The House Issue

U Turn

By Teresa Wiltz
Sunday, March 5, 2006

U Street has always been a quick-change artist. Old Jim Crow shaped its earliest existence, creating rigid rules of engagement, but also, perversely, carving out a niche where black folks could be. African Americans didn't have a place to go, so they made their own. And they owned it.

U Street was it.

Being mercurial, U Street stretched boundaries beyond its alphabetical confines. U Street became a neighborhood, a happening, a state of mind. Which is to say that U Street was also S and T and V and 14th streets, NW. And parts of Florida Avenue, too.

Segregation boxed black Washingtonians within narrow borders; downtown theaters, hotels and restaurants were off-limits. But at the start of the 20th century, U Street beckoned. Banks popped up. Schools. Hotels. Funeral homes. Print shops. Pharmacies. With U Street, black D.C. could lay claim to a world that was, to borrow a phrase of the hip-hop generation, "for us, by us."

"You were privileged just to be in that vicinity," remembers John "Butch" Snipes, who is fondly referred to as the "Mayor of U Street." A former business owner -- he had a deli, then a jeans store, then a custom-made-shirt store -- Snipes has spent his entire 70 years living and working around U Street, giving tours and spreading a little wisdom about the corridor's history. "I'm not talking just the street, know what I'm saying? I'm talking the neighborhood."

U Street was Howard University, and philosophy professor Alain Locke and his "New Negro" movement in the '20s, and blood transfusion pioneer Charles Drew training doctors at the med school in the '30s and '40s.

It was Redd Foxx meandering down the street between sets at the Howard Theater in the late '40s and early '50s, talking smack to anyone who'd listen. It was, without a doubt, native son Duke Ellington. But in those years, U street was also Pearl Bailey, dragging on a cigarette in the Bohemian Caverns, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong grooving at Club Bali, and Miles Davis at the Howard Theater. The '60s brought James Brown, rocking the WUST Radio Music Hall -- now the 9:30 Club.

It was cool jazz and hot vaudeville.

It was Joe Louis training at the Boys Club in the '40s, and Satchel Paige playing against the Homestead Grays in the '40s and '50s at Griffith Stadium. It was the Lincoln Theatre, and Lee's Flower & Card Shop, then and now. It was popping into a beauty shop for a press 'n' curl. It was -- and is -- Ben's Chili Bowl, since 1958. Leave your title, and your attitude, at the door. There at the counter you might find Stokely Carmichael or Cab Calloway or Nat King Cole or Martin Luther King Jr.

U Street was black business.

It was Billie Holiday in the early '40s, in a "double header of glorious entertainment" at the Howard Theater, sharing the stage with Benny Carter and His Orchestra, King & Duke's Rugcutters, Pedro & Delores and Spic & Span. Posters did the Lady justice, proclaiming: "She's a solid sender of sizzling songs/She's the heat wave that recently thrilled Washington/She's the first lady of swing-co-pation."

U Street was Black Broadway.

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