The idea was a natural: Washington, the Chocolate City, seat of a powerful and affluent black middle class, deserved and would support a luxury black hotel.
It would be the largest and finest such enterprise in the country, much greater than the Paschal's Motor Hotel in Atlanta or the Roberts Motel in Chicago or any of the others. It would be a prosperous symbol, an institution on the same lofty plane of black prestige as nearby Howard University. And, like Howard, it could only be done in Washington.
So why is it that Harambee House has finally given up even the illusion of being an entrepreneurial venture and been brought by Howard for use as a hotel management classroom, while less ambitious black hotels in other cities are still in business?
There are all too many answers to the question of why Harambee is becoming The Howard Inn, but more of them really explain the larger question of why an unscale black hotel, like similar upscale restaurants and clubs before it, just haven't been able to make it in Washington.
When the hotel was conceived in 1971, the idea was for Harambee House to anchor the revitalization of the once-great lower Georgia Avenue corridor. The surrounding area had been the first black middle-class neighborhood in the city, but in recent years it had become increasingly shabby, a kind of lace-curtain pocket in the middle of down-and-out Shaw. Harambee House would serve as a bulwark against the fast-food joints, the crime and the drugs that were gaining a foothold.
But the revitalization never occurred, and today those urban weeds have an even stronger foothold in the community, while talk of refurbishing Georgia Avenue continues to be just talk.
This failure left the 160-room luxury hotel (which charges luxury prices) with a panoramic view of unrelenting urban blight, including a junkyard directly across the street as a shining centerpiece.
The hotel had expected to fill its 160 rooms with the black professionals from around the country who invariably find themselves in the nation's capital from time to time. "That population did come, at first," said James O. Gibson, who headed the corporation that oversaw Harambee House until he left in January 1979 to take a job as Mayor Marion Barry's planning director.
But the professionals didn't come back. They found the hotel's staff, hired from the ranks of the hardcore unemployed, unable to perform such basic functions as relaying telephone messages, Gibson said. And there was no attempt at the kind of nationwide publicity "that would make it as easy to find out about Harambee House as to find out about the Hyatt or the Sheraton."
"Some folks said they'd be back when things got straightened out," Gibson said, "but the shakedown period never ended."
The hotel had hoped to do a substantial trade in local business meetings, but groups found that the space they had reserved was already occupied or hadn't been properly set up. The hotel also had hoped to develop a lunch trade, but it turned out to be inconvenient for prospective patrons to make the trip from downtown and to park once they arrived.
"The way the hotel was built shows that typical black insincerity about business," said Jerry Phillips of WHUR-FM, who holds his monthly Breakfast Club at Harrambee House. "They started with a pool, a sauna, a supper club, but they never put any real conference rooms in the joint. I remember once we were doing the Breakfast Club and they were having some kind of awards ceremony in the room next door and we had to stop them because there was so much noise and we were on the air live. People just didn't take the place seriously from the start.
"And you know how people are. They start saying, 'Oh, I don't go to Harambee House because the food is bad.' And then nobody comes. And the food was bad, at least at first. I think with Howard owning it, it's going to be different."
The failing hotel went through management controversy after management controversy, the details of which filled many columns of newsprint over the years. Most recently, the hotel was owned by the federal Economic Development Administration, which President Reagan wants to eliminate as an example of government waste. EDA officials had hoped to sell the hotel to the city-funded D.C. Development Corporation, leaving them with the headache of trying to find a way to return it to the private sector. The EDA estimates it lost $10 million in the effort.
In the end, the failure of Harambee House to sustain itself may be a result of an unhappy coincidence of time and place.
"Remember, Atlanta was still seriously segregated when the Paschals developed that hotel," said attorney Larry C. Williams, a member of the board of directors of the predominately black D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Blacks had no place else to go. And once the tradition was established, the business was there.
"But in Washington, people just figured, why should they go all the way uptown and pay $80 a night just so they could look at a junkyard?"
To survive, Harambee House, now Under New Management, will have to provide some kind of answer to that question.