WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Sixty years ago when she was a student at George Washington University, Diane Patterson met her future husband, Gerry Tolson, in economics class. After the first day of classes, he asked for her phone number.
She had been raised in the Baptist faith and had earlier graduated from St. Gabriel School and Sacred Heart Academy in Washington. He had grown up attending St. Martin of Tours Parish and had graduated first in his class from Mackin Catholic High School in Washington. “He was a good Catholic boy,” she said.
They began dating and got married in the fall of 1963. But that summer, they had a date with history while attending the March on Washington, where they saw and heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In an interview a few days before the 60th anniversary of that historic event, Diane Tolson — a longtime parishioner at St. Martin of Tours in Washington who is now 80 and lives in suburban Columbia, Maryland — reflected on her experience at the Aug. 28, 1963, march.
“We went to the march together with a couple more Black students from GW. We took the streetcar down. I lived on the streetcar line,” she said. “When we got downtown, it was unbelievable how many people” there were, she told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.
Once there, “we walked and walked and walked,” Tolson said, adding that since they were young, they were able to make their way through the crowd and get near the Lincoln Memorial.
“I saw Martin Luther King. … Just being a young person, I never thought I’d see Martin Luther King. We actually saw him,” Tolson said, remembering how he was wearing a suit on that hot day.
At the time, “I had no clue to the magnitude of this” event, or that “he’d be dead in a few years,” felled by an assassin’s bullet April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
The couple stayed to the end of the march, and heard all the speeches and the music.
“It was overwhelming, just so many people. What impressed me, people were sitting in trees, people were all around the Reflecting Pool. … Who would think there would be that many people, and it was very orderly. It was amazing,” Tolson said.
Reflecting on the march’s impact, she said, “Things changed after that.”
Tolson noted how her parents, Chalmers and Lula Belle Patterson, had come to Washington from small towns in South Carolina and North Carolina. “More opportunity, that’s what my folks always wanted,” she said. Her father was a World War II Army veteran who got a government job working at Walter Reed Hospital, caring for laboratory animals. Her mother worked as a secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Diane and Gerald Tolson were married for 55 years until his death about five years ago. They have three sons and adopted two daughters, all of whom later served in the military, and they have five grandchildren. Later, the Tolsons also served as foster parents and adopted four siblings from a Hispanic family who had lost their mother.
“We try to give back,” Diane Tolson said.
Gerry Tolson had a management position with IBM. Over the years, Diane Tolson worked making travel reservations for Trans World Airlines and later operated her own travel agency, Columbia Travel. For more than 20 years she managed St. Martin’s Travel, planning trips for parishioners that raised funds for that city parish. Over the years, she and her husband traveled to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, and her favorite travel spot was Alaska.
During her interview about the March on Washington and its 60th anniversary, Diane Tolson noted that Black Americans since then have “had a lot of successes, a lot of breakthroughs, and a lot of opportunities. The Black community is very proud of that, and very thankful for that.”
But she noted that challenges remain for the nation’s African Americans, including lifting people out of poverty and addressing issues like violence and drug abuse impacting families and communities.
“The work (of the march) continues,” Tolson said.
Mark Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.