Mr. Rufus G. “Catfish” Mayfield

As we continue in the “newness” of this New Year 2011, Destiny – Pride thought it befitting to have as its Spotlight of the Month of February none other than its own Founder and President – Mr. Rufus Mayfield, Jr., also known as “Catfish.” Mr. Mayfield is a native Washingtonian, and became a civil rights activist at a young age. We will talk with him further on that as well as his other life involvements.

Destiny – Pride: Good morning, Mr. Mayfield. We are indeed happy to have the opportunity to have you as Destiny – Pride’s February Spotlight, and that is particularly so since Black History Month is celebrated in February and you have contributed much to the history of Washington, DC, particularly as it relates to the civil rights movement. First, please tell us a little bit about yourself. We know you are native to the District of Columbia, but tell us a little about your family background and your upbringing.

Mr. Mayfield: Well, I’d like to say, good morning. As for my family background, I was raised in what is now called far Northeast, DC, in a projects called Parkside. I’m the youngest of six children, three sisters – Lenoris, Doris [deceased] and Jean [deceased] – and two brothers – Clifton and James – born to Rufus Sr. and Hattie Mayfield. I am the only one of the six of us that was born in DC, at Columbia Hospital. I later asked my mother, because of the segregation of DC, how she was able to pull off my being born at Columbia, and she just laughed. I attended Neval Thomas Elementary School; subsequently Woodson Junior High and later on Chamberlain Vocational. A lot of things occurred during that period of time. I am married. My wife’s name is Nancy Carter; and I have three sons – Phillipe, Rufus the third and Reginald, who has predeceased me. That’s the structure and the make up of my family.

Destiny – Pride: What was the atmosphere in terms of race relations during your early years?

Mr. Mayfield: Well, because DC really was segregated, during my earlier years I never really got an opportunity to interface with any culture other than – at that time we were called – “Negroes.” If you lived in DC, you really stayed within your section – We lived in Parkside; you also had East Capitol; you had Lincoln Heights; you had Barry Farm, and the likes. We really never got an opportunity to interface with other sections of town, and the times when we did a fight generally ensued. Race was not a primary problem at that time. The only time we really went downtown was during Easter, going back to school, or Christmas.

Rufus G. Mayfield

Every quadrant of the city was “self-contained” to keep us in our place. We had our own movie theater on Minnesota Avenue. We had our own shopping stores. It was designed to keep you in your own neighborhood.

Destiny – Pride: You mentioned that whenever you did have contact with the others, fights ensued. Were those fights between you and whites?

Mr. Mayfield: The battles never were between blacks and whites. It was blacks on blacks and we didn’t get together too often. For example, we were not permitted to go to the White House for the Easter Egg Roll, but we were permitted to go to the zoo [National Zoo]. So all of the quadrants of the city would wind up at the zoo, and there always was a fight on Easter Monday.

Destiny – Pride: What in your upbringing do you believe has helped to shape you into the person you are today?

Mr. Mayfield: I really have to give kudos to my mom. For this conversation, so it won’t be a misprint when they see it, I never called my mother “mother”; I always pronounced it “muva.” One time I was in an important meeting and it slipped out. I was working at the Department of Human Services, and it slipped out. Instead of saying “my mother,” I said “my muva.” Someone there asked, “What did you just say?” to which I replied, “I said ‘mother’.” So for this conversation, I’m going to go back to my country roots and say that the greatest impact upon me was my “muva.”

Regarding my mom, Hattie Lee Mayfield, and the only reason I am sharing this at this point and time in my life is that she is now deceased – I would not have done it if she were still alive. My mother carried a secret: she was a functional illiterate; she couldn’t read nor write. I used to try to teach her how to read and to write her name and things like that. She was really proud when she learned how to write her name. But in spite of her illiteracy, she was able to accomplish so much in life. She had this burning desire to please the Lord, and in doing so, she was able to provide for us. There was no job beneath her. She truly sacrificed for us.

My mom first worked at what was then called Peoples Drug Store, but then somehow she got hooked up with GSA [General Services Administration]. That’s the reason that I believe that the hand of the Lord has always guided her. In 1959, she moved from GSA to the White House, although I think GSA was the agency that supplied employees to the White House. She worked at the White House from the last year of Dwight Eisenhower in 1959 and she stayed there until, I believe, the first Bush Administration. She was a house cleaner and she used to take all of the church members, including the pastor, on tours. She was really highly respected. I think that in spite of all of the impediments that she had as far as education, she was one of the wisest, kindest and most spiritual persons that I have ever met in life. She started off in government as a DS-1 and she left after 30 or 40 years as a DS-2 because of her lack of education. And although I made a higher salary than she did, she was the one I generally sought for advice and the person who has had the greatest impact on my life. I was so proud of her when she was spotlighted in a Chicago Tribune article about Washington Women. I could not have had a better, better person in my life than my mom – Hattie Lee Mayfield.

My daddy was a very strong, strong disciplinarian. He probably would be locked up today for some of his disciplinary acts, but it was what he felt was needed to keep us on the straight and narrow. So I learned a lot from my daddy on how to be somewhat of a man. He was a great provider for us. To be honest with you, he was also the “numbers” man. At that time there were the illegal numbers. I didn’t really know that were poor because of the access we did have of some of the better things while living in the projects. At that point and time in my life, those were the two individuals who had the greatest impact upon me.

There was also a teacher by the name of Ms. Allen who was my sixth-grade teacher. She really took me under her wings and I really grew in her class. So early on, my “muva”, my daddy and Ms. Allen were the ones who had the greatest impact upon me.

Rufus Mayfield with his mother, Hattie Lee Mayfield

Destiny – Pride: You co-founded a youth organization in 1967 called Pride, Incorporated. How did that come about?

Mr. Mayfield: That long journey started back when I was a kid. As I said, I was the last of six children. One day, I asked my muva “How many kids did you want?” She said that she only wanted five children. I knew I was the sixth child, so I asked her what she did when she found out she was pregnant with me. She said “I just cried and cried.” That didn’t make me feel good, but I had so much love for her, and I knew my mom had much love for me, too.

I don’t remember a lot about myself at the ages of two, or three, or four. What I do remember is my elementary classes, starting around the fourth grade. For some reason, I did not grasp a lot of things in school. My first teacher in the 4th grade was Ms. Holloway. I was a very mischievous and playful child, so I’ve always had this gregarious personality. Ms. Holloway kept me back in the fourth grade. Subsequently I went to the fifth grade – Mrs. Staten. She was a mean teacher! [laughter] She just did not help me. I could barely read, but I went on to the sixth grade where Ms. Allen took a special liking to me because her husband’s birthday – her husband was deceased at the time – was on the same day as mine – December 19th. So she just hung in there with me, and that’s when I began to read and progress. I read so well that I read the graduation commencement speech. It was then that I started reading everything. In our school back then, we had what was called the “Weekly Readers.” I would read them religiously.

It was also then when I started wondering why blacks seemed to live differently than anybody else. Although I never really had any experiences with white folks, I grew up with TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” I compared our lives with the characters in those shows, and I wondered “why?” When we were shown on TV, we were always characterized as buffoons – we were always laughed at, not “with.” That greatly disturbed me. I always felt that we should be better, and that lead up to my vision of Pride.

Rufus Mayfield confers with Mayor Anthony Williams and Councilmember Sandy Allen
Photographer: Lateef Mangum

Before that, though, as I said my family was poor; not “poor” in substance, but we didn’t have the frills that I constantly saw on TV. I used to love to steal cars [laughter]. The first car that I ever stole was my uncle’s car, which was a stick shift. I didn’t know how to drive it, so I’d put it in first gear, and would drive around the projects in that one gear – I couldn’t shift it to the second or third gear. I drove it until my daddy caught me and gave me a beating for doing it. Back then, the only discrimination that I knew about as a child was among light-skinned people of my own race. I believe that’s where my mom felt my pain and my isolation. The personality I have today is not the same personality I had then, because I always felt that I was being ostracized and minimized in my own peer setting . . .

Destiny – Pride: Because . . .

Mr. Mayfield: Because of my complexion, but not just my complexion. When you spoke about a baby being “beautiful,” it would never be a baby with “Negroid” features. It would always have Eurocentric features – light-skinned, straight hair, etc. That would be considered a “beautiful” baby. When they look at a baby that looked like me, they’d say, that’s an “interesting” looking baby [laughter]. So, I went through that. You were being picked on a lot of times for the shape of your nose, your lips and for your type of hair. We were ashamed of that.

One time, I let a little girl – and I liked that little girl – convince me that I wasn’t as dark as I was. We were in elementary school, and it was during a time when blacks were using a bleaching cream called “Artra” that we used to try to lighten up our skin. I went over this girl’s house on Shepherd Street. This little girl said to me, “You’re not really as dark as you are.” She was a light-skinned girl and she was implying that I was “dirty.” She then wet a cloth, put some soap on it, and started rubbing my face with it. She rubbed so hard that she rubbed a raspberry on my face.

Destiny – Pride: And what did you do?

Mr. Mayfield: I didn’t do anything. I liked that little girl! [laughter] But if I could catch her right now, I probably would slap her [laughter]. But that was the prison that I lived in. And I believe that’s why my mom became my best friend. I think she felt my isolation and my pain. What stealing cars did for me was made me the center of attention. None of my peers knew how to drive. So I became the center of attention, when I got everybody around me because I would tell them it was my mom’s car, my dad’s car, or my uncle’s car, which put the focus on my being the center of attention. But for stealing cars, I was sent to Oak Hill Juvenile Detention. I also went the National Training School.

Destiny – Pride: At what age?

Mr. Mayfield: I started at 12 and continued to go. But I never stole anyone’s personal car. I always stole them from used car lots. I would get my own tags and put them on them. I would clean them like they were my cars and drive them to school – which is how I got caught. The last time that I was incarcerated for Unauthorized Use of a Car, I was sent to the Youth Center.

Destiny – Pride: And what age were you then?

Mr. Mayfield: I was 17. It was during the time that President Kennedy had just been killed and Johnson had been elected as President. I knew that black folks were very instrumental in helping President Johnson get elected, but when I look at the inaugural ball on TV – because I was at the Lorton Youth Center – I said to someone there that I didn’t see any black people there. Well, we didn’t call ourselves “black” at that time. We were “Negroes” then. I then told someone that in 1968 that I would be in a position to either go or reject going to the Inaugural Ball, to which he responded “You must be crazy!” I said, “Watch me.” I didn’t know how it was going to occur, but I knew that it would occur. That brings me to Pride. A friend of mine was shot by a police officer on May the first, 1967.

Destiny – Pride: What was his name?

Young Rufus Mayfield discusses Pride, Inc. with Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz (not seen)

Mr. Mayfield: His name was Clarence Booker, but all of us called him “Bug.” It was over a 29¢ box of chocolate chip cookies that the police alleged he had stolen. A police officer and Bug got into a fight on Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road. The fight continued from there to Minnesota Avenue, behind the post office. I followed them. Bug then yelled to me, “Catfish, help me!” I said, “Bug, let the gun go,” because they were then wrestling for the officer’s gun and I believed that the sound mind would be with the police officer. I shouted to Bug, “Bug, let the gun go. He’s not going to shoot you over a 29¢ box of cookies.” Bug let the gun go and started to run when the police shot him in his back. Subsequently, he died, but I did not know that then. Later, when I checked on Bug, I was told he only had some bruises. When I called the precinct they told me he was in the hospital and he had been charged for assaulting a police officer.

The next morning when I woke up, my mom asked me about the incident and I told her about it because I was there when it happened. She then told me Bug had been killed. I told her no, that that wasn’t what was told to me. I then called over to DC General Hospital, because that was where he had been taken, and I was told that he, in fact, had been shot and had died from his injuries. I cried because I couldn’t believe my friend had been taken from me. I will never forget the way Bug looked at me from the police car they had put him in.

Because I stayed on top of things that were going on in the city, I knew of this young lady named Ruth Bates Harris. She was head of the Commission on Human Rights. I was embarking on a mission to get the police officer arrested for homicide. I called Ms. Harris, and that began the process of the inception of Pride, Incorporated. The call and the mention of Pride’s creation are mentioned in a book Ms. Harris later wrote called “Harlem Princess: The Story of Harry Delaney’s Daughter.”

As we attempted to get the officer indicted for homicide, we did a lot of protesting. There were a lot of kids involved. For one of the protests, a funeral home gave us a hearse and we put a coffin on top of it and drove it around the city. I had seen those types of protests on TV. There was a man by the name of Marion Barry who at the time was fighting O. Roy Chalk and DC Transit, what is now our Metro system. DC Transit was a very racist metro system here in DC regarding both ridership and its employment of blacks. So Marion and others were leading a lot of bus boycotts in the city.

At that time, I was staying with my sister in Southwest. One day my sister told me that someone was there who wanted to see me. It happened to have been Marion. Out of the relationship that ensued with Marion Barry and Sterling Tucker, who was in charge of the Urban League, was a joining of efforts to indict Officer William Rull, the police officer who had killed Bug. Subsequently, we had a massive infusion of DC activists that joined with us in getting Officer Rull indicted, but he never was.

Rufus Mayfield converses with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Marion Barry walks to the right of Mayfield

Around that time, the Johnson Administration had begun to deal with what they called the War on Poverty. That was the beginning of the infusion of community-based organizations. Our first stint of trying to bring about change was when Marion, I and others were brought on as consultants with the United Planning Organization (UPO), under the direction of Ted Story, one of UPO’s directors. We then began to discuss what we could do to stop the tide of brutality that had begun against young black males. We eventually came up with the format of a youth program, which we decided to call “Pride, Incorporated,” because its focus would be to build pride in young folks.

I was Pride’s first Chairman of the Board. It was an awesome beginning! One of the reasons Pride was well received is because of the time. The year was 1967. Bug was killed on May 1, 1967. Racial tensions were high. Watts had already burned in Los Angeles. Detroit was having problems. There was rioting throughout the country. DC officials thought that DC would be the next place of rioting, so on August the first, the Labor Department came up with $300,000 just to carry us through the summer. As an aside, you will find that programs that are funded for youth are always summer programs because it is believed that black youths become restless during the summer months. So Pride only received $300,000 to carry us through the summer.

However, Life Magazine ran an exposé on me. The cover of the magazine read: “$300,000 payroll for ‘Catfish.’” Now who’s not going to read that article? After that article ran, I began to receive letters from people throughout the country [08/29/196708/30/196708/31/1967]. Pride had made a national impact! At that time, Willard Wirtz, then Labor Secretary, confessed to me that he had not intended to carry us beyond that $300,000. But because of the amount of support we were able to generate during that first month, we then got a grant that was more than $1 million. That was back there in 1967.

It was unheard of what we did, and it has never been again in the history of this city. We were able to break down the segregated pillars that were in the black community. What I did, becuase I realized that DC was segregated even among blacks, was to get a very influential individual from each of the four corners of the city [SE, SW, NE, NW]. I did that because I knew that I could not go into certain quadrants by myself without feeling threatened. These individuals were my four “Area Section Chiefs,” and then we had supervisors under them. Therefore, where you were seeing the fightings, the shootings and the stabbings, we were able to break down those barriers. So when I went into Southwest, instead of me going alone, I would go with the Section Chief from that area. We were able to unite the entire city. We had more than 1,400 kids from all quadrants of the city.

Rufus Mayfield and Marion Barry meet with Vice President Hubert Humphrey about Pride, Inc.

Joel Broyhill was the congressional representative from Virginia. At that time, “rednecks” were governing DC. We were under three Commissioners – Duke, Tobriner and Duncan – Duncan was black. We would go down there raising Cain about the disparity of blacks in the city. When we ended up getting the the money from the Labor Department – from Secretary Wirtz – they were always getting on me: “As long as Catfish Mayfield is running this, you’d better watch the cash-register,” because to do a job, we gave individuals salaries that were unheard of in the 1960’s.

Destiny – Pride: What types of jobs did Pride have?

Mr. Mayfield: We started out with what we called the “Rat Patrol.” We would put kids to work cleaning up neighborhoods. We subsequently expanded to a wider range of services, but my relationship with Marion Barry took a bad turn and we parted ways.

Marion and I differed on the direction of Pride, and there was a saying back in the 60’s: “You do not bite the hand that feeds you.” So, while we were able to get the grant from the Labor Department, I was still aggressive in my attack on the system which I thought was still discriminating against blacks. Marion and the others tried to reel me in, but I resisted because change had not yet come. It was only the beginning. I guess my incendiary rhetoric was such that it threatened the grants that the Labor Department was giving. So we fell out and in 1968 I went my way and Marion went his.

Rufus Mayfield inspects the troops before they start their daily work assignment

Destiny – Pride: After you left Pride, what did you do?

Mr. Mayfield: After my departure from Pride, a young man named Jerry Brenner, who used to work for NBC, contacted me and told me he wanted to be my manager on speaking tours and the likes. He also was able to get me a contract with the Minneapolis Star which subsequently became the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. I had a syndicated column that ran every week on the editorial page called “‘A Voice from the Ghetto’ by Rufus ‘Catfish’ Mayfield.” He also put me on a speaking tour and I traveled to numerous Midwestern states. At that time, whites were scared of black folks, and did not understand who we were – we “Negroes” who are now calling ourselves “black.” I became the darling of the circuit, speaking at institutions which included the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Duluth, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Madison, Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where I was when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I went through a lot of changes trying to keep my voice alive after Pride.

George Washington had a program where they awarded scholarships to urban blacks, and in 1970, they gave me a scholarship to attend George Washington University. The person who was negotiating the scholarship process asked me what I wanted to take. I told him I wanted to go into Divinity School. He said, “No. Blacks always go into something like that,” so I chose Business Administration. I stayed there for that year but Common Cause somehow got a hold of me. They were working on the ratification of the 18-year old vote and they asked me to assist them with their efforts. So I left George Washington and began working with Common Cause as a paid consultant to assist it in trying to pass the ratification of the 18-year old vote. I was proud of that, but that also derailed my tenure at George Washington University.

Later, I met Junior Gilliam who ran a DC nightclub called the Shelter Room. He asked me to MC for his club. Now I could always talk, and I could always tell a joke. My quick tongue and my quick responses resulted from my childhood. Because I wasn’t what you would call “good looking,” everybody picked on me. So I had to be quick with my tongue and my responses to them. 

After that, I began to work for Paul Cohn. Everybody in the city knows Paul Cohn. He owned the Mark IV Supper Club and the Room Nightclub, and more recently the J. Paul Restaurant. Paul Cohn asked me to emcee at his club because his emcee was leaving. On one occasion, at the end of the first show at the Mark IV Supper Club, some of the people continued to stay, when generally the club is emptied for the next show. This time, though, Paul realized he had a crowd waiting to see the next show, but not enough to fill the entire club, so he needed some of those who remained from the first show to stay, but not all of them. So he told me, “Catfish, just go out there and talk to the people,” thinking some of them would eventually leave.

Rufus Mayfield poses with Eddie Kendricks, former lead singer for the R&B group, the Temptations

But when I started telling the jokes that were in my head, everyone started laughing at them and no one would leave. Paul then called me to the side and told me, “OK, just shut-up and let’s see if some of them will leave.” It was then that I realized “Wow, those people were really laughing ‘with’ me; not ‘at’ me, as if I were a buffoon!” That was a profound discovery: to be laughed with, and not at. Needless to say, that was the beginning of my MC career, and there was no stopping me. I subsequently traveled on the road with entertainers like Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Dells, the Whispers, the Temptations, the Dramatics, James Brown and other dynamic groups. I even started out with Al Green, emceeing his first show.

Rufus Mayfield poses with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, along with Marion Barry and wife, Effie.

I saw this opportunity as another venue to become known, because I became isolated as persona non grata, for as Marion kept progressing in the city, no one would talk to me. No one would give me a job. I thought entertainment was going to be the road to my stardom through which I would become this great activist.

Destiny – Pride: I heard you mention your moniker “Catfish” numerous times during our conversation. Where did that come from?

Mr. Mayfield: It came from my childhood. My daddy. My daddy loved to fish. He was a government worker and really couldn’t go fishing but on the weekends. However, he would go during the week. We lived in Parkside on Kennilworth Terrace, which was located near Anacostia River, right past Neval Thomas Elementary School. He would embarrass us because he would always go fishing and would catch catfish. That was all that were down there. My daddy would walk through the neighborhood with these catfish and people called him “the catfish man.” In my neighborhood, I was the youngest of the clan. I couldn’t fight or play sports; I couldn’t do anything but run off at the mouth. In the black community, we would do what we called “joning,” which simply was to talk about, and try to “best” each other. Usually mentioning parents was off limits – you especially couldn’t talk about anyone’s mother unless you wanted a fight on your hands. Because I was the youngest of the clan – and I couldn’t fight – they would always say, “You old catfish looking self.” They said it enough, that it finally stuck, and they’ve been calling me that ever since. 

I almost lost that nickname as I became a young adult. But then I was invited to speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Anti-Riot bill. I happened to have done it, though, around the same time that Life Magazine exposé came out.  It identified me as “Catfish,” and that name took on a life of its own. The hearing had been televised, and people who saw me speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee began to send letters to the White House and to the Senate Office addressed to “Catfish.” Those letters eventually found their way to me, and there was just no escaping that name. I became determined not to give any of my children nicknames, because here I am, a grown man, almost ready to pass out of this life, and people are still calling me “Catfish.”

When I worked for the former Mayor Anthony Williams, I couldn’t even stop him from calling me Catfish. On one occasion, I was with him at some important meeting. I had on a badge which identified me as “Rufus Mayfield, Chief of the Community Services Division for the Department of Human Services.” I wanted to make sure I said something profound during the meeting, so I introduced myself and made my point, which I thought was profound. Mayor Williams then got up and said, “I think the point that ‘Catfish’ made was a very substantive point.” There was a white lady sitting next to me. When she heard what the mayor had said, she leaned over to me and asked me “What’s a Catfish? Who is he talking about?” I told her “I don’t know.” [Laughter] Sometimes I hate that name. I really do!

Destiny – Pride: Yes, but it’s become so much a part of your history.

Mr. Mayfield: And I can’t stop people from calling me that, but I hate it. I really do.

Destiny – Pride: You told us about that experience with Mayor Williams. You did work with the Department of Human Services. Tell us about that.

Mr. Mayfield: Well, I went into the Department of Human Services with high hopes in 1985, but I think it was the most disappointing part of my life because I thought I would be able to take some of my activism with me, but it never really materialized. I was dying daily in that job. I didn’t know who I was.

Rufus Mayfield with wife, Nancy, and former mayors Marion Barry and Walter Washington (with wife, Mary, both deceased) at the opening of the Convention Center

Sharon Pratt had become mayor, and she wanted to fire a lot of people – people who had rights that they had fought for and bled for. I felt that was wrong. At that time H.R. Crawford was on the City Council. John Wilson was the Chairman of the Council. They were all going to support her because she had just won after Marion’s arrest in 1990. I had decided to draw the line in the sand, and I stood up against her and was subsequently let go. Someone wrote an article about me in The Washington Post entitled “The Activist Reawakens,” but there was a part of me that had died in government.

The next three years were the best three years of my life because it gave me the opportunity to get back in tune with myself. I did odd jobs including entertainment, and I didn’t have the constraints I had when I was with DHS. I didn’t know who I was when I was there, but those three years gave me an opportunity to get back in touch with myself.

I then came back into government in 1995 and that’s when I found my traction. I was able to do some good things. I really, really grew in those years. I had the opportunity to meet a man – who is Destiny – Pride’s Spotlight of the Month for the month of December 2010 – Wayne Casey. It was under his tutelage that I became so well versed in the total working of the Department of Human Services and government in general. One of the greatest accolades he gave me was to choose me to be the Acting Administrator for YSA – the Youth Services Administration – during a three-week period in which he was taking off for vacation. I was scared to death, but I was also flattered. He encouraged me that I could do it.

When he went to the Director – Jearline Williams at that time – to tell her he was going to take three weeks off, she asked him “Who are you leaving in charge?” He said, “Rufus.” Her response was “Rufus!!!?” He simply told her “He knows what I know.” That was the beginning of me really understanding the workings of government and feeling that I could make a difference. I will be forever grateful to Wayne Casey for that experience.

I then had an opportunity to work for an individual who is now the Deputy Commissioner for the Social Security Administration, Carolyn Colvin – a person who came as my supervisor, but who left as my friend. She had become the Director of the Department of Human Services. She gave me an opportunity to grow even further, and when she was getting ready to go to Montgomery County, Maryland, to head up the Health and Human Services Department there. She called me into her office and told me she had put my promotion in for my next grade step. She looked at me and said “Rufus, don’t disappoint me,” and I didn’t disappoint her. That became the driving force of me reaching to be excellent. People have always told me that my passion, or my fervor, is either my greatest asset or my greatest detriment because I push so hard. Many of the persons we were dealing with at DHS were among some of the most vulnerable and challenging. I really believe working to assist them is my mandate. Because of my circuitous life’s journey, the Lord has provided me the tools and opportunity to look at the complexity of the problems confronting us as African Americans and others with a sense of empathy in figuring out how to make it work.

Rufus Mayfield poses with two of his staff, Lynora Hall and Jimmie Williams (deceased)

After Carolyn Colvin, another individual – Vanessa Chapell-Lee – took my division to another level. We stopped calling ourselves the Community Outreach Unit and became the Community Services Division.

Destiny – Pride: How did that make a difference in what you were doing?

Mr. Mayfield: We had come to grips with the realization that the government was working in silos – Mental Health, Child and Family Services, the Department Services, Employment Services.

Each agency was working as a separate entity, although we were all dealing with the same customer base. If someone qualified for services in the Department of Human Services, nine chances out of ten, he or she also qualified for services with TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – which include food stamps, grants and Medicaid. We envisioned that through our outreach efforts we would be able to connect all of the human capital agencies and work collaboratively in trying to solve problems. Up to then, we had been looking at the family not as a family as a whole, but instead as individuals: mental health problems over here; food stamp, TANF, and grant problems over there; recreation over there . . .

Destiny – Pride: So everything was fragmented.

Mr. Mayfield: Right. So what we wanted to do was now to put these all into one concise, integrative process. That was one of the greatest attainments we made that I was happy about and I’m hoping that it was the legacy of me at the Department of Human Services. That is also what brought about Destiny – Pride. How do we begin to create that integrative process? No one person has the answer. Each individual brings a sense of the clue to the problem to the table, but “all” of us must be sitting at that table.

Destiny – Pride: We’re going to get to Destiny – Pride, but I have just a couple of questions before that. You had given the names of a few individuals who you said had influenced you, but who would you say has impacted your life in influencing you to be who you are today? You’ve mentioned your parents and Mrs. Allen, one of your teachers. Are there any others?

Mr. Mayfield: During the years that I was in my hiatus, I had always looked at it that Marion Barry left me in the desert, and I used the biblical analogy of Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh didn’t have the heart to kill Moses. He wanted the desert to kill him. I don’t think that Marion had the heart to “kill” me. He thought he’d let the desert do it – my life’s circumstances. You’ve heard the phrase “your 15 minutes of fame,” but what people didn’t understand was that this dream of mine was embodied in me when I was a child. I had some minor incidents with getting high because at one time I was the darling, and then all of a sudden no one would call me, I couldn’t get access to anything. That’s why entertainment became so important to me.

But I did have an opportunity to interface with Stokely Carmichael who was a black activist during the same period of Marion Barry. He became one of my mentors and we began to get close. I mentioned earlier that I had spoken before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Anti-Riot bill. I was asked about Stokely Carmichael. I commented that Stokely Carmichael could never get me to riot. As Stokely was getting off the plane in Algiers, a reporter asked him about the statement this young man in DC – Rufus Catfish Mayfield – had made about him. He told them he didn’t know me. When he got back into the country, he called me at my parents’ home, where I was staying at the time, and told me he wanted to meet with me. We met at Ben’s Chili Bowl, and Stokely became a great mentor to me.

I also was impacted by Julius Hobson, an activist that was considered “outside of the box” and who subsequently became a City Councilperson. He was a rebel, and I always found myself aligning myself with those levels of rebels.

Dr. King also had a profound impact on my life. He was speaking one day at the Roosevelt Hotel right before the Poor Peoples’ Campaign they were going to have on the mall. I went there to see him, although I was reluctant because I was more a fan of Malcolm X’s than I was of Dr. King. So I resisted and resisted, but finally decided I was going to the Roosevelt to hear him.

Rufus Mayfield with two of his sons, Reginald (deceased) and Phillipe (deceased)

He was speaking about the law that has just finally been repealed – the Internment Act.  It has just finally been repealed and the United States has apologized to the Japanese. What is the Internment Act? During World War II, the war against Japan, all of the Asian Americans were grouped up on the west coast and placed in internment. Dr. King at the time said that the Internment Act had never been overturned and if black folks began to act in a certain manner regarding our resistance, then we would be picked up in the same way as the Japanese. As I listened to him, I was able to solidify my Christian identity, but I still wanted the fire in my voice and my delivery to be as was Malcolm’s, with a sense of urgency and with a sense of defiance and strength.

I had been involved with the Poor Peoples’ campaign, and I was brought over to meet with Dr. King. We met just as he was leaving to go to New York to be on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He told me, “Catfish, I look forward to working with you,” because I had met him on a couple of other occasions. After he went to New York, he then went to Memphis for the protest and subsequently was killed. So I credit my mom for introducing me to the gospel, and Dr. King for solidifying my belief because I had previously studied a number of religions, especially when I was at the Youth Center. I had always been in search of who this God was.

Although I had a father that really provided for us, I began to get seriously involved with the church, which is Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, where I was active in its Sunday School. It was there where I was under the tutelage of Deacon Ollis Mozon, who is now deceased, but who was my Sunday School teacher. He would always challenge me regarding my knowledge of the bible and he wouldn’t let me just pontificate. Whatever answer I gave him, he always asked me to show it to him in the bible. I became a very serious studier of the bible in trying to understand what I was to become and why. Deacon Mozon definitely had a driving impact upon my life.

At one point, I had become disenfranchised and disillusioned with the church and I left. Deacon Mozon called me at home one day, and asked me why I had been missing from church. I had a very frank and candid discussion with him, and sometimes the language was not language that is used in church, but it came out of my frustration. Not one time did he try to deter me from the anger that was within me, by telling me “If you have to use that kind of language, then this conversation must cease.” He heard me at the core of my frustration as I shared with him my disappointment in the church. He told me that the doors were always open whenever I decided to come “home.” Eventually, I did come back, and he played a tremendous role in my life.

Another gentleman who made a serious impact was Deacon James Williams, who was also a trustee of the Trustee Board. We grew very close and tight, and under his tutelage I took even more gigantic steps in Christ. I was so moved by his friendship that when I got married, I asked him, along with my son, Phillipe, to be my best man. We remained close until he died at the age of 94. So, as you can see, I was proud and honored to have been blessed to not only with a strong biological father who was able to rear and support his family, but I also had a chance to see what spiritual men were like.

Rufus Mayfield and Nancy on their honeymoon, Paradise Island, Bahamas

here are other individuals who have impacted my life, including the young lady whom I subsequently married. I met Nancy Carter at the Mark IV Supper Club in 1973. She was with a singing group at the time. What I loved about her when I first met her was her honesty and her candor and her freshness. Never did I think that I would eventually marry her although we dated for a very long time. In the black community, we will hold the status of someone being a fiancé for 20 and 30 years before we decide to marry. We have grown tremendously, almost like Siamese twins.

One last person was this white man named Mr. Seese. I can’t remember his full name, but he worked for the National Education Association. He was so supportive of me, even when I was out there in the wilderness. He was the best. I loved Mr. Seese, and I don’t know if he is alive today, but it was people like him who inspired me to keep going in the midst of my trials and tribulations.

Destiny – Pride: You previously mentioned that your mom had played a major role regarding your spirituality. What faith are you and how has that impacted your life’s journey?

Mr. Mayfield: My Christian walk is so serious to me. My mom used to say to me that I always had one foot in the church and one foot out of the church, simply meaning that I really was not reflective of what I said I believed. What I see today that is going on regarding the plight of African Americans, especially in churches, is that no longer are we “being” church, but we are “playing” church. I had the advantage of having a matriarch and patriarch in my family to guide and to lead me. I then had the awesome responsibility to pass that patriarchal role to my children and grandkids, so that in the midst of their trials and tribulations, they, too, can see a rock within the faith.

Destiny – Pride: Now to Destiny – Pride. What was the genesis of it and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Mr. Mayfield: We have a myriad of problems within the black community, although we will deal with anyone who is disenfranchised and in the state of need. Destiny – Pride came out of the birth of looking at the inner city and the impact that gentrification is having on it. I do hold the black middleclass responsible to a degree. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when black mayors throughout the country took rise, we saw the advent of the acceleration of the black middleclass. Afterwards, the black middleclass deserted the inner-city – because they had “arrived” – and left the other individuals within the inner-city (the disenfranchised) leaderless. WE Du Bois, in his book “Dusk to Dawn,” talks about the “talented 10th.” When you take the brain trust away from the body, why are you surprised the individuals are acting the way that they are acting? What I envision Destiny – Pride doing is going into the various communities and reconnecting with some of these individuals who have not had an opportunity to see what “normalcy” in family structures is. I envisioned creating a lead entity, which Destiny – Pride would be, and then bringing a wheel of service providers, even to the degree of becoming a “de facto parent,” if need be.

I mistakenly used to say that if I could make it in life, then anybody could make it. But the Lord told me to stop saying that because when you look at the infrastructure that I had – a good momma, a good daddy, a person who got up and worked everyday, who had morals, values, standards – you come to realize that some of the people we will be servicing have never seen or experienced any of this, but instead are being developed in an atmosphere of contamination and negativity.

What we hope to achieve with Destiny – Pride, after having done assessments on both the child and the family, is to work with the family to help it build a stable and wholesome infrastructure. When you talk about a building, for example, if there is a building on the corner, and someone says they are going to “restore” or “rehabilitate” it, it can be done, because it exists. On the other hand, if there is just an open lot, and no building at all, you can’t restore what is not there, so you would have to “habilitate” it. So, in that case, I would have to build the building and design the structure. Some of our kids today are raising themselves, and those who are not raising themselves have parents who can’t assist them with, for instance, doing their homework because they are reading at a second or third-grade level themselves. So what we hope to do with Destiny – Pride is to deal with a holistic approach in assisting with the myriad of problems that not only that family has, but that the community has as well.

Destiny – Pride: What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment and on the opposite end, what would you consider to be your major disappointment?

Mr. Mayfield: I think that my greatest accomplishment, and it’s in relationship to what I just said regarding my mother and Dr. King, is that I truly believe that I have arrived in my belief and my faith. I have equivocated over the years. Whereas my mom once said that I had one foot in and one foot out, I truly believe that I now have both feet in. Are there days when I become despondent? Yes. But as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego once said regarding their faith, even if my dreams and my aspirations never are fulfilled, deep in my heart I still know that God is God. So that’s my greatest accomplishment. People might say that is an esoteric statement, but they just don’t know the depth of how proud I am of that.

Rufus Mayfield with principal Geneva Williams of Benning Elementary School. Mayfield was PTA President at three different schools during the same period.

My greatest disappointment is that I have not realized a lot of my dreams. It seems that I am always the “bridesmaid,” but never the “bride.” I have often shared with my wife my dreams and aspirations of seeing a better world. I remember something that she told me, because I was getting older – and am older now. She reminded me about the blessings in the bible of Abraham and how old he was when he received them. I appreciated her words, but . . . . So that is my greatest disappointment: that as I get older, the acceptance that I might not ever achieve the dreams and aspirations that I feel I could have contributed to this world. The clock is still ticking, though.

Destiny – Pride: Although you may be disappointed in what you feel are lack of achievements, at the same time you have touched the lives of a lot of people not only in DC, but all over. So although you may not feel you have accomplished all that you set out to do, you have touched many people and they, by having traversed in your universe, have gone on to accomplish great things.

Mr. Mayfield: That is heartfelt, and I appreciate your kind words. You are right. I might be in another part of the country and someone will come up to me and tell me they know me.

I mentioned my sons earlier – Phillipe, Rufus, and Reggie, who has predeceased me. I love those boys tremendously. For a large portion of my life I was a single parent, and I lived and died by those children. I didn’t start out being the parent that I should have been, but I know that I was a good parent. When Reggie died just recently on August 13, 2010, again, all of those aspects pushed me deeper into the solidification of my faith. I don’t know what the Lord has for me for the remainder of my journey, but it’s heartfelt that people do feel that I have contributed something, and I am appreciative of the kind words.

Mayfield plays a little one-on-one basketball with Mayor Williams. 
Photographer: Adrian R. Reed

Destiny – Pride: Have you any last thoughts or insights that you would like to leave with our visitors?

Mr. Mayfield: If I could just let black folks all over the country know that we’re not going to be measured by the attainment of our great successes, our doctorates, BA’s or Masters. According to the scriptures of my faith, Christ said that we are going to be measured by how we treat the least of his children. We cannot continue to talk about other blacks as if we are not black. When one black person is hurting, we all are hurting. I may have a good job, and live in a nice home, have good ethics and good moral standards. But despite all of that, when I go to Atlantic City or Las Vegas and am gambling, sitting next to someone at the table, a lot of times all that they see is my blackness. They grab their purses and they begin to shuffle away from me, because of the imageries that come across the TV tube.

They see black folks killing each other and others, black folks doing all sorts of negative things. We can’t run from ourselves. If we are going to take our rightful place in society, then we must understand that it’s “us” and not “them”; it’s “we” not “those people.” Those are the people that look like you, smell like you and damn it, they are you. Let’s work together to help each other.

Destiny – Pride: Mr. Mayfield, Destiny – Pride is grateful that you have taken the time to discuss with us your life’s journey, your hopes and dreams. We applaud the historical strides you have made and look forward to new strides as president of Destiny – Pride and any other endeavor you chose to undertake.

Mr. Mayfield: Thank you very much. And to our visitors, if you know of any person that you think worthy of being featured as our Spotlight of the Month, please email to us at a blurb on that individual, along with his or her contact information.  Thanks again.

Back to the Spotlight list

Posted in