A 70-year-old grandmother was the urban griot last week for the first "Shaw Black Landmarks Tour" during Shaw Week, an event designed to help Shaw residents learn more about their community.
Mildred Claypoole, leaning on a heavy crooked cane, was determined to keep the record straight. Her oral history of the Shaw area was the highlight of a tour of nine historic sites.
Wearing her hair in traditional African corn-rowed style, Claypoole, a former teacher and government worker, offered colorful recollections of Shaw. Her memories were supported by well-researched remarks from Sherry Brown, tour coordinator and an assistant director for Ward 1, Inc., a Shaw-area community group that seeks funds for community projects.
Claypoole, who was recognized on her birthday, May 25, for 36 years of volunteer work in the Shaw community, is proudest of the 12th Street Branch YMCA, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. The YMCA was founded by Anthony Bowen, a former slave who was born in Prince George's County in 1809.
"It was the first YMCA in the world for colored men and boys. That was done by colored with colored money," she said proudly, her gold teeth flashing.
The YMCA is one of 25 historic sites in the Shaw area identified by the Afro-American Istitute for Community Development and Historic Preservation, 1420 N St. NW. Five sites are National Historic Landmarks and at least two are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Plaques mark the properties "to let passersby know that some person who made a difference in the life of the city lived here," according to the Rev. Lola Johnson Singletary, executive director of the Shaw Project Area Committee (PAC).
Although the tour participants were proud and protective of their area, they expressed regrets about the neglected sites. Carol Caldwell, treasurer of the Shaw PAC, said, "I thought if you took the plaque off one of the houses it might fall down."
A house at 909 M St. NW, which appeared neglected, was the home of Blanche Kelso Bruce, the first Afro-American to serve a full term as a United States senator. He represented Mississippi from 1875 to 1881. Bruce was also recorder of deeds for the District, a trustee of D.C. Public Schools and Howard University.
Bob DeForrest, of the Afro-American Institute, noted that the federal government gives money only for exterior preservation of the properties. He also explained that his group hopes to combat speculators and a take-over of the area by young professionals and suburbanites by "trying vigorously to keep blacks in the houses."
Another home on the tour, 1538 Ninth St. NW, was occupied by Carter G. Woodson, nationally known founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the Journal of Negro History. Although the home is a National Historic Landmark, it is vacant, the windows are broken and the steps are crumbling.
At 1210 V St. NW, the home of John Anderson Lankford, architect for the African Methodist Episcopal church, features beautiful stained glass windows and a handsomely crafted exterior, but faces the boarded-up and weed-covered old Children's Hospital.
In the steamy twilight, the van of residents and staff from private and city agencies wound up and down streets where a mix of rejuvenation and slums presented stark contrasts - "where more attention is given to brick and mortar development than human development," said Ibrihim Mumin, community development specialist for the Shaw PAC.
"Afro-Americans should say, 'This is rich and historic for us, and we're going to do something about it,'" Mumin remarked.
Shaw's rich history, according to persons who have studied the area, is due to housing discrimination in the past that restricted blacks to certain Washington neighborhoods, and to the presence of Howard University, whose scholars lived in the community then.
"Once this was a very stable, wholesome community," said Singletary. "I regret that we are not preserving our own history. Many black people made an impact on the city and the country from this area, and they are yet to be recognized."
Among structures designated National Historic Landmarks in the Shaw area are St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 15th and Church streets NW; Mary Ann Shadd Cary House, 1321 W St. NW, and Mary Church Terrell House, 326 T St. NW.
Other historic landmarks in the Shaw area are Dunbar High School, First and N streets NW; Phylis Wheatley YWCA, Ninth St. and Rhode Island Avenue NW; John Anderson Lankford office, 1448 Q St. NW; Robert Hilliard Harrison restaurant, 455-457 Florida Ave. NW; Industrial Bank of Washington, 11th and U streets NW, founded by Jesse Homer Mitchell; The Bible Way Church, 1130 New Jersey Ave. NW, whose pastor was Bishop Smallwood E. Williams; Calvin Chase Sr. office, 1109 I St. NW, and home, 1212 Florida Ave. NW.
Also, Anna Julia Cooper home, 201 T St. NW; headquarters of The First Separate Baffalion, D.C.N.C., 1200 U St. NWf former headquarters of National Council of Negro Women, Mary McLeod Bethune, president, 1318 Vermont Ave. NW; Francis Louis Cardozo Sr. homes, 1463 Swann St. NW AND 2216 13TH ST. NW; Edward Elder Cooper office, 1832 11th St. NW, and home, 1906 6th St. NW; location of Andrew F. Hilyer, The Union League, The Anthony Bowen YMCA, 1816 12th St. NW; the site of race riots of 1919, known as The Red Summer of 1919, 7th and T streets, NW; Christian Abraham Fleetweed home, 1419 Swann St. NW.