'Mayor of U Street' John 'Butch' Snipes, 71

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

John Carlton "Butch" Snipes, 71, the unofficial "mayor of U Street" who for three decades owned and operated businesses on what was once the commercial hub of black Washington, died of cancer June 23 on his way home from Washington Hospital Center.

A stocky, well-dressed man who looked like the haberdasher he was, Mr. Snipes spent his entire life, except for a stint in the Army, living and working in the Shaw neighborhood near U Street. He caught the 40-cent afternoon shows at the Howard Theater as a schoolboy and rubbed elbows with the black cognoscenti -- Thurgood Marshall, Miles Davis, Satchel Paige, Stokely Carmichael -- on the busy sidewalks of the Black Broadway during the era of segregation.

"You were privileged just to be in that vicinity," he told The Washington Post this year. "I'm not talking just the street, know what I'm saying? I'm talking the neighborhood."

His love for the area was deeply rooted. A native Washingtonian, he grew up in Shaw, attended public schools and graduated from Armstrong High School. A born entrepreneur, he sold newspapers and caddied golf games as a youth. In the mid-1950s, while serving in the Army in Korea and Japan, he owned and ran a laundry business on the side.

Mr. Snipes returned to the District and for the next 10 years worked for O Street market vendors until he scraped together enough knowledge and money to start his own business.

While making his living on the loading docks and in small businesses, Mr. Snipes made sure that his five sisters and numerous nieces and nephews graduated from college, said a sister, Carolyn Russell. "He was very instrumental -- very instrumental -- in all of us going to college, even though he didn't have a college degree himself," she said.

Mr. Snipes experienced the 1968 riots that devastated Shaw and the subsequent middle-class abandonment of the area. He started his own business near the Lincoln Theatre in 1969, a deli and convenience store that lasted more than 13 years. He also owned and operated a jeans store, then Snipes Shirt Shop, which sold custom-made menswear.

During a time when drug dealers invaded the area and Metrorail construction tore up the streets, Mr. Snipes sponsored canned food drives for the needy, supported the Boys Club, volunteered at schools, coached athletic teams and founded and served as president of the Shaw Business and Professional Association. Somewhere along the way, people began calling him "the mayor of U Street."

"He really did consider that his street," said Kathryn Smith, former executive director of Cultural Tourism D.C. "He struck me as so eloquent about what the street meant to him and to the city. He really sounded like the mayor of U Street."

Mr. Snipes had said that improvements should not force longtime residents out of their homes, and he spoke up for those who stuck with the area when jobs left and crime burgeoned. He became part of a community group that helped steer the massive redevelopment at 12th and U.

"It becomes kind of scary when you see all these places closing down and you wonder what they're going to be replaced with. Will the change be for better, or will it be worse?" he said to The Post in 1983.

The Lincoln "had been a black theater in a black neighborhood," he said in 1989. "But now it will be a multicultural environment. That is life today. That is the way Washington is today."

In addition to Russell, survivors include a son, Kevin Snipes; a brother, David Snipes; four sisters, Evelyn Adams, Delores Miller, Lenora Snipes and Sharon Bocar; and a grandchild, all of whom live in Washington.

After he retired in 1997, the outgoing and loquacious Mr. Snipes often made appearances during historic tours of the Shaw area.

"He would appear, and it was quite a joy to people on the tour because it felt like an accident," Smith said. "They got an authentic voice from the neighborhood, and it really meant a lot to them."

For his part, Mr. Snipes did his best to make sure that U Street's past glory would not slip from anyone's memory.

"Some of our history is being destroyed," he told one group this year. "But it won't be forgotten."

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