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By Briana A. Thomas
Writing my debut history book, Black Broadway in Washington, D.C., felt like traveling through time.
Navigating through the past three centuries of rich, vibrant, and often gritty history of Washington, D.C.’s U Street corridor was an unforgettable experience. The stories I read, the narratives I heard, the adventures I toured, and the photographs I collected will always be near and dear to my heart. After about five years of researching the district’s former African American Mecca, I’m still in awe of what the courageous men and women of U Street built for the nation to see.
Black Broadway refers to the period from the early 1900s into the 1950s, when African Americans, plagued by Jim Crow laws and prejudice in other parts of town, built their very own “city within a city.” While America ran rampant with segregation and racial injustice, Black people in greater U Street were free to own businesses, churches, schools, night clubs, hotels, day camps, and homes. In a matter of years, an area once home to North America’s largest slave market transformed into a burgeoning, affluent, Black community.
After 3,100 slaves were freed following the passage of the D.C. Emancipation in 1862, freedpeople quickly worked to provide for themselves and one another. By 1901, according to the Union League directory, D.C. was home to 1,000 Black-owned businesses. By 1920, more than 300 Black-owned businesses were located within the geographically small U Street neighborhood.
With the famous Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Howard University as the eastern hub of greater U Street, the corridor stretched westward for a dozen blocks, down to Sixteenth Street. U Street was the core of commercial activity, but the community encompassed S, T, V, and 14th Streets, as well as some parts of Florida Avenue.
The emerging New Negro movement gave rise to a flood of unsegregated concert halls and nightclubs that hosted round-the-clock performances by the likes of Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Sarah Vaughan. During the mid-1920s, the Republic Theater at 14th and U, the Lincoln at 13th and U, and the Dunbar at 7th and T sold nearly 1.4 million tickets a year. Black-owned pharmacies, barbershops, pool halls, funeral homes, and hotels patronized by African Americans—and funded with loans from Black financiers like Industrial Savings, the city’s oldest Black-owned bank—flourished. Black Washingtonians sent their kids to day camp at the country’s first African American YMCA, worshiped together in scores of neighborhood churches like Shaw’s Lincoln Congregational Temple, and launched a movement against segregation from Black Broadway’s many gathering places, urging people, “don’t buy where you can’t work.”
By the 1960s, the area had birthed some of America’s most influential Black leaders and intellectuals: the great jazz-band leader and pianist Duke Ellington; the world’s first renowned Black opera singer, Madame Lillian Evanti; the pioneering Dr. Charles Drew, who created the country’s first blood bank; and lawyer and Howard University professor Charles Hamilton Houston, whose famed student Thurgood Marshall prevailed in Brown v. Board of Education.
Since desegregation, the neighborhood has changed as the original residents moved away or passed on. The decline of Black entrepreneurship, music, and culture on U Street can be traced through the riots of 1968, the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, and Metro subway construction in the 1990s. Now, the neighborhood is undergoing what so many predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout America face, gentrification.
Nevertheless, the story of Black Broadway lives on through its profound, persisting legacy.
From the civil rights victories that impacted the nation to the Black-funded and operated businesses that still stand today, U Street is a place of living, breathing Black excellence. The remnants of Black Broadway’s glory can still be seen at places like the almost 100-year-old Lincoln Theater and the famous D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl. A number of the sites and institutions have closed, but the heart of the community remains the same, and the triumphant history cannot be forgotten.
Briana A. Thomas has been published in Washingtonian Magazine, the historic Afro-American newspaper, and the Washington Post throughout her journalism career. Briana earned a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland-College Park and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and communications from Greensboro College. She is the assistant pastor of a Maryland-based multisite church Open Bible Ministries.
Featured image (at top): Carol M. Highsmith, “Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U Street, next to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.” (between 1980 and 2006), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.