Editor’s note: This story appeared in last week’s Gazette, but due to a composition error some paragraphs appeared in incorrect order. As a result, the Gazette is reprinting the story this week in its entirety.
Growing up in Alexandria hasn’t changed all that much in the past 40 years.
Except for a few small things Andy Evans remembers: he remembers when there were water fountains for black people and water fountains for white people, and when the schools didn’t seem even close to being integrated.
Still, Evans remembers a happy childhood. “I come from a family of 15 kids, so there was always something going on in my house,” he said.
All of them went to school at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, across the street from their home. “It couldn’t have cost very much because we didn’t have a lot of money and all of us went to school there,” Evans said.
An Irish priest and black nuns ruled the school with firm hands. “My brothers and I used to ring the church bells every morning,” Evans said. “We were supposed to ring them exactly 15 times but the ropes were heavy and sometimes we just couldn’t resist swinging on them a little more than we should. Sister always knew, though and there was bound to be penance.”
Black and white children didn’t play together in those days. “About the only time we saw each other was delivering papers,” Evans said.
Every paper had delivery boys both black and white, so they would meet up in the mornings, to collect papers. “We would always sneak into the back of the Krispy Kreme doughnut store and eat the mistakes – if the doughnuts weren’t shaped just right or if they had something else wrong with them they would slide them out of the bakery on these trays and we would eat them,” he said.
EVERYTHING ELSE WAS separate. “I remember there were two different water fountains at the Murphy’s,” Evans said. “We used to taste the water in the white people’s water fountain, because we knew it must taste better.”
When Evans was 13, his mother died and the family moved to Arlington. He attended Hoffman-Boston High School, Arlington’s black high school. High school was uneventful, until he was drafted into the U.S. Army his senior year, 1965. In 1965, the Army meant one thing – Vietnam.
“Talk about a wake up call,” Evans said. “Nothing in my life prepared me for Vietnam. It changed the way I looked at everything. I saw kids on the streets with shells falling all around us and they had no parents to look out for them and no home to run to. I just wondered how people back in Alexandria would deal with that if they had to face bombs and mortar shells every day.”
Evans returned to a very different Alexandria than the city of his childhood. “When I first got home, I saw all of these people walking someplace in a big hurry,” he said. “They said they were going to The Berg to support H. Rap Brown. I didn’t even know who that was but they told me he supported black people and was in the Alexandria jail.”
Brown, the Black Panther Party’s “justice minister,” had been arrested at National Airport on federal charges and was being held in the local jail, which was located across the street from the city’s largest public housing complex. That was Evans’ first introduction to the political process and he liked it.
SOON, HE CAME to the attention of a man named Ira Robinson, who was mounting a run for City Council. “I remember when I first met Andy,” said Vola Lawson, retired Alexandria city manager. “Ira and my husband David brought him to our apartment in Park Fairfax and told me that he was going to be Ira’s co-campaign manager with David.”
It would be a noteworthy campaign, because Robinson was the first black candidate to seek a Council seat. “Andy was bright and funny and definitely showed leadership qualities,” Lawson said.
That 1970 campaign was already difficult, made even more so by riots that broke out just 10 days before the election. Robby Gibson, a black teenager, was shot by the white clerk of a convenience store at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and West Glebe Road, now the site of a church.
“They called Ira to come down and try to calm the crowd,” Evans said. “So there we were: Ira, this big tall black man; me, this kid who is just learning about the political process; and David Lawson, the biggest, whitest dude most of us had ever seen.”
They made their way through the crowd, which had turned into a standoff between tense police officers and angry black Alexandrians. “Ira was able to keep things from getting out of control,” Evans said. “That really was the turning point in the campaign.”
Robinson won and Evans became the first ever City Council aide. He also started college on a scholarship to study political science. It ended up leading him to stand-up comedy, his current profession.
NAZIS CAME TO Alexandria in November 1970, to hold a rally supporting the doctrine of separate facilities for blacks and whites. Evans just happened upon the rally as he was walking in Old Town on a Veteran’s Day weekend.
“I saw all of these T. C. Williams students headed toward City Hall with bricks and sticks in their hands and they told me they were going to fight the Nazis,” Evans said. “T. C. Williams was integrated so there were white kids and black kids who had come off the basketball courts at The Berg to get in the middle of this fight.”
There were police officers with guns, Nazis with guns and high school students with bricks. Evans didn’t know what to do. “I finally got the idea that the only way to stop something really bad from happening was to get the kids to laugh at the Nazis,” Evans said.
He did. “Every time the Nazis said something the kids laughed at them,” Evans said. “It was so frustrating for the Nazis that they finally just left.” Newspaper headlines proclaimed “Black Youth Laugh Nazis Out of Town” and “Students Mock Nazis,” and a tragedy was averted.
Many people started to take notice of Evans. “He was very young so most of us didn’t really know him until Ira took him on as a co-campaign manager,” said A. Melvin Miller. “Ira clearly saw some leadership qualities in Andy that he thought were valuable. Andy helped Ira to tap into a community of young people who had really not ever been involved in the process. It worked very well.”
EVANS TRIED his own hand at politics when he ran for sheriff in 1973. “I thought that the conditions at the Alexandria jail were awful and that we should do something about them,” he said. “I still have no idea why on earth I thought I could win but I gave it a good try and lost by a little more than 100 votes.”
After that, Evans went to work recruiting minority students for George Mason University for 12 years.
He left to pursue his real love, comedy. “I had just had so many experiences where comedy made things better that I wanted to do it full time,” he said.
He works for the Improv clubs throughout the country and writes a syndicated weekly column, called “Advice from the Comedy Counselor.” He also speaks to groups of college students throughout the country about the value of humor in relieving stress.
He hasn’t forgotten his hometown, either. He volunteers at the Black History Resource Center and with Project Discovery.
“Things have changed a lot since I was growing up here,” he said. “But there is still a lot left to do. If we are going to change people’s attitudes about race, we have to change the entire conversation. Talking about the same old things over and over just isn’t going to cut it anymore.”