Black love in the past, as told by newspaper personal ads : Code Switch To celebrate the history of Black romance, Gene and Parker are joined by reporter Nichole Hill to explore the 1937 equivalent of dating apps — the personals section of one of D.C.'s Black newspapers. Parker attempts to match with a Depression-era bachelor, and along the way we learn about what love meant two generations removed from slavery.

The Lonesome Hearts of 1937

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Hey, everyone. You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker.


And I'm Gene Demby.

PARKER: OK, Gene, February is Black History Month.

DEMBY: It is.

PARKER: It's also Valentine's Day.

DEMBY: It is.

PARKER: So it's a time of year when a lot of people have love on the brain.

DEMBY: Shout-out to Rihanna.

PARKER: (Laughter) So I've got to ask, are you a romantic?

DEMBY: I mean, aren't all cynics and skeptics just really wounded romantics? So, I mean, if that's your definition of romantic, then I would say I'm a romantic. What about you, Parker? Are you a romantic?

PARKER: I mean, maybe. It depends on the day, but as you know, our guest today is an unabashed romantic.

DEMBY: That she is. Her name is Nichole Hill, and...

NICHOLE HILL: I am a storyteller.

DEMBY: Nichole tells stories about everyday, regular, degular (ph) Black and brown folks who are looking for belonging - people trying to make sense of their places in the world. She does that on her show "The Secret Adventures Of Black People," and most recently, she did that for Tracee Ellis Ross' series, "I Am America."

PARKER: And Nichole loves love.


HILL: I grew up in a family of women who love "Pride And Prejudice." We love, like, old black-and-white movies from the '30s, from the '40s, from the - I love it.

PARKER: She said, come Christmastime...

HILL: It's Hallmark movies, period. I want to see all the Christmas tree farmers get all the big-city women to leave their high-pressure job and come help them raise their child. I don't care. I'm a feminist. I know it's backwards. It doesn't matter to me.

DEMBY: But as much as she loved those movies, she noticed that there were hardly ever any Black folks in them. So at a certain point, she started looking for distinctly Black love stories, and what she found was a treasure trove - thousands upon thousands of these archival Black newspapers. And they were filled with personal ads from Black people trying to find love, and those papers went all the way back to the 1890s.

PARKER: And Nichole very graciously agreed to share with us some of what she learned from reading hundreds and hundreds of articles from these old newspapers about what Black love looked like in the past and what that can teach us about how we should understand our present. And she got into all of that by asking us a very intriguing question.

HILL: What's the oldest love story you know?

PARKER: I mean, the oldest love story I know is my - probably my grandparents 'cause they - I think in the 1930s in North Carolina, they met as teenagers in a potato field, this...


HILL: Romantic.

DEMBY: Sultry.

PARKER: Very hot.

DEMBY: It was probably literally sultry. It was probably...

HILL: Sweaty.

DEMBY: ...Hot as hell.

HILL: They're tired.

DEMBY: It was probably very hot and humid. Yeah.

PARKER: It just imagine them both with, like, a - big sacks and just putting potatoes in them and then looking at each other from across the field (laughter).

HILL: Their eyes meet. Who - which grandparent do you think made the first move?

PARKER: Oh, my grandpa, for sure.

DEMBY: He said - do you think he said something about her, like - her bushel or something like that? Like, damn, ma.

PARKER: (Laughter).

DEMBY: You got that...


DEMBY: I mean...


DEMBY: I'm not off on the...

HILL: I'm sure he'd say ma'am, miss.

DEMBY: Yes. Hey, ma'am. I noticed you got this burlap sack full of all the choicest spuds - or something. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know (laughter).

PARKER: This is - it's like hearing my Grandpa Roy (ph) right now.


PARKER: Wait, Gene, what's yours?

DEMBY: So the most important formative love story for me involves fictional Hillman University. Or was it Hillman College?

PARKER: Hillman College.

DEMBY: Yeah, I'm talking about "A Different World." Y'all, I'm talking about "A Different World." Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert having this on-again, off-again thing. And so Whitley Gilbert's supposed to marry this dude who's running for the Senate. His name is Byron. He's played by Joe Morton.

PARKER: Get to the point.


DEMBY: Anyway, they're getting married. It's this really dramatic wedding. And Dwayne interrupts the wedding, and he's like, baby, please.


KADEEM HARDISON: (As Dwayne Wayne) In richer, for poorer? Baby, please. Please.

JASMINE GUY: (As Whitley Gilbert) I do.


PARKER: Please. Baby, please. Baby, please.

DEMBY: Please, baby. Please. He breaks up their wedding. They run off together. I guess the idea is they supposed to live happily ever after, but obviously, that's ridiculous now, as a grown-up. As a grown-up who has done some healing, no. But...


DEMBY: ...As a...


DEMBY: But as a 10- or 11-year-old, yes. Yes, absolutely.

PARKER: So two very different kinds of love stories.

DEMBY: (Laughter).


DEMBY: But Nichole, you've been reading about hundreds of different kinds of love stories in your research going through old Black newspapers. Can you talk about some of what you've learned?

HILL: So one of my favorite papers that I found is The Washington Afro-American, which is a subsidiary of The Baltimore Afro-American, which still exists today.

PARKER: Yes, it does.

HILL: What I really love about it is, of course, they're covering all the national and international news headlines, all the important things. But the thing that's unique about them is - you know, all the Black papers around the country, primarily the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, are really focused on the fight - on helping Black people to gain their independence, to organize politically and socially and fight for justice. But people are people, and so, you know, sometimes to get people to drink their medicine, you want to give them a little bit of sugar. And so what the papers would do is they would publish gossip. They would publish love poems. They would publish little things that the public might like, you know, when they're tired of reading about the struggle. Now, papers like The Defender and The Courier were hesitant to do those things. The Washington Afro-American loved it.


HILL: They were like, let's go. Give us all the drama, give us all the gossip. We will run this right after we do, you know, your important stuff, and go vote, do all of that. But then also flip to the back page and then find out who's getting divorced.


DEMBY: Come for the drama and the salaciousness, all the tea, and stay for the...

PARKER: Breakdown of the New Deal.


HILL: Essentially, these newspapers were like Instagram updates back in the day. And they're talking about love, love, love. We're talking love poems, love scandals, advice on how to find love, advice on how to get out of love and people searching for it.

PARKER: I need that now.

DEMBY: What did the thirst trap look like (laughter) in the 1930s?

HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I'm curious.

PARKER: (Exclaiming) Gene.

HILL: OK, so this was - no, they had them. They had them.


HILL: Don't even worry about it. They were there - only ever women though.

DEMBY: Of course.

HILL: You know.

PARKER: Patriarchy.

HILL: So it's a lot of bathing suit pics, a lot of...


HILL: ...Just women at the beach or at beauty contests or just dressed up going to tea. This is how they sold their papers. It's usually women. But then the men were writing a lot of love poems, a lot of kind of sad love poems - like, baby, please...


HILL: ...Like, baby, baby, please, please - like that.

PARKER: If you're going give me a sad poem, at least give me, like, a shirtless man in some dungarees or something. Like...

DEMBY: Dungarees. My God.

PARKER: ...Let me enjoy the full measure of a man.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

HILL: Well, this was the thirst. This is how they were trying to lay traps for women back in the day. It was a lot of like, girl, I got a job, the end.

PARKER: You know what...


PARKER: You know what, that - sometimes that still works now.

HILL: So when I'm reading these papers, what was really interesting to me is, you know, we talk so much about how dating is really hard now. Our parents give us advice on, you should do this. And it's, like, you don't understand the context in which we're living in. And I'm reading these papers, and I'm seeing, like, you know what? If people in 1937 are talking to their parents...


HILL: ...Their parents were the first generation of people to ever be born free in America. They're not having a good time. Not everybody - I don't want to paint a broad brush, but so many, the overwhelming majority, are just figuring out how to be free in America. And their love stories are coming during the tail end of this kind of Victorian era. Like, we're going to get together for economics because it's socially acceptable, you know, kind of like a more rigid form of love. And then their grandparents were enslaved. And their love stories, they're - I mean, they're hard to even know if they shared them at all. And so what they would have imagined for themselves when it came to love may have been pretty limited.


HILL: But by 1937, Black people are in the midst of the Great Migration. Cities are urbanizing. The '20s have happened. And so there's been this introduction of companionate love - this idea that you shouldn't get married because of some, like, stodgy, religious - I mean, of course that still exists. But we're introducing this idea of - you should find a person who sets your soul on fire, who makes you feel complete and whole, and you should run off with them. You should be with them forever. You should marry for love.

PARKER: Oh, word.

HILL: This is a new concept - exactly. I know, right (laughter)? But it's new. And what it means is we're no longer kind of looking over at whoever - the next-door neighbor - and just considering them. We're maybe moving to a new city and looking out at everybody and wanting to go on dates and see how we feel. Are we vibing? Do I feel connected? Or am I bored?

PARKER: But tell us about the social and political life back then. What was going on?

HILL: OK. So it's 1937. That's the year we're going to focus in on.



HILL: Life expectancy for men, it's about 58 years...

DEMBY: Yikes.

HILL: ...For women, 62.

PARKER: Hot dog.

HILL: Yeah, so it's like, you got to get in there and do it. You got to live your life...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Right now. There's not a lot of time.

PARKER: All right.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

HILL: FDR is the president. Black people have voted en masse for him. And we've actually been voting Democrat for the past 10 years after having left the Republican Party, or I guess you could say they left us.

DEMBY: Another way we're breaking from our parents at that time, right?

HILL: That's exactly right. Outside of politics - I'm going to tell you about pop culture. I'm going to tell you what people are getting into for fun.



HILL: OK, so 1937, there's this new thing that was introduced at the World Fair. It is called television.

PARKER: Hot dog.


HILL: People are saying it's going to be huge. The most famous person in America is probably Shirley Temple.

PARKER: Right on.

HILL: The biggest book, "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien - that just came out.


HILL: Your big pop stars, the top of the charts, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.


PARKER: Taste, taste.

HILL: Exactly.

PARKER: All right.

HILL: We're living in that time. And there's a really, really popular dance. It's called the Big Apple Dance. White people have stolen it from Black people.

DEMBY: Same as it ever was.

HILL: It's the same. And then if you're living in the cities, you are going out. That is what it is about. It is about hanging out with your friends, hanging out at church, hanging out with colleagues, having fun. It's this idea that you could go to cities in the North that were still segregated but had Black communities, you know...


HILL: ...Like a city like D.C., let's say, which has the highest concentration of Black people in the nation. You have Howard University, and Howard University is the capstone of Negro education in America. And so all these...

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: ...People - the doctors and the lawyers and the great thinkers of that day - are going to Howard, and then they're settling all around U Street, which they called Black Broadway at that time. And so you get there, and you're seeing 200 Black-owned shops and businesses.

DEMBY: So if you were going out - right? - and you're going to - whatever they called turning up back in the day - you went out to turn up on U Street - like, what did you need to do to make small talk on a date like that?

HILL: Based on having read these papers, I will tell you what I would make small talk around.

PARKER: Let's hear it. Let's hear it.




DEMBY: ...The best game. OK. Let's go, Nichole.

HILL: I would definitely talk about how much I love Duke Ellington, his new jazz style. Before everybody loved him, I loved him. He is from D.C. I don't want to brag, but I kind of got on before everybody else.

PARKER: (Laughter).

HILL: You'd want to do a little bit of that.

PARKER: Wow. If this was, like, the mid-2000s, I had on a beanie. I was doing the same thing at parties talking to guys.

HILL: So already you're ready. So already you're almost there.

PARKER: There you go.


DEMBY: Do you think people back then were finding it easier to date and to be coupled?

HILL: Well, Gene, this is the question. It's so up to opinion. Maybe in 20 years, people will say we had it good. It's hard to know if the dating landscape was for sure better or worse, in part because people having a genuine interest in Black love and researching it and documenting it and asking people about their experiences is so limited. That is one of...


HILL: ...The things we've been robbed of - is just not just our big, dramatic kind of civil rights - our fight for just basic human rights - but also just the everyday things of, like, what did it take to find a date? They're harder to find because people didn't document them in the...

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: ...Way they did for white communities. But people were complaining, and their complaints sound...


HILL: ...Similar to our complaints today.


PARKER: Coming up, we're going to put this question to the test. Was Black dating better in 1937 than it is today?

DEMBY: And we're going to do that by taking a little trip in a time machine and sending Parker on some dates.

HILL: Now, just know that people say what they want. But everybody - you know, we have to be flexible with our asks.

PARKER: Oh, boy. Stay with us.


PARKER: Parker.

DEMBY: Gene.



PARKER: And we're back talking to Nichole Hill about what Black love looked like almost a century ago and what that might help us understand about Black love today.

HILL: I think it would be kind of fun to see if maybe Gene and Parker - or maybe one of you - both of you - I don't know your situation - but to see if you could find somebody that you would maybe write to in 1937 to go on another date with.

DEMBY: Damn.

PARKER: (Laughter).

DEMBY: OK, so...

PARKER: Never, never make that sound again, Gene.

DEMBY: ...I'm off the market.

PARKER: I am a perpetually single Black woman in America who is looking for love in 1937.


PARKER: I feel like I would crush it in 1937. I feel like...

DEMBY: Would you?

PARKER: ...I would do great. Are you kidding me? - with my skill sets?

HILL: OK, what are your skill sets? I love this attitude.


PARKER: I can't cook.

DEMBY: OK, so that's probably already...

HILL: All right. All right.

PARKER: I can kind of clean, but I also have a Roomba.

DEMBY: Can you, like, sew?

HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: I can darn - like, socks and stuff.


HILL: That's helpful. That's helpful.

DEMBY: That's right - OK.

PARKER: But, like, if you need, like, a dissertation on "Titus Andronicus" or you want to know about, like, Vincente Minnelli's film techniques when he made "Hallelujah," I'm that girl. And I'm here, and I'm sure there is a nice, sensible, Black man at that time who would love to hear these things while I spend his money.


HILL: OK, and what kind of a man is Parker looking for both today and 1937...

DEMBY: Oh, tell us. yes.

HILL: ...Or if they're different?

PARKER: Well, present day, I find - you know, just tall, big dudes who cry a lot and listen to speed metal. But if you go back in time, like, you know, I would love a nice farmer. - just a kind man, funny. He could be taller than me. He doesn't have to be. I know I'm kind of tall. Likes art - doesn't have to understand it, but at least enjoys it. Just, like, a nice partner.

DEMBY: Nice.

PARKER: And, you know, there you go. That's all I want.

DEMBY: Oh, nice. It's so nebulous.

HILL: It's not so much to ask, is it?

PARKER: Nice - nonmisogynistic for that time.


PARKER: He's, like, oh...

HILL: Adjusted for the time, yeah.

PARKER: Adjusted for the time.



HILL: Well, I'm going to introduce you to the Lonesome Hearts column, which is - essentially, these are the apps of 1937.

PARKER: Hot dog.

HILL: It's on page 18 of your local paper in D.C...


HILL: ...The Washington Afro-American.


HILL: And the editor is a man named Albertine Ashe (ph).

DEMBY: Albertine.

PARKER: It sounds like a chemical called aspartame.

HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Vaguely cancerous, vaguely carcinogenic.

HILL: OK. So he runs this column. He's been running it for years, and he's got some specific instructions.


HILL: I'm just going to read them to you now so you understand.

PARKER: All right.

HILL: (Reading) Are you a lonesome heart? If so, you are invited to read and use this column. The signatures and addresses of letters sent this column will not be published. If you want your letters forwarded, enclose three-cent stamp.

DEMBY: Three cents? Whoof (ph).

HILL: Mmm hmm.

PARKER: What a time.

HILL: So are you willing to enclose three cents and find your love?

PARKER: I'll give a quarter.

DEMBY: (Laughter).


HILL: This is what Albert said. He said this column is for sincere lonely hearts. Please do not write flowery language and fictitious names. Lonely hearts are not to be played with.

DEMBY: All right now.

PARKER: All right, Mr. Ashe.

DEMBY: I'm like - that is definitely, like, a Motown lyric.


HILL: I think it's a good idea to check out the competition to get a sense of what they're saying. So these are the women who are writing in under the column that says, husbands wanted.

PARKER: Husbands wanted? Not even, like, you know, boyfriend to see once a month?

DEMBY: Not even boo things.

HILL: Well, this is the thing - he's naming the column husbands wanted. People are saying they're open.

PARKER: All right.


HILL: So we're reading in between lines here.

PARKER: Modern individuals.

HILL: I'm going to read you this letter signed Brown Eyes.

PARKER: Hello.


HILL: (Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - I am 19, light brown, 5'6" tall, black hair with a medium-length wavy bob, play piano, like to keep house, like children and am considered quite good-looking and charming. My father left me a legacy which I can't receive until I marry. I suppose he thought I would run through it uselessly alone, but I will share it with the man that I consider for marriage. I could never marry my present boyfriend for reasons untold...

DEMBY: All right.

PARKER: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I want to know what those reasons untold might be.


(Reading) I could never marry my present boyfriend for reasons untold, so I want some tall, handsome, neat, lovable, brown-skinned man between 25 and 30 to write and send me a picture of himself and credentials. He must be a college man with a good disposition, clean, not drink excessively, industrious and know how and when to invest. He must be a real he-man of athletic build, but not under six feet - Brown Eyes.


DEMBY: First of all, not he-man...

HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...I mean, we're talking about 1937. You know, the Depression is still kind of like, you know, maybe waning, but it's still happening. Like, people ain't getting enough nutrition.

PARKER: You know what? Brown Eyes, I understand - I get where she coming from.

DEMBY: I mean, I'm not saying she - her standards are too high - I'm just saying, like, wow, she wants all of the things.

PARKER: All right, Steve Harvey.



DEMBY: I'm not saying she should lower her standards. I'm just saying - and maybe in D.C. - you know what I mean? - it might be easier to find a college-educated dude.

HILL: Near Howard - she's like, let's go.

PARKER: You know what I mean? I feel like she's narrowing the playing field.

DEMBY: Pre-Civil Rights Act, something like 4% of Black people had college degrees. So, I mean, I'm just saying - maybe education in particular might be a thing that might be, like, a high threshold to cross.

PARKER: I got you.


HILL: OK, Gene, you have a - just one more column just to give you a sense - a feel for what the ladies are asking of the men.

DEMBY: Yes. So, OK. This one is from someone named Smiling Peggy (ph).

(Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - I would love to meet some nice gentlemen...


(Reading) ...Between the ages of 24 and 29, employed, lover of church and movies - all good, clean, fun. And color doesn't matter. I am brown skin, considered nice-looking by my friends, 5'5", weigh 156 pounds, high school graduate, regularly employed, not interested in any man who has been married. I will answer all letters promptly and give a fuller description of myself.


DEMBY: That's your composition.

PARKER: All right, Peggy.

DEMBY: Yeah, I mean...

PARKER: All right, Peggy.

DEMBY: ...she likes movies, just like you. It's like - you know what I mean?

PARKER: Movies, church...

DEMBY: Church, just like you.

PARKER: ...A man with sense and a job.

HILL: And a job.

DEMBY: I feel like you and Peggy are looking for something closer to the same thing than you and Brown Eyes are.

PARKER: You mean a more rational version of a man...


PARKER: ...Than what Brown Eyes was looking for?

HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I'm saying Brown Eyes just want everything.

HILL: All right. So you got the lay of the land. You got to feel for it. Now, I should say, when people say color doesn't matter, what they mean - 'cause we are in 1937 - is it doesn't matter if your light-skinned or you're dark-skinned or you're brown - well, no...

PARKER: (Laughter).

HILL: ...There's no mention of dark skin. They mean light skin or brown skin. Nobody mentions dark skin.

DEMBY: Hmm. Interesting.

PARKER: These colorist people.

HILL: I know. My people are left out.

DEMBY: All of the dark brown ones...

HILL: Everybody just says color doesn't matter.

DEMBY: And we are - we should - for all of those - y'all who can't see us, we are all dark brown - all of the three of us.

HILL: Mmm hmm, chocolaty people.

PARKER: Out here fighting for our lives.

HILL: Every day - even back then.

PARKER: Even back then.

DEMBY: Even back then.

HILL: Especially back then.

DEMBY: Oh, my gosh.


HILL: What we're going to do next is - Gene and I have both made selections for you.

PARKER: All right. Gene, you better have done right by me.

DEMBY: I'm trying - always try to do right by you, Parker.

PARKER: All right.

DEMBY: Yes. I think I have something you'll like...

PARKER: Nichole, I don't really know you, but I trust you. Gene, I know you, and you're going to do me dirty.

DEMBY: I'm not going to do you dirty. I promise. Again...

HILL: And I am, like, a producer on a reality show, so who knows what I will do (laughter).

DEMBY: She wants the most - she wants chaos. She wants drama.

PARKER: Aha - a pot stirrer. OK. All right. OK.


PARKER: I'm ready.

HILL: Let's go. Let's take turns. We'll go one and one. So Gene, I'll go first.


HILL: I'll share my first one.


HILL: OK, Parker. Please meet bachelor No. 1...

(Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - ex-mailman who went wrong. Desires the friendship of a broad-minded and successful woman between the ages of 25 and 55. I am, at present, employed on the WPA, but expect better very soon. I am 39, light brown, 5'4", weigh 165 pounds, so, like, medium sized, with a dignified appearance. I once owned my own home and car. I am affectionate and will try to be a good husband. Was in government service 14 years before real estate investment as well as others caused my downfall - Ex-Mailman.


PARKER: Ex-Mailman, I mean, I was with you, but I feel like that's going to be some evenings - hearing that a lot.

HILL: What do you mean? What do you mean?

PARKER: Just being like, they tried to take me down. The ops (ph) tried to destroy me.


DEMBY: The ops.

PARKER: I'm going to have to hide my money in a loose brick in the living room. And all of a sudden, it's going to go missing because he got a new investment deal, and then we...

DEMBY: I promise I'll do right. I'll make it right. I'm going to bring it - I'll make it cool.

HILL: He's going to be like, I promise, I promise. I just need the right woman to turn it around between the ages of 25 and 55.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

PARKER: I love the vast - he's like, it don't matter. It don't matter.

HILL: A broad-minded and successful woman - now you are successful...


HILL: ...And he would love it if you had already achieved some of that success and you would just bring it on home to him.

DEMBY: Absolutely.


HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Pass.


DEMBY: Oh, well (laughter).

PARKER: Hard - I just typed it. Pass.

HILL: As an agent of chaos, that's fine.


HILL: All right, Gene, you're up.


(Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - I'm a widower. My wife has been dead nearly four years. I own my home, a farm and six-room house. I'm getting old...

PARKER: Wait, is he old?


PARKER: I'm sorry.


DEMBY: (Reading) I'm getting old, but I'm not too old to take care of an honest and kind woman who is strictly a one-man woman...

PARKER: All right.

DEMBY: (Reading) ...As I'm a one-woman man. I'm an April-born man. And if you don't mind, please give me your birth month. No harm in giving out our birth dates, as the only thing under the sun that makes a good man or good woman is a good principle - signed, Eastman.

Just before you say, I'm just curious if, Parker - do you understand - do you have any idea why I thought that person might be a good match for you?

PARKER: Because you know I'm an astrology girlie (ph).


PARKER: Oh, my God, Gene, you get me.


DEMBY: See? I was trying to - I told you I was trying to do right by you.

PARKER: Oh, my God.

DEMBY: I feel like...

PARKER: Oh, and he's an Aries. Oh, my God.

DEMBY: See? See?

PARKER: That's my moon sign.


DEMBY: I was like, I feel like y'all would be on the same page.

PARKER: Oh, my God. So he's got a job. He's got a farm. He's got a six-bedroom house.

DEMBY: Listen.

PARKER: He's getting older, so he might get gone soon so I can get that house and that farm.

DEMBY: Also, to Nichole's point, like, older - in that time, if you're living to 58, older could be, like, 30, you know what I'm saying?

HILL: Yeah, that's true.

DEMBY: Like, I'm halfway through this journey we call life.

PARKER: I could work through it. And he did not mention kids.

DEMBY: Oh, that's right. He didn't.

HILL: Oh, that's right. He didn't.

PARKER: Oh, I can make this work. Oh, a nice, kind, Aries, older man with...

DEMBY: A big house.

PARKER: ...Like, his life together.

HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: He's - I mean he's up there right now.


PARKER: We're working through it.

DEMBY: So...

PARKER: Like, I mean, R.I.P. to the wife No. 1, but I might be wife No. 2.


DEMBY: I mean, she might have been, like, a Libra or something. Like, you know what I mean? Like, that's probably why, you know...


HILL: We don't know what happened to her. We don't.

DEMBY: Exactly. That's one vote for Eastman. OK.

PARKER: Eastman...


PARKER: ...We can make it work.

HILL: All right, next up.


HILL: (Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - I am an artist, 43, dark brown skin, 5'8" inches...


HILL: ...Weigh 185 pounds, neat, with black, curly hair and have been in show business over 15 years. Own my home in the West, and I expect to go back as soon as my contracts here expire. My wife is dead, and I have a young son. I would like to meet a refined...

Oh, wait (laughter).

PARKER: What's the problem?

HILL: Now, just know that people say what they want, but everybody - you know, we have to be flexible with our asks, so...

PARKER: All right.

HILL: (Reading) I would like to meet a refined widow, 40 to 45...

PARKER: I can't. I'm sorry. I'm not in my 40s, and I'm not a widow.

HILL: Yeah, but this is what he's saying he...

DEMBY: Just what he's saying - exactly.

HILL: You know, we can't just...


HILL: ...Rule people out.


HILL: Like, he's saying, best-case scenario, a widow, but he might be open. Let's see. Let's see if you'd still be willing to write to him.

(Reading) One who can appreciate a nice home with pleasing surroundings. I am willing to marry if I can find the right type, but she must be that type girl, or you will be wasting your paper. Color and looks mean nothing. Character is what counts with me - Artist Dontar (ph).

PARKER: All right.

DEMBY: OK. So quick question - why do you think he's specifically asking for a widow?

PARKER: Maybe she got money?

DEMBY: You know, like...

HILL: I feel like that could be part of it. The stigma attached to a woman who is 40 or 45 and has never been married might be what - 'cause he's asked for a refined widow.


HILL: So that also seems to be code of, like...


HILL: ...I would like you to have a little bit of money, a little bit of class.

PARKER: That's very specific, and I feel like I could wait out for my Nat King Cole.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

PARKER: Like, I don't need - I can wait this out. I don't know about him.



HILL: All right, then - Gene?

DEMBY: All right. I've got one more for you, though, before you make up your mind, Parker, about who your forever boo is going to be.


DEMBY: (Reading) To the Lonesome Hearts editor - I'm 36 years old, brown skin, weigh 138.5 pounds...

That's very specific.

(Reading) ...barber by trade, a steady worker and a church man - do not drink or gamble. I would like to get in touch with some refined girl who is looking for a one-woman man for a husband. Color doesn't matter. What I want is happiness at home. I would indeed appreciate a wife, one whose ways and ideas are similar to mine. I'm quiet, old-fashioned myself. I desire one who enjoys the same things I do - as movies, radio, reading in church - her height 5'3" to 6 feet, weight 120. Age does not matter. Will exchange photos - signed, Homer (ph).


PARKER: I do like the name Homer.

HILL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: It's such a old-timey - well.

PARKER: All right. We got a 36-year-old barber. He likes church. He likes movies, radio.

DEMBY: And a barber back then, like, would have been, like...

PARKER: A pillar of the community.

DEMBY: ...A sort of social hub, right? Yeah. Like, he would have been...

PARKER: There you go.

DEMBY: ...Really connected, you know?

PARKER: OK. So Homer said that he was old-fashioned. What do we think that means? He seems very traditional. I don't know if he would love the independence that I seek.

DEMBY: Yeah, exactly - you'd...

HILL: Right, because old-fashioned in 1937 is...


HILL: ...Like, 1901...


HILL: ...So that's Victorian vibes.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

PARKER: You know? Like, I saw Parker talking to some man on the corner. And what were you doing talking to him? Like, I was buying groceries.

DEMBY: Oh, I can't believe they letting these women read these days.


HILL: Exactly. Like, that would be - you're right. That would be the vibe. Or, like...


HILL: ...She went out, and she didn't have gloves on her hands. People could see her dirty hands. Like...

PARKER: Oh, my gosh.

HILL: ...She's tempting men, you know?

PARKER: Oh, he's going to tear my books in half.

DEMBY: No wife of mine is going to be reading this filth - just tearing up books he happens to find.

HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: I'm like, but it's James Joyce.


DEMBY: Langston Hughes - what? - what do we know about these Negroes?

HILL: What?

PARKER: Oh, my God.

DEMBY: What kind of weird ideas is he trying to put in your head?

HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: I'm just thinking about - OK. At Eastman's house, I could turn one of those bedrooms into, like, an office and a library.

DEMBY: Absolutely. You could knock down a wall.

PARKER: Oh, my God.

DEMBY: You got 6 bedrooms - knock down a wall.

HILL: Oh, you could absolutely knock down a wall.

PARKER: The options are endless.

HILL: And a farm-style house - that's so popular right now.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

PARKER: Oh, my God. HGTV would be on me if they knew.

HILL: What do you know about farm life?

DEMBY: Oh, yeah, Parker, you kind of - OK.

PARKER: I spent my summers as a kid on a farm.

HILL: Oh, my God.

PARKER: You know, I've seen livestock get chopped - you know what I mean? Like, I know some of the ins and outs. I would have to learn, but, oh, my God, we have made a Hallmark movie for me...

HILL: (Gasps) We've done it.

PARKER: ...In my relationship with Eastman. Oh, my God.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

HILL: So it sounds like you made your final decision.

PARKER: I feel like I - I mean, Eastman - I could take him or leave him. He seems well adjusted for the time. He could be a partner.

DEMBY: He's an Aries.

PARKER: He's an Aries...

HILL: Very important.

PARKER: ...So he's an independent thinker.


PARKER: And, as an Aquarius...

HILL: You already know.

DEMBY: You already know this. You already know what it is.

PARKER: ...I already am. I know, like - you know the vibes. And I, as a convivial isolationist - someone who loves people but also prefers to be by herself - being on a farm with my man...

DEMBY: Best-case scenario.

PARKER: Best-case scenario - and I'm not that far from D.C. if he's sending letters to the paper. I can see the vision. Gene, I - this is the most kudos I will ever give you. You did good. You did good.

DEMBY: This is the most - I mean, I found you a forever boo. Like...

PARKER: You found me a forever boo. You found me a farmer who's into astrology.


PARKER: That is, like, top-tier. I want that now.


DEMBY: All that means to me is that you're a 30-something woman who lives in Brooklyn. That's all - you know what I'm saying?

HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: You're not wrong.

DEMBY: That's all that tells me.

PARKER: Don't kill the moment, Gene. Don't kill the moment.


HILL: What I love about these columns is that you're able to get little glimpses of Black life and the romance, the challenges, the intrigue - all the different ways that people could be Black back then and just live their life, one, but then also search for somebody to share their life with - from the Brown Eyes of the world who are being really specific and tell you a little bit of their story to people who are just kind of writing and being very vague, but it seems like it might be coded. And so they'll say, people of any gender, write to me.

DEMBY: Oh, interesting.

HILL: The columns aren't always romantic. Sometimes, there'll be people writing and saying, I am so lonely. Will somebody please just be my pen pal? And I feel so connected to the past because I can see our stories today in all of these small, little paragraphs that people are writing in. But also, you know, to be honest, I feel, like, pretty robbed, where it's just, like - our history can look like so many things, and we've done extraordinary things in our fight and our organizing for civil rights. We've had to in order to survive. It's been really important to focus on that history. But we're also people. There's so much to be said about the beauty of everyday life. And, in particular, what fascinates me about this time, about the people who came right after slavery, who were born free - this first and second and third generations - they're imagining what being Black could be, and they're trying on a lot of different identities.


HILL: They're trying real estate investments. Maybe they're failing.


HILL: They're becoming farmers and businessmen and trying out traveling. There's a lot of people - the papers, especially in Chicago, would tell stories. They'd send their correspondence around the world...


HILL: ...And they would just write back stories of, this is what life looks like in London. Did you know there are Black people in Italy? And people are wondering, could a Black person travel? Could a Black person be a writer? Some of these papers published short fiction. I loved to read these papers and see them imagine what Black life could be. I never imagined that they were dreaming so big. I think my picture is just that they're suffering, but they're imagining so much for us. And we're living that now. And that's what I really love about visiting the past in this way.

DEMBY: Are you saying that - I'm going to hate myself for saying this...

HILL: Do it. I know. I know. Go ahead.

PARKER: All right.

DEMBY: Are you saying that we are our ancestors' wildest dreams?


HILL: There it is.


DEMBY: Nichole Hill is a storyteller who hosts the podcast, "The Secret Adventures Of Black People." Thank you for coming on. This is so much fun.

HILL: Thank you for having me. I'm sorry that I didn't find you a better boo, Parker.


PARKER: It's OK. It's all right. This was an absolute delight. I've learned a lot. And I've learned not to underestimate Gene.


HILL: Or the stars.


PARKER: And that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter. You can do that at And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts.

DEMBY: And we just want to give a quick shout-out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate you all and thank you for being subscribers. When you subscribe to CODE SWITCH+, it means you get to listen to all of our episodes without sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you rock with us, if you like our work, please consider signing up at

PARKER: This episode was produced by Jess Kung. It was edited by Leah Donnella. Our engineer was Maggie Luthar. And a big shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Christina Cala, Xavier Lopez, Dalia Mortada, Veralyn Williams and Lori Lizarraga.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. Be my valentine. And be easy.

PARKER: Share a glass and hydrate.

DEMBY: (Laughter) God.


DEMBY: Ooh, some of these people ain't Black. OK.

HILL: I know I threw some in.

DEMBY: Ooh, oh, OK.

HILL: I threw one in.

PARKER: So this is like...

UNIDENTIFIED BYLINE, BYLINE: Gene, don't give too much away.

DEMBY: I'm sorry.


HILL: (Laughter).

PARKER: So it is like the BLK app after all.


DEMBY: Have you been on that app for real?

PARKER: Yeah. It's - all of a sudden, a random-a** white man is in the mix...

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

PARKER: ...And I'm like, well, where did Mike (ph) come from?

DEMBY: Yeah, that's a choice. Yeah, exactly.

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