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.