Washington DC has long been a city of contrasts. The capital of the most powerful country in the world rests in a city that suffers from high crime and poverty rates. A predominantly white and rural Congress holds sway over a predominantly black and urban city. The beacon of democracy around the world doesn’t even grant its own citizens full voting rights as citizens.
While tourists flock to the white marble halls of the federal government and the expansive museums of the Smithsonian, those institutions obscure the vibrant beating heart of the city, beyond the National Mall and Capitol Hill.
The cultural center of DC’s African-American community has long been U Street. Today, if you stroll along that boulevard, you’ll find a number of trendy bars, restaurants, and music venues, including U Street Music Hall, Flash, and the Lincoln Theatre. It’s become a hip area that trendy, young professionals flock to on nights and weekends. The area’s reputation as a cultural center though dates back much longer than many of these party-goers might realize, and it once played host to a much different crowd.
The area that is now the U Street Historic District first developed as a Victorian-era neighborhood, full of row houses built to house the many people who were emigrating north to the cities after the Civil War. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the neighborhood turned predominantly African-American and became the cultural and economic center to the city.
The street became home to hundreds of black-owned businesses and unsegregated movie houses, theaters, and cultural centers. This vibrant entertainment district quickly gained the nickname “Black Broadway” after the famed (but predominantly white) entertainment district in New York.
The district attracted and produced musical legends, political leaders, and renowned intellectuals, such as opera signer, Madame Lillian Evanti, Dr. Charles Drew, who created the country’s first blood bank, and Howard University law professor Charles Hamilton Houston, one of Thurgood Marshall’s mentors.
Of course, the era’s most famous icon is probably the man who is immortalized today in DC’s commemorative quarter, Duke Ellington, the first African-American to appear on regularly circulated US currency.
The U Street area was the intellectual center of DC’s African-American community, a safe space created by the forces of segregation from the turn of the century until the 1960s. This “city within a city” pushed together the black community and made them rely only on themselves and each other. From this sprang a jazz strong jazz community, a gathering of black intellectuals, and political leaders that laid the foundation of what would one day become the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, while the U Street area is once again vibrant after a downturn in the ’70s and ’80s, much of the history is somewhat obscured by gentrifying forces. However, efforts are being made to recognize and preserve the area’s rich history, including a multimedia project by Shellée M. Haynesworth called “Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project,” inspired by her grandmother’s reflections on the era. The project is a collection of multimedia stories about the era, complete with reflections by the people who lived through it and those who were affected by its legacy. It’s an admirable effort to preserve the living memory of the African-American cultural renaissance that predates the more well-known one in Harlem.
So next time you’re out at a concert or at a bar on U Street, take some time to reflect on the old splendor that still makes up the face of Black Broadway.
You can also find out more about the district from the National Parks Service’s site about the Greater U Street Historical District.
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