May memories

Published 6:41 pm Monday, May 9, 2022

May was one of my favorite months when I was growing up. School was almost out, because back then we got out at the end of the month. But May always had some pretty special events that made it a special month in addition to the last days of the school year.

The first of May our school celebrated May Day activities. The origin of May Day has been celebrated by many cultures and its beginnings are uncertain, but it was picked up and celebrated in America for more than a century. The schools hosted a May Day celebration with a maypole and a May Queen. The maypole was adorned with colorful lengths of crepe paper streamers that were attached to the top of the pole and children walked around in a circle around the pole holding them until the pole was covered from top to bottom with the streamers. The May Queen was the girl chosen to lead the procession of students to the area where the May pole was. It was a fun day and most of the activities that day did not involve regular schoolwork.

Mother’s Day was very special. The week leading up to it had the teachers in the younger grades helping the students to make crafts. The Art teacher, Mrs. Swain, taught us to make paper carnations one year. She explained that carnations were the symbol of Mother’s Day. All the children made red carnations. If a child’s mother was deceased, that student still made a red carnation to give to a grandmother, aunt or a woman who was very special to the child. Looking back, I realize how wonderfully sensitive she was to her students.  Back then, children wore real carnations on Mother’s Day. Red ones if your mother was alive and a white one if she was deceased. That custom of wearing carnations was started around 1908, when a Philadelphia activist named Anna Jarvis, sent five hundred white carnations, (her mother’s favorite flower) to honor her deceased mother, to her home church in West Virginia to honor the mothers in the congregation. That wonderful gesture was so appreciated it blossomed (no pun intended) into an amazing event the following year and caught on like wildfire everywhere else. By 1914 the Mother’s Day event was so popular in the United Sates, President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday.

And finally, my favorite May event was when the ‘Black Elks’ (The Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks In the World) ‘turned out,’ meaning the celebration of their annual parade from their Meeting Hall on Gladden Street near Fifth Street to down town Main Street. Led by the P. S. Jones Marching Band, the men, women and children resplendent in their purple and white clothing, and marching with great pomp and pride was a beautiful sight to see. The Black Elks established in 1908 in Cincinnati Ohio, was at one time the largest predominately Black fraternal organization in the world.

While two of these May events are not celebrated anymore in Washington, they sure are great markers to my memories of growing up here.

Leesa Jones is the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.