, as a matter of fact.
Mr. Poe: Was he – now, my understanding was that he graduated from Harvard
some time before you.
Mr. Duncan: A couple of years, two or three years, and he came back and did a
master’s and LL.M and then I guess he went directly to clerk for
Frankfurter. I think that’s the sequence.
Mr. Poe: Did you keep in touch with him over the years?
Mr. Duncan: Oh yes, we’re good friends. Even today.
Mr. Poe: Even today, and of course we’re talking April 2003. Any particular
recollections over the years of Mr. Coleman that you’d like to share?
Anything stand out?
Mr. Duncan: He’s certainly had a very, very distinguished career. He, unlike some
other folks I could name, he is a lawyer – he gives legal advice. He’s very
good at that. He’s smart. He’s very, very smart. And I like him, have
always liked him. In fact, I’m godfather to one of his children.
Mr. Poe: Louis Pollak was on the team, now a district judge in the Eastern District
Mr. Duncan: Yes, I remember him well. Very nice. Likeable person. He argued the
Delaware case, and he was nice to know. Oh, and the guy’s a judge in
Mr. Poe: Jack Weinstein?
Mr. Duncan: Yes. I met him for the first time. And he’s very nice.
Mr. Poe: Didn’t get?
Mr. Duncan: Flobitis.
Mr. Poe: Ah, yes. Well, Constance Baker Motley you mentioned as well.
Mr. Duncan: Met her, yes.
Mr. Poe: You didn’t, I take it, didn’t get to know her too well. Did you keep up
with her over the years at all?
Mr. Duncan: Not really. No.
I mean, when I say keep up with her, they had a session at Harvard Law
School a couple years ago where they decided to honor the Brown legal
team, and, of course, we were all there, and you know, I said “Hi Connie,”
but we never exchanged Christmas cards or visited back and forth.
Mr. Poe: Well, it’s interesting you mention that because I was going to ask you
about that session. It was a Medal of Freedom you won, as well as the
other members of the team. Anything about that – was that a reunion of
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