Saturday, July 18, 2009

MEMOIR: Returning to Washington from New York

In November 1949 I returned to Washington, D.C. to begin work for the U.S. Labor Dept.'s Bureau of Labor Statistics as a press officer and editor. I had moved back to New York City three months earlier after having lost a similar job with the U.S. Interior Dept.'s Fish & Wildlife Service. A subsequent temporary summer job with the AFL-CIO Machinists Union's weekly newspaper had ended, and I had been unable to find a new job in Washington.

Nor was I able to find editorial work in New York. I had lost the FWS job because I lacked regular Civil Service status. By now, however, I had taken an exam--the first one conducted since the war's end for "information & editorial specialists" (the formal job title)--and had obtained the credentials making me eligible to take the BLS position. It had been offered to me as a result of contacts made during my work for the union.

The new job was at a higher grade, GS-9, than my previous government position. The annual salary was $4,600, a $748 increase. Sixty years ago, this was a respectable wage for a 25-year old only two years out of college.

But more important than the pay hike, I was now dealing in the new job with subject matter of far greater personal interest to me. Instead of trumpeter swans, whooping cranes and Canada geese,I was now writing about employment statistics, the cost-of-living index, labor-management relations, and the occupational outlook. These were matters that were far more related to my background.

In addition to writing press releases and dealing with the media, I also edited and wrote articles on these subjects for the Monthly Labor Review, a BLS publication that is a leading scholarly journal in the field of labor economics.

My return to Washington enabled me to resume evening classes at American University, where I had been seeking a master's degree in sociology.

I had already selected a subject for my thesis: community life on Alaska's Pribilof Islands. My interest in the subject stemmed from my work at the Fish & Wildlife Service, which at that time governed the islands.

The island's inhabitants were descendants of the Aleuts who were forcibly brought to what had been uninhabited land by the Russians. Their own homeland was in Alaska, which Russia had yet to sell to the U.S. Their function was to kill and process the commercially-valuable pelts of the Alaska fur seals, which annually migrate northward in the Pacific Ocean to breed and give birth on the islands.

The Aleuts, like the Inuit (Eskimos) and Indians, are a separate North American indigenous ethnic group. Those living on the Pribilof Islands are a product of racial mixing with the Russians. They possess Russian names and belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

I had met a few Pribilof natives who were visiting the Interior Dept. I was fascinated to learn about their unique community life; it appealed to my intense interest in ethnic affairs. It was a subject little known to outsiders, and it struck as being a worthwhile topic for a master's thesis.

My plan was to visit the Pribilof Islands to do research in my capacity as a FWS employee. But I never got the opportunity to go there because my career with the agency ended abruptly. Nor did I ever complete my graduate studies. I was soon to get a new and far more demanding government job that made it impossible to take night-time university courses.

During my evening classes at American University's graduate center in downtown Washington, I became friendly with an African-American student who shared my interest in social issues.

One evening I invited him to join me after class for coffee. He casually informed me that it was highly unlikely that he would be served in restaurants or coffee shops in the local neighborhood, a commercial area near 20th and G Streets in Washington's Northwest district.

I had sadly overlooked the fact that the nation's capital in those years was still very much a Jim Crow town. I hope my African-American classmate is still around 60 years later to see a black man living in the White House.

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