Washington's Black Broadway: a historic centre of music and culture

For 40 years U Street was a hub of African-American culture that attracted musicians, performers, activists and scores of visitors

Washington's historic 'Black Broadway'

Washington's historic 'Black Broadway'
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New York City’s Broadway is the undisputed centre of American music and theatre, but a few hundred kilometres to the south in Washington, the flourishing hub of "Black Broadway" once rivalled the Big Apple for cultural influence.

Blocks from the capital's many monuments and government buildings is U Street, which became a centre of African-American culture that attracted musicians, performers, activists and visitors for 40 years.

Between the 1920s and 1960s, artists such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed at its theatres, while activists such as Martin Luther King Jr ate at its restaurants.

Carter G Woodson, the founder of US Black History Month, lived and worked a few streets away from the famed corridor.

The area was created out of need: living under segregation, black Americans were not permitted in the city’s white-only venues and businesses. So they made their own.

“We had barbershops, we had tailors, we had pharmacists, we had restaurants, we had a department store, we had our own ecosystem and hub for us,” said Shellee Haynesworth, creator of the Black Broadway on U Project, which seeks to preserve the neighbourhood's stories.

She has interviewed about 40 people for her project so far.

There were about 300 businesses along the U Street corridor in its heyday, including theatres and music halls, Ms Haynesworth said.

“Many of the elders that I interviewed said they were so insulated and able to do what they needed to do within the U Street corridor that they really didn't have to deal with the effects of segregation and Jim Crow and [Washington,] DC,” she said, referring to southern segregation laws that kept the lives of black and white Americans separate.

“Especially when it was a thriving gateway known as Black Broadway.”

The area entered a sudden downturn after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when riots erupted across the US, as black Americans, angry and disillusioned by the death of the civil rights movement's figurehead, engaged in protests that in some places turned violent.

Parts of Washington, including U Street, were heavily damaged and 13 people died.

Video: Americans mark Martin Luther King Jr holiday

Video: Americans mark Martin Luther King Jr holiday

Rather than rebuild, many of the businesses on Black Broadway chose not to reopen or moved to different areas because they were no longer constrained by segregation laws. And U Street fell into disrepair.

“The city really didn't do anything for 20 years,” said Virginia Ali, owner of famous local restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl.

When surveyors came to plan for the metro expansion in the late 1980s, they found only three businesses remained: Ms Ali's restaurant, Industrial Bank and Lee’s Flower and Card Shop.

The new metro stop opened in 1991 after years of construction halted traffic and disrupted business for Ben’s Chili Bowl.

“I had a big banner put across [the] front that said, 'We survived Metro',” Ms Ali said. “And then the neighbourhood began to grow again.”

Today, some of the historic theatres have reopened and businesses have returned. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a landmark destination, with locals, tourists and even former president Barack Obama flocking to its booths.

But some of the new developments could price out existing businesses and residents, changing the demographics of U Street again.

“Lee’s Flower Shop – the grandparents were friends of mine,” Ms Ali said. “The Industrial Bank, the grandparents were friends of mine. Their kids, the people running it now, are the same age as mine.

"I miss it.”

Updated: March 18, 2022, 7:03 PM