This interview with Frank Braxton took place on two separate Saturday’s in his apartment on Massachusetts Ave., NW. Jasmine Carpenter and Nadith Saibou from St. Martin’s Church at North Capitol and T Street, NW, where Mr. Braxton is a parishioner, contributed questions, shot photos and helped turn an interview into the personal story it became.
Mr. Braxton’s home holds some of the tokens of appreciation he has received for the service he has given to his community, the District and the country. One award even bares his name: “The Frank Braxton Award for Outstanding Community Service,” from the Fifth District Citizens Advisory Council.
Never a politician, always a public servant—Mr. Braxton’s work is honest, thoughtful and thorough. The man in the pew on Sunday is the same man out in the community on Monday, Tuesday or any other day of the week. He is now a centenarian but his love for others and joy for living have only grown stronger with age.
[Note: Mr. Braxton passed away late last year but he would be turning 101 on January 30, 2016.]
Mr. Braxton: There has been a decided change over the years. When I was small I lived in far Northeast and there were two school systems, division one and division thirteen. We were not division one; we were division 13. We always got hand me downs from the white schools. We only had two high schools in the city. It was either Armstrong or Dunbar, eventually though Cardozo came along.
I went to Armstrong and I was coaxed to go there by a friend of mine but I should have gone to Dunbar.
At Armstrong I took up mechanical drawing; I didn’t fit there. They had me in the boiler room to learn something about steam, engineering. There was no teacher there, just the man to attend to the boiler. Then they put me in sheet metal work; I didn’t adapt to that. Then they put me in shoemaking. For some reason or other I did very well in that.
Albin Sikora (AS): Do you remember how you felt as you were going through sheet metal training and not fitting in, doing mechanical drawing and it not clicking?
Mr. Braxton: I felt lost but after I graduated, the teacher who taught shoemaking got me an apprenticeship in a shoe shop. I worked there for a while. There was a competitor further down the street and he hired me and I ran the shoe shop for a while. There wasn’t too much work to be done and eventually, he closed the shoe shop.
Then I got a job at an Italian-run shop on H St., NE. People used to repair shoes back then. Those guys were really, real shoemakers and I couldn’t keep up with them. I quit because I realized I wasn’t a shoemaker. Then I was looking for a job and I found a job shining shoes in a barbershop in the Colorado Building. I made pretty good money there, shining shoes, just doing things for people. I made between 30 and 40 dollars a week in tips. The money I made shining shoes was mine so I did pretty well but I still wasn’t satisfied because I knew I could do better.
At this time, the post office was hiring and a lawyer down there who took an interest in me had contact with the Postmaster and he gave a letter of recommendation for me to the Postmaster.
AS: You worked for the U.S. Postal Service?
Mr. Braxton: Yes, and back then, that was a heck of a good job. The United States was preparing for war so I stayed at the job but I didn’t have civil service status which, back then, was necessary to get you a job, especially for people who lived here in DC because we didn’t have any member of Congress who could write a letter telling an employer to hire us.
I had taken the exam and was called by civil service and given a job as a civil servant. I left the Post Office and went to work at the government printing office because I had gotten civil service status. Then, I was drafted into the Army and I went through basic training. I was in the Army for 19 months and 26 days. After I came out of basic training I moved into the job of Sargent Major.
After I came out of the Army, I went back to the government printing office. In the short period of time I had been there, I got an upgrade, which paid 90 cents an hour. Before I entered the military I was making the normal daytime rate of 66 cents an hour and at night it was 75.6 cents an hour. When I came back from the Army though they wanted to give my job to a non-veteran so I went to the veteran’s coordinator at the printing office and he commanded them to give me my job back.
Well, I was behind the 8 ball from there on. They eventually made a false charge against me and brought me into the office. It was during the change of shifts from the intermediate shift to the midnight shift. All the supervisors were in the office waiting for me. The straw boss who’d brought me in started talking and he was talking when they asked me to speak. I said, “Two of us are talking and one of us is telling the truth. The other is not telling the truth. I am the one telling it like it is.” They responded, “Are you telling us the supervisor is lying?” I said, “No, you said that. I am telling you what actually happened.” After that, I was really behind the 8 ball.
I had taken the exam for the Post Office prior to going into the Army and I got a call to come back to post office so I left the printing office.
AS: Good timing.
Mr. Braxton: Yes. I went back as a clerk in the Post Office but the dust in the post office was heavy. That was at North Capitol and Massachusetts Avenue. I was always stuffed up with dust so I decided to become a carrier. It was the best thing I ever did because my health improved and I met a lot of people. There were a lot of very nice people where I worked. I started organizing a softball team and doing various things for the good of the employees. I met the president of the Black Union through playing softball. I was the one in charge of our team. He wanted to run for presidency of the Union and he asked me if I would run with him as vice president. I said, ‘Yes.’
I didn’t know anything about unions then but we ran and he won. From there on I got interested in ‘unionism.’ Later on he asked me to serve as the financial secretary so I served as the financial secretary for about 15 years. In the meantime, President Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act, giving us more freedom and the right to vote.
The Democratic Party in DC was being organized and I was asked to join up with them. I helped to organize the Democratic Party here. We set up Wards (8 Wards) and had elections and I got the second highest number of votes in my Ward so I was selected to be on the Democratic State Committee. In the meantime I had joined the Civic Association and was voted to be the financial secretary there. The president there asked me to attend a meeting for a committee monitoring police work, to help the police department to eliminate crime. I attended the meeting and there were only about five or six people and the president was a dry talking man, talking about 1776 since the bicentennial was coming up but I knew then that it didn’t fit what the organization was for. The community had needs now and they weren’t being met. I wasn’t satisfied.
The president of the Civic Association asked me to run for head of that committee. We organized a group of women at a phone bank and got them to join the 5th District Advisory Council. This gave information to the commanding officer as to how they wanted the police to act and react and how they could eliminate crime. The president thought he was doing so well and that people were joining because of him. We had the election though and I became chair of the 5th District Advisory Council. That also gave me a position on the police chief’s Advisory Council. In other words, we met with the Chief of Police and gave our views on what our community needed. While I was chair, we won five “Greatest Reduction of Crime” awards, which were the result of our working with the police and the commanding officers. The police liked that. We built the 5th district Advisory Council up from five or six members to about 80 to 90 members. That gave us quite a voice!
The City Council voted to have a Civilian Complaint Review Board which reviewed charges made by citizens against police officers in three areas: physical abuse, verbal abuse and harassment. The mayor, Marian Barry, could nominate three people. The city council could nominate two people, the Police, one and the Union, one. It was a seven-member board. Two of the people the mayor appointed had to be lawyers and the other happened to be me, who was very active in a number of things in the community. Our chair was Dr. Gulla Butcher, a professor of law up at Howard University. Our captain, Captain Jimmy Wilson in the police department was the other member and I was the civilian. The three of us would meet at Gulla Butcher’s office on Wisconsin Avenue. It took us about six months to fit our responsibilities under the law. It had to be very, very precise as to what our responsibilities were because it had to be approved by the Union, the Police Chief and the City Council. Finally, after about six months of changes, we were through.
AS: What were the greatest difficulties in this process?
Mr. Braxton: Mainly, technical aspects of the law gave us the most difficulty. We had the authority to fire police officers, if the charge was serious enough. We had to review a lot of complaints; we went through about 300 old cases that had piled up and another member of the board and I sat down and read charges against police officers. We threw out those we thought were frivolous and we brought forth about 200 for the board to examine. They threw out a number of them but we had some that we really had to give thought to. We were really behind and we would only meet once a week. We caught up though.
Initially, the police officers didn’t think we had any authority at all. They came in and lounged around with their guns showing, being disrespectful to us but I told them that when they came in and acted like that, “You probably don’t know but when you come in that door, the power that you have is the same as if you were in a court of law.” Some of them didn’t believe it at first and their Union told them that they didn’t have to come. So we got the council to pass a law that gave us power of subpoena. We subpoenaed the officers and information.
We still had to hire staff. I was named the person to hire a lawyer and three investigators. A bunch of lawyers came down there and tried to influence me as to why they should be picked. I picked one particular lady and she proved to be very, very good. We got to work and some of the officers wouldn’t come in and we’d send the investigators out to question them about the cases we had and for some reason, at roll call an officer was not present. Later, we found out that he worked that day so he had to have been in the building. He evaded our investigators. That happened for a while but then we started holding the hearing without him being there and fining him 1,000 dollars and they saw that we meant business. The Union told him that he better come to the hearings. They began to give us respect because our chair was strict.
We had a couple members of the board who didn’t like police officers period. We had some people who made charges against police officers just because they didn’t like police officers themselves. I would question both of them very closely. Back then I had pretty good use of the King’s English. The police officers had a lawyer and their Union rep was there but a lot of the people [who brought charges against the police officers] didn’t know how to testify. They would see police officers and that intimidated them but I would tell them, “Don’t be afraid by seeing the police officers here. We want to hear what happened. We can only go by the evidence.”
We had a copy of what the police officer had sent and what the complainant had said and usually we would either fine the police officer or suspend him for a couple of weeks. They saw that we were serious.
AS: Is this process still in use today?
Mr. Braxton: Yep.
Eventually, DC Democrats got a party and I was asked to serve as a Chair, since I had been voted onto the Democratic State Committee. I was named Chair of the Issues Committee and the Membership Committee. That was quite a job. I served there for a while. Eventually I got tired of being away from home and being out late at night because we would argue all night long about some issue.
AS: What were the original goals of the party?
Mr. Braxton: Statehood, for one. Oh, there were so many things we didn’t have. The vote and how to get the people out was another. Everything was new. There were so many issues out there. I can’t remember all of them but there was always something we could discuss. We had to raise money for the party and we established a Kennedy/King dinner to do that. There are so many things that we are a part of now that we had to make decisions on back then.
About the Author
Albin Sikora loves being outside because that is where he makes discoveries: outside of his hometown, outside of his apartment, outside of his comfort zone and outside of his own thoughts. This may be one of the reasons that he is always seeking, always listening and always looking. His passion lies in hearing the stories of those who share our streets but who are just a little bit different from the man, woman or child you would expect to find.