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    On U St., Blacks Created a Powerful Symbol

    By Linda Wheeler
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 19, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

        True Reformer
    The True Reformer building was once the center of the black community at U St. and 12th. (By Tom Allen – The Post)
    The Rev. William Lee Taylor wiped his brow and adjusted his heavily starched collar before he rose to speak on that hot July day in 1903. Behind him was the handsome, tall office building that he was about to dedicate at 1200 U St. NW. In front stood several thousand people who looked like him: black, well dressed and dignified.

    "I was not willing to put any kind of a building in Washington," he said as women in the crowd tilted their rose-bedecked straw hats to better shade their eyes. "This is the capital of the nation. The critics from all over the country center in Washington. The Negro is the bone of contention, and there are many that say he is indolent and only fit for a 'hewer of wood and a drawer of water.' Therefore I made up my mind . . . to put up a building in Washington that would reflect credit upon the Negro Race."

    The stately, five-story building loomed like a skyscraper in the two-story neighborhood, a symbol of what black people could achieve and a centerpiece for what would become the premier black area in the segregated nation's capital. By the time U Street reached full bloom in the 1920s, it had 300 businesses along its corridor, and in years to come, its marquees would advertise Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Ella Fitzgerald, while its streets would fill with parades of fashionable patrons.

    But that glory was yet to come, and on the day of the dedication, Taylor considered his words carefully.

    Although he felt safe in this crowd, peacefully assembled, he knew there were many in Washington who hated blacks, or the "colored," as they were called. There were those who would like to lynch him as being "uppity," for showing off this grand structure built for and by his people that rivaled any built by whites in the city.

    Taylor shoved aside those thoughts. As the National Grand Worthy Master of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of the True Reformers, he felt comfortable as leader of a fraternal mutual benefit society formed in 1881 to provide black people the life insurance that white companies denied them.

    Although white people could be encouraging, their help often came in a paternalistic manner that was a holdover of the attitudes some had held before the Civil War, which had concluded within the lifetime of many in the audience.

    President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter for the ceremony saying, in part, "No one can watch with more zealous interest than I do the progress of the colored race; and with the colored man as with the white man, the first step must be to show his ability to take care of himself and those dependent on him."

    The Washington Post ran the July 15 dedication story on a back page with the headline that was a reflection of the times: "ERECTED BY NEGROES," followed by a smaller headline that read, "White Race Had No Hand In Any Part of Work."

    The fraternal organization paid $45,950 to construct the rectangular Romanesque building of beige and red brick with a double-arched entrance that quickly became known as the True Reformer building. It was far more than just another achievement for the True Reformers, who had chartered the nation's first bank for blacks in Richmond in 1890 and expanded into real estate and a weekly newspaper.

    This building was intended as a tribute to the ingenuity of the race. As the architect, John Anderson Lankford, was to say later, "The building was designed, built, paid for in cash, is occupied and controlled by Negroes. ... And being in Washington, it stands out to the civilized world as a sample or example of what the Negro can do and has done with his brain, skill and money."

    Lankford moved to Washington to oversee construction, becoming the city's first registered black architect.

    He used plenty of glass, placing large plate-glass windows on the street floor and 18-foot-tall arched windows on the combined second and third floors that formed the great hall, booked by many church and community groups. The next two stories had smaller windows in keeping with their use as offices.

    He crowned his building with a pressed tin frieze of swags and wreaths and placed a pole for a large American flag on the roof, a patriotic statement by generations not far removed from slavery.

    Bringing credit to the much-maligned race was very much on the minds of the black community of Washington at the turn of the century. Black and white Washington lived very much apart, neither knowing much about the other. One-third of the city's 60,000 residents were restricted to several neighborhoods, while the white residents spread out into the developing suburbs of a growing city.

    U Street was the center of one of those restricted areas when the True Reformer building was erected.

    The Reformers' Washington chapter and a drugstore moved into it first, then a well-established music school, the Washington Conservancy. The local YMCA used the building, as did the District's segregated National Guard units.

    In 1905, Lankford founded the Colored Men's Business League in D.C., a branch of the National Negro Business League, and rented space in the building. Through his long career, lasting into the 1940s, he lived and worked in the U Street neighborhood.

    Over time, the building fared better than did its owners. The True Reformers apparently issued far more death-benefit policies than they could cover, and in 1910, their bank declared bankruptcy. But the building remained under black ownership.

    Duke Ellington, then early in his career, began playing matinee dances there. Among the social groups using the elegant hall for banquets was The Dozen, a group of 12 bachelors who staged formal events as a way to impress the young women of the community.

    By 1920, U Street had become the city's best black neighborhood. Restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, banks and professional offices lined the busy street.

    A reporter writing for the Washington Bee newspaper in 1921, under the headline, "Coloured Boulevard Alive – The Theaters and the People Happy," said he spent a Saturday strolling U Street.

    "Speaking of Paris gowns, they could not be compared to those that were seen to enter the Howard Theater on New Year's night. ... As I strolled up You street to Ninth there was a crowd making its way to the opening of the Murray Casino. I saw the blondes, brunettes and the dainty high browns dressed in the height of fashion."

    Throughout its existence, the True Reformer building has reflected the life of the neighborhood around it – both good and ill – buoyed and buffeted by many of the same forces.

    In 1938, the building was sold to the Metropolitan Police Boys Club. Lankford was hired to redesign the space for use as a gymnasium, locker room, library, music room and game room. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the converted facility. Within two months, the club had 4,100 black youths enrolled.

    However, a political squabble about how the Boys Clubs should be funded led to the closing of the U Street club in the late 1950s.

    The site became a distribution center for Duron Paint Co., which operated from the first floor and boarded up the remaining windows.

    Black homeowners, once lured to U Street as a compact, self-sufficient community where they were welcome, began moving to newer neighborhoods after the racial barriers in housing were struck down, and with them went much of the financial backing that had shored the cultural and business interests of U Street.

    The riots of 1968 and Metro construction in the 1980s destroyed most of what was left of the once grand boulevard. Yet the True Reformer building survived, standing tall – if somewhat beaten.

    The current owner, J.J. Development Inc., bought it in 1996 after it had been named a National Historic Landmark and plans to restore the original details. Partner James Packard said exterior work, including bringing back the large glass windows, is to begin this month.

    Packard said that the partnership is scouting for tenants and that they would dictate how the building is developed.

    He hopes a large nonprofit group will lease a big portion of the building and use it as office space, along with a tenant who could develop the great hall as a theater or restaurant. An architect's rendering of the building shows the first floor occupied by boutiques. The upper floors could also be used as condominiums.

    Restored, the building would become part of the current renaissance that has brought about the integrated neighborhood now known as Cardozo-Shaw. In December, the city named the area a historic district.

    Already in place are a selection of restaurants, shops and businesses. The Lincoln Theatre has been restored, and a campaign is underway to restore the Howard Theatre.

    The spirit and energy that drove the True Reformers to create a memorial through their building still lives in the community. It is the site of the national African-American Civil War Memorial, which recognizes the unheralded contributions of black Union soldiers, and will be the home of the Heritage Center, which would provide a genealogy center and archive for the soldiers.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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