Following in the footsteps of Harley documents our research and travels in writing my latest book, The Adventures of a Black Edwardian Intellectual, The Story of James Arthur Harley. It is a wry look at our experiences, including the sublime, funny, unbelievable, poignant moments in realizing what Harley had undertaken and achieved.
So, who are we? I am Pamela, the author, as my mother calls me, and my mother, my fellow researcher and traveller in arms. We, tongue in cheek, refer to ourselves as the dilapidated duo, half-dead and bruk up. Why? I have a hereditary blood condition, sickle cell anaemia. The condition has taken its toll on my body, which I describe as the Taj Mahal - crumbling slowly. Most noticeably, I walk with a very pronounced limp. My mother suffered a heart attack in 2013 and, as a result, lost a tremendous amount of weight. We pride ourselves that we're still going and will get there in the end.
GATE-CRASHING A HOUSE IN WASHINGTON D.C
We had planned a visit to Washington DC for September 2016 to coincide with the opening of the African American Museum of History and Culture. Events, however, superseded our plans.
My 97-year-old grandmother passed on August 12th. We were in New York on August 16th for the funeral on the 18th.
While in New York, we visited the General Theological Seminary Institute; Harley was refused admittance to study here. We marvelled at its grandeur, experiencing déjà vu as the seminary resembled the University of Oxford's Keble College.
We arrived in Washington three days later into a searing heatwave. I visited Washington in 1991, working for the BBC and produced the first documentary about the recently implemented Americans with Disabilities Act 1991 and its impact for African Americans.
The first memorial to honour an African American was a new monument on the Washington Mall. The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial emerged from a large carved granite stone to illustrate a line from his seminal speech 'I have a dream': 'Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.'
I wanted to visit 2011 Vermont Street, the former home of Frelinghuysen University. Harley's in-laws founded the university in 1906 as a Bible school.
Before we left New York, my aunt, conservative with a small c, enquired whether I had an appointment to visit the university, which was now a private home. Did the owners know that I was coming? Did I email or telephone them? No was the answer to all her questions. I only possessed the address of the former university. I told her I had my British passport and magistrate card – I was armed but not dangerous.
A look of total disbelief moved across her face turning to anxiety; two black people just turning up on someone's doorstep, in Washington, in this climate – and she didn't mean the heatwave.
We booked a cab to take us to the address. Mother, being mother, started to explain to the Asian cab driver where we were going and why. He was more shocked than my aunt.
He was surprised we did not have an appointment but soon engaged with Harley's story. The cab drew up outside the address. A large imposing white turret house with a row of steps leading up to the front door faced us. We all looked at the house and back, taking an imaginary gulp. Suddenly my 'good idea' and bravado did not seem feasible now that we were here – but we were here.
As I walked up the imposing steps, I kept repeating my first sentence. I pressed the bell; the front door opened; a tall white man stood in the entrance hall. The sentence I had practised tumbled out of my mouth as a garbled sentence concluding with me thrusting my passport and magistrate card into his hand as a form of validation.
Mr Carlson, the owner, took a sharp intake of breath. 'Would you like to come in and see the house?' I explained that my mother was in the cab and that could she also come inside to see the house.
The cab driver indicated that he also wanted to see the house. I had effectively gate-crashed Mr Carlson's home; I was not going to push our luck and shook my head.
Mr Carlson was very gracious, making us tea, allowing us to take photographs of the various rooms, and spending time giving us a potted history of the LeDroit Park area.
In its heyday, it was an exclusive neighbourhood until its tragic demise in the 1960s with the flooding of drugs into the area.
Slowly the neighbourhood began its climb back, becoming gentrified. Mr Carlson kindly signed and gave us a copy of the Great U Street Area book.
Spurred on by our little success, we headed for the U Street area and to Ben's Chilli Bowl.
We were revelling in its history as retold by its sprightly eighty-two-year-old owner Mrs Virginia Ali. The Chili Bowl had initially started life as the Minnehaha cinema. The cinema was built in 1909. Harley had left Washington before 1902. Mrs Ali explained how U Street was the area to see and be seen in back in the day when it was known as the 'Black Broadway'.
The Chili Bowl was started by her husband Ben, a Trinidadian dental student who enrolled at Howard University but had to leave the course following a back injury, opening the restaurant on April 22, 1958.
The Chili Bowl soon developed a reputation for its chilli and as the new in-place. Numerous celebrities frequented it, and the zenith was when it welcomed President Obama on January 10, 2009, ten days before his inauguration.
We took photographs outside the restaurant with the historic True Reformer Building, the pinnacle of black success in 1900s Black Washington, in the background.
I marvelled at the gold signage still standing at the entrance to the LeDroit Park neighbourhood and the prominent three- and four-storey townhouses, many occupied by notable Washington Black elite families.