by Christine Sykes
Born a Washingtonian, I always knew the nation’s capital was rich with history, but it never occurred to me that I was living in the middle of a historical landmark. Many streets come to mind when you think of the District of Columbia’s history: Pennsylvania Avenue, Georgetown, or even the notorious South East across the Anacostia River. Never once had it occurred to me that the street I cross day in and day out was an important site in not only black history but in American history as well. The street I am referring to is U Street.
To my elders, Washington D.C. was a place where the African-American community came together as one and supported one another. In a time when “separate but equal” was the law, people separated and congregated with one another. Blacks did not feel inferior when they walked down U Street because it was theirs. Turned away from all white movie theatres, diners, and night spots, and unfairly treated by the banking system, the community made a decision to band together and make U Street their own. My family was born here and remembers the unjust treatment of blacks. My mother and aunt tell me stories of having to purchase a hat if you tried it on or needing to trace your foot to place under a new pair of shoes for the same reason. Trying them on is out of the question because of the color of your skin. Under these circumstances, blacks turned to one another, and U Street is evidence of that.
Such institutions as the Lincoln Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, Anthony Bowen YMCA, Bens Chili Bowl, and Industrial Bank, just to name a few, are examples of the Black-owned businesses and community centers that thrived on U Street. This was an African-American’s one stop shop for business, dining, and remarkable entertainment. I was told by my mother (and the tour guide agreed) that you did not step foot on U Street with out looking “sharp”; it was an unwritten rule. From the pictures on the tour, I gained a sense of pride in my race because we were not in the field picking cotton with holes in our clothes and hair uncombed, we were in gowns and tuxedos on our way to see the next big thing at the Caverns or Lincoln Theatre. There was pride gained in our accomplishments of entrepreneurship and entertainment that did not put us down as just servants but people with mass capabilities.
The July 16, 1922 Washington Post column read “Lincoln, largest of its kind, to be reopened by prominent men of race. Crandall’s Lincoln theatre, 1215 U Street northwest the largest play house for colored patrons (“Colored Theater”). The article explains that the Lincoln Theater “seats 1,613 persons and extends from U to V Streets” and notes that “one of the features of the theatre is a large colonnade where dances will be held each evening” (“Colored Theater”). The Theatre housed many acts such as “Bessie Smith, Moms Mabley, Louis Beavers, Hattie Mc Daniel, Freddie Washington and W.C. Handy” (Lincoln). The home page of the Lincoln Theatre says “if you didn’t travel the U Street cultural circuit, you didn’t experience the zenith of world class entertainers” (Lincoln). Included in this list of “world class entertainers” were Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn, all of whom are natives to the Washington D.C. area (Lincoln). These incredibly talented and noted artists added to the rich culture and entertainment of U Street. It is no wonder U Street is also known as “Black Broadway.” One artist that may stand out from the rest when it comes to U street is Washingtonian and famous composer Duke Ellington, who not only performed on U Street but also lived their.
Artists were not the only ones to grace the stage or screen at the Lincoln Theatre. The January 21 1938 issue of the Washington Post headline reads “Joe Louis Has Big Night as Film Star” (“Joe”). Although Joe Louis was the world heavy weight champion, he was scheduled to make an appearance at the Lincoln Theater to promote his new film. This film premier was a prime example of the need for the Lincoln Theatre and other black owned theaters to show films on their debut. Events such as this brought positive attention to the night life on U Street.
The Lincoln Theatre not only became home to the most talented blacks at the time but also to the community. It served as a meeting place for different “colored” organizations. On August 9, 1922, the Post describes a “Colored Shriner Drill and Parade Here Today” (“Colored Shriner”). The events that day show the significance of community in this landmark.
The Lincoln Theatre wasn’t the only venue to see your favorite artist. The Caverns was a jazz club that was in a very unlikely place—the basement of a drugstore. The homepage of Bohemian Caverns notes that “The Caverns has brought a great many artists to its stage, but it was the immortals that built its legacy (Bohemian).The website lists how “in 1962 Ramsey Lewis recorded The Ramsey Lewis Trio at the Caverns” (Bohemian), which brought mass attention to the venue. The publicity from Lewis didn’t end there but continued when he recorded his Grammy winning “The Crowd” live at the Caverns (Bohemian). Like the Lincoln Theater, the Caverns was home to several stars including Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and Cab Calloway (Bohemian); the list continues with a number of talented black artists.
U Street has earned its title as “Black Broadway,” but it is also deserving of a title that fits its outreach to the community. The Anthony Bowen YMCA, founded in 1853, was the first YMCA for African-Americans. The significance of the YMCA was that it allowed African-American males to swim and have organized exercise, something not afforded to them in the all white YMCA. The tour guide briefly mentioned that her own inability to swim was due to segregation in her neighborhood pool; since she wasn’t allowed to go, she never had the opportunity to swim. Anthony Bowen, a former slave who purchased his freedom, believed recreation for young black males was important, and thus he came to be the founder of the first African-American YMCA in the world.
With all the business coming in and out of U Street, there emerges a need to house all the profit. The minority-owned Industrial Bank was founded in August 30, 1934 (Industrial). At its opening in 1934, the Industrial Bank had “six employees and $192,000 in assets” (Industrial). Of the many mentionable occurrences that enabled prosperity, the bank served as a meeting place for the origination and perfection of plans “for a citywide mass meeting of friends and depositors of the bank interested in its reorganization and opening as a national bank” (“Industrial’). This initial meeting sparked a racially charged movement in which blacks removed their money from white-owned banks and relocated it into the Industrial Bank, which resulted in a surplus of $175,000 (“Industrial”). On a personal note, my grandmother Ethel Scott Simms and her husband Leon Simms both banked with Industrial Bank until they passed away. Within the Simms household, no joke could be made about this prosperous company that allowed my family to grow financially. This movement personified the power that blacks could and did hold on U Street.
The DC riots of 1968, invigorated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were devastating to the continued prominence of the community. That sole event rocked and riveted the entire nation with a magnitude similar to that of an earthquake. King’s untimely death was the spark that set U Street on fire. The mass destruction of the three-day riots led to the demolition of the once highly regarded U Street.
Today U Street is filled with a multitude of people from every race. The Ethiopian community is dominant today. They have, as blacks at one time did, banded together and made U Street their home. The government has made several attempts to revive the once thriving U street. Their attempts were not completely fruitless; the Lincoln Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, and Industrial Bank still run on U Street. Times have changed since desegregation, and so has U Street; it has become a melting pot in the district that appeals to many ethic groups.
Bohemian Caverns History. Bohemian Caverns. 20 Nov. 2007. <http://www.bohemiancaverns.com>.
“Colored Shriner Drill and Parade Here Today: Thousands Attending Convention – Election of Offices to be Held Friday.” The Washington Post 9 Aug 1922. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post, 1877-1991. ProQuest. Reinsch Library Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 20 Nov. 2007.
“Colored Theater Reopens: Lincoln, Largest of its Kind to Be Managed by Prominent Men of Race.” 16 Jul. 1922. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post 1877-1991. ProQuest. Reinsch Library Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 20 Nov. 2007.
“Industrial Bank’s Group in Session: Mass Meeting Called for Next Friday to Hasten Reorganization.” 21 Apr. 1933. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877-1991). ProQuest. Reinsch Library Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 20 Nov. 2007.
Industrial Bank about Us. Industrial Bank. 20 Nov. 2007. <http://www.industrial-bank.com>.
“Joe Louis Has His Big Night As Film Star: Heavyweight Champion Is Present at Premiere at the Lincoln.” 21 Jan. 1938: X7. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The Washington Post (1877-1991). ProQuest. Reinsch Library Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 20 Nov. 2007.
The Lincoln Theatre History. The Lincoln Theatre. 20 Nov. 2007. <http://www.thelincolntheatre.org/>.