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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Thing 30: "Before There Was Harlem..."

Duke Ellington Mural on U Street "The who's who of America passed through this neighborhood," our tour guide will tell us over and over during out two-and-a-half hour walking tour. And as she takes us along U Street and into Shaw, you realize, she's absolutely right. Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, Bill Cosby, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Cab Calloway, Langston Hughes, Dr. Charles Drew, Coach John Thompson, and all manner of black lawyers, doctors, writers, musicians, politicians, activists and intellectuals. They were all either born, educated, or made their livelihoods on U Street and in Shaw.

On a perfect, sunny Saturday morning, I meet a small group at the 13th Street exit of the U Street metro stop to take a walking tour of the neighborhood, led by Sandra at Washington Walks. Sandra turns out to be a somewhat strange guide -- knowledgeable but disorganized. Her speech is dotted with repeated phrases ("the who's who of America," and "we're going back 140 years," are mentioned more times than I can count), and though I'm sure she's given the tour many times before, her explanations meander and she frequently misspeaks. However, her point is a good one -- before there could be a Harlem Renaissance, those artists and intellectuals had to pursue a rigorous education. And so before they went to Harlem, they came to Howard University in the Shaw neighborhood, the most important of the historically black colleges and universities in the nation.

Our tour begins at the corner of 13th and U with a view of the Lincoln Theater, Ben's Chili Bowl and the mural of Duke Ellington on the side of the True Reformer Building. Sandra sets the stage for the tour by playing Duke Ellington's Take the A Train from a small stereo in her canvas bag, and tells us about the days before integration, when blacks were not allowed to shop downtown or enjoy the entertainment. So they spent their free time in Shaw, seeing movies at the Lincoln Theater or live acts at the Howard Theater. "We're going back 140 years," she says as she explains that the Shaw neighborhood is named for Colonel Robert Shaw, the white Civil War colonel portrayed in the movie Glory, who led an all-black unit of the Union Army. After the Civil War, thousands of black Civil War soldiers settled in this neighborhood, creating the largest urban black population in America prior to World War I.

Our next stop on the tour is the True Reformer Building, at 12th and U. Historically, Duke Ellington played his first show here. Today, it houses the museum that goes with the African American Civil War Memorial located at 9th and U. We spend about a half hour in there, looking at old prints of black Union troops entering Richmond, photographs of Frederick Douglas' two sons in their Union uniforms, bills of sale of slaves. We watch half of a longer documentary about black soldiers in the war. The regular curator is apparently not there today, replaced by a young woman that does not know Sandra, and the two women seem uncomfortable in each other's presence, trying to out do each other for knowledge of the Civil War. We leave the museum and walk towards the Thurgood Marshall Center.

I had never been to nor heard of the Thurgood Marshall Center, despite its location at 12th and S St, NW. A former YMCA, this historic building is primarily a community meeting space, but also houses a small exhibit about the historic social life of the Shaw neighborhood. As Sandra explains, during segregation, blacks were not allowed to stay at white hotels, and there were no hotels at all for blacks. They were relegated to boarding houses, and places like the Y. Famous entertainers and athletes stayed here because there was nowhere else for them to stay.

The Y also served as overflow housing for Howard, and they have a sample dorm room stillLangston Hughes' dorm room, Thurgood Marshall Center in Shaw set up for visitors to look at. Langston Hughes once lived in a room just like this. Langston Hughes was a really important poet for me when I was in high school and it was completely humbling to see his college dorm room.

Next stop on the tour: the former Whitelaw Hotel, at 13th and T St. This historic hotel is now a low rent apartment building, but was once the first hotel in the District built for and by black people, to accommodate first class guests who might not want to stay at the Y or another boarding house. It was built in 1919 by John Whitelaw Lewis, a wealthy African American who founded the Industrial Bank of Washington. "The who's who of America" passed through this hotel in its day.

After desegregation, when the white hotels downtown were opened up to all guests, the Whitelaw fell out of favor and declined. By 1977 it was in serious disrepair and was closed by the city. Sandra took us inside for a look at the dining room's original stained glass ceiling. When the building caught on fire in the '80s, one of the locals from the neighborhood took out the original ceilings to save them from ruin. They are now back in the building's main community room, one representing fish and the ocean, the other representing fauna and the forest.

Duke Ellington's childhood homeDuke Ellington's childhood home is at the end of the street, but we are now running behind so Sandra simply tells us the address and then scoots us towards our final stop on the tour. After the tour I seek it out, a nondescript, red brick building, two stories with a small front yard.

We end the tour at the African American Civil War Memorial, at 9th and U. It depicts three African American Civil War Memorialsoldiers and a sailor, all African American, on the front side of the bronze statue. On the back, in the hollow, it depicts their homecoming. It is surrounded by two large granite arcs, with over 200,000 names carved into them, the "Wall of Honor." These are the names of all the soldiers who fought in the all-black units of the Union Army and Navy.

Sandra leaves us by pointing out the outline of the Howard library in the distance, reminding us that this city, this neighborhood, and this university drew a large, vibrant community of African American artists, intellectuals, professionals and business owners, sustaining the community after the Civil War and through the civil rights movement.
African American Civil War Memorial


Anonymous said...

Interesting item; I like the pic of the old Y room for some reason.