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The Forgotten History of U Street

Vintage photos of Black Broadway, the hub of commercial, intellectual, and cultural life for African-Americans in DC from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The Republic Theatre, a movie house on U Street, before it was demolished to make room for Metro. Photograph by Robert McNeill, provided by Susan McNeill.

Before Shinola and luxury high-rises, before even the beginning of desegregation and the 1968 riots, the U Street corridor was known as Black Broadway. From the early 1900s into the 1950s, African-Americans—subject to Jim Crow laws in other parts of town—were free to own businesses here and built what was often described as a “city within a city.”

Unsegregated concert halls and nightclubs hosted round-the-clock performances by the likes of Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Sarah Vaughan. Hundreds of black-owned businesses patronized solely by African-Americans—and funded with loans from the city’s oldest black-owned bank—flourished. Black Washingtonians sent their kids to day camp at the country’s first African-American YMCA, worshipped together in scores of neighborhood churches, and launched a movement against segregation from Black Broadway’s many gathering places.

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 and the world’s first renowned black opera signer, Madame Lillian Evanti; the pioneering Dr. Charles Drew, who created the country’s first blood bank; lawyer and Howard University professor Charles Hamilton Houston, whose famed student Thurgood Marshall prevailed in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Everybody knew everybody,” says Richard Lee, whose parents started Lee’s Flower Shop at 928 U Street in 1945. “We didn’t miss going downtown. We didn’t give a shit. I mean, excuse my language, but they wanted to have all that stuff to themselves, fine—we had all this stuff to ourselves.”

Here’s a look at the booming U Street Corridor in those heady days before desegregation and, more recently, gentrification changed everything.

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Business was kept within the community.

Blacks who were barred from other DC hotels stayed at the Whitelaw, built at 13th and T in 1919 by entrepreneur John Whitelaw. It was also a popular site for locals’ functions and parties. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
A Whitelaw register from May 1935 showing that Duke Ellington stayed three nights. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Industrial Bank, founded in 1934 by nine black businessmen, provided loans to thousands of families and businesses who couldn’t borrow at white-owned banks. Photograph courtesy of the Scurlock Studio Records at the National Museum of American History.

“We had bigtime architects in the community, and I remember a deposit from one of them—I don’t know who paid him this kind of cash money, but his secretary came in with $20,000. That’s like $115,000 today! She had a bag from the Safeway like she’s got groceries, and she reaches down in there and pulls out all that money.” —Virginia Ali, who worked at Industrial bank before starting Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 with her husband, Ben. 

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It was the height of jazz.

Louis Armstrong on January 30, 1942, playing the President’s Birthday Ball in honor of FDR’s 60th, at U Street’s Lincoln Colonnade. Photograph reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.
The Twelfth Street YMCA, the country’s first African-American Y, opened in 1853 and became a social hub, with meeting spaces for civil-rights activists and a rec center where friends played cards or took classes. Photograph courtesy of the Scurlock Studio Records at the National Museum of American History.
Club Crystal Caverns, which later became Bohemian Caverns, was known for its “shake dancers.” Photograph courtesy of the Scurlock Studio Records at the National Museum of American History.
A 1940s souvenir from the underground club. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

“The jazz scene was fantastic. We had the Hollywood at Ninth and U, Crystal Caverns across the street, Club Bali at 14th Street. There must have been 15, 20 clubs. There were a lot of cats—and here is the thing about Black Broadway: You didn’t come down here looking raggedy. You came down here dressed.”—Richard Lee, whose parents, William P. and Winifred Lee, started Lee’s Flower and Card Shop in 1945.

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The neighborhood hummed day and night.

By 1920, more than 300 black businesses were in the neighborhood. Photograph by Robert McNeill, provided by Susan McNeill.
At the Hammond Dance Studios, in the 1300 block of U Street, young girls learned ballet in the 1940s. Photograph by Robert McNeill, provided by Susan McNeill.
The annual Capital Classic, held from 1942 to 1962, featured a football game between two black colleges, a dance and parties, a beauty pageant, and a parade down U Street. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Winifred Lee, co-owner of Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, also used to design flowers at the White House. Photograph courtesy of Lee’s Flower shop.

“We used to have parades up and down here almost every Saturday during football season, and they all had queens and floats and bands. Every queen had to have a big bouquet. They would stay up all night sometimes, my mother and father, putting the bouquets together.”—Richard Lee

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It was a spiritual place and a hotbed of activism.

Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a radio evangelist, also founded the Church of God, known today as the Gospel Spreading Church of God. His mass baptisms in a special pool on the field at Griffith Stadium—on Howard University’s campus—drew tens of thousands of spectators. Photograph reprinted with permission of the DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post.
Bishop C.M. Grace, dubbed Daddy Grace and known for his flashy clothing and painted fingernails, was another of the neighborhood’s religious leaders. Here he’s seated in the United House of Prayer for All People, which he founded in the late 1920s near Howard University. Photograph courtesy of the Scurlock Studio Records at the National Museum of American History
A poster advertising a speech by neighborhood leader Charles Hamilton Houston. As dean of Howard’s law school, he helped craft legal strategies that ended segregation in schools and ultimately the city and country, changing Black Broadway forever. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

“[Segregation] kept us all in the same community and patronizing our own businesses. We learned to produce and provide everything we needed, and because of that the community flourished.”—B. Doyle Mitchell Jr., whose grandfather founded Industrial Bank in 1934.

*Correction: Due to incorrect information supplied with a photo, a picture of the Hammond Dance Studios was misidentified.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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