SAM SMITH – In 1910 the largest theater catering to a black audience, built with black capital, opened in Washington DC nearly two decades before the Apollo began offering black entertainment. For decades, the Howard would feature such acts as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton.
So important was this institution to a community isolated in segregation that students from nearby high schools would periodically cut class to attend an afternoon performance. “After recess, there wasn’t anybody at the school,” recalls Lillian Gordon, once a dancer at the Howard. On at least two occasions, a principal or assistant principal showed up at the Howard, halted the show, turned up the lights and ordered their charges back to class – one without saying a word, just pointing to the exit.
But as Elissa Silverman reported in the Washington Post, “The 1968 riots spurred a decline in the U Street corridor known as Black Broadway, and the Howard Theatre closed its doors two years later. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Comedian Redd Foxx and others attempted revivals but, for years, the building has remained vacant and crumbling. Now that the area around the Howard has been revitalized with condominiums, restaurants, and retail shops, developer Chip Ellis wants the Howard to come back to life, too.” Ellis, a black Washingtonian, has enlisted the programming aid of Blues Alley, one of America’s clubs that musicians like the most.
Last weekend your editor enjoyed an event pulled together by his social historian wife – Kathryn Smith, who co-chairs the Historical Society of Washington – at which more than 200 people gathered to hear anecdotes from the Howard’s past.
While many of the names and some of the stories were familiar to one who had been among the young white guys who also went there in the fifties, I was reminded again of the theater’s role in holding the community together. The Howard was part of a self-sufficiency the U Street area developed that moved the neighborhood beyond survival towards pride and growth. The theater also provided a shared story that cut across class in the community. Once when the Mill Brothers performed, the crowds were so large, they had to make T Street one way. Decades later, it still is.
Bertell Knox – a longtime drummer in the house band and later backup for Charlie Byrd – recalled how important the Howard band’s leader had considered dress. If you weren’t in ‘full tux’ you would have to provide a bottle of whiskey for the other members of the band. The players would look around to see which of the group had left on their brown socks as they rushed to get dress. The musicians were also role models for the young; Saxophonist George Botts remembered that it was how well the performers were dressed that made him think as a young man that this was the path he should follow. He did and would evetnually accompany Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Etta Jones, Redd Foxx, Betty Carter, T-Bone Walker, Benny Goodman, Anita O’Day, and John Coltrane, just to mention a few.
In a revealing way, the program became somewhat anarchistic towards the end. As some members of the audience were telling their stories, other spectators got up and started socializing in the back. A nice confirmation not only of the importance of this story, but of the importance of people having a place to tell their stories. Everyone owned a piece of the history.
One of the reasons that history feels dull to many is because it is so often confined to the past. Among the prices of literacy has been to imprison history in a timeline. In cultures dependent upon oral tradition, however, the past often become a partner of the present just as it did last weekend. It occurred to me while headed to the event that we are all history; it’s just that some people got a head start on us. And as I watched the young members of a jazz quartet that played for the event talking with the panelists, I wondered what stories they would tell a few decades down the road.
SLIDE SHOW OF THE HOWARD TODAY
SAM SMITH, WHY BOTHER? – In the wake of the Civil War, this area north of Washington’s downtown — originally occupied by both whites and blacks — experienced a building boom. With Jim Crow and the coming of the streetcar, whites moved beyond the center city and blacks increasingly found themselves isolated. Until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, this African-American community was shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.
Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.
Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre and two first rate movie palaces.
There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club that produced a number of professional photographers, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.
This was a proud community. “We had everything we needed,” recalls one older resident. “And we felt good about it. Our churches, our schools, banks, department stores, food stores. And we did very well.”
The community shared responsibility for its children. A typical story went like this: “There was no family my family didn’t know or that didn’t know me. I couldn’t go three blocks without people knowing exactly where I had been and everything I did on the way. It wasn’t just the schools. We learned from everyone. We learned as much from Aunt So-and-So down the street, who was not even related to us.”
All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.
Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
Years later, while serving on a NAACP task force on police and justice, I would go to a large hall in the organization’s headquarters on U Street — at the same address that was on the 1940s flyers calling for civil rights protests. In that hall, except for the addition of a few plaques, nothing much has changed over the decades. We only needed two tables pushed together so there was plenty of room for the ghosts of those who once sat around such tables asking the same questions, seeking the same solutions, striving for some way for decency to get a foothold. Basic legal strategies for the civil rights movement were planned along this street. Did perhaps Thurgood Marshall or Clarence Mitchell once sit at one end of this hall and also wonder what to do next? Just the question lent courage.
With the end of segregation, as free choice replaced a community of necessity, the area around U Street began to change. The black residents dispersed. Eventually the street would become better known for its crime, drugs, and as the birthplace of the 1968 riots. The older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst. Some of the people in this community were only a couple of generations away from slavery, some had come from Washington’s early free black community. But whatever their provenance, they had learned to become self-sufficient in fact and spirit even as they battled to end the injustices that required them to be so.