Boxing champion Joe Louis slept there. Tuskegee scientist George Washington Carver had to stay there too. So did entertainer Cab Calloway, Civil rights lawyer Charles H. Houston and Thurgood Marshall, now a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The now-padlocked Whitelaw Hotel, at 13th and T streets NW--which reached its zenith of prestige during the '30s, '40s and early '50s when black visitors to Washington had no other options, then catered to the poor until the 1968 riots left it a shabby refuge for drug dealers and users--is up for sale.
The time is ripe for Washingtonians to recognize this hotel's historic value and utilize it as a landmark. It is a building that stands for much in black history and once served the community in important ways that shouldn't be forgotten as blacks yearly spend millions of dollars at the Washington Hilton and the Shoreham.
At a time when many young blacks know so little about their roots and heritage that some are psychologically crippled, giving proper visibility to such landmarks and interpreting them within the context of the past can help young people understand the present and chart a course for the future.
"Buildings are documents of history no less important than written letters and documents," says Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum.
"We have to view them that way. While we want to save some written pieces, we need to save buildings too. . . . " Urban renewal has eradicated many key landmarks that were of great significance for black people, and Collier-Thomas thinks blacks must seize the initiative. "More is being destroyed in terms of blacks than whites," she says. Several long-time Washingtonians agreed that it is important to preserve the Whitelaw. Former Commissioner John B. Duncan called it "part of the history of an era, maybe one of which we were not too proud, but it is part of the history of America. Younger people under 25 think all that is here happened yesterday--in their generation. They don't know the struggle."
Former Mayor Walter E. Washington's favorite barber worked from the Whitelaw's barbershop, and Washington lived near the Whitelaw as a college student. "If your heritage means something, you have to pin it to certain things in certain points of time," said Washington, who still lives nearby today.
"The Whitelaw had a period . . . a glorious period. It was the only hotel that blacks could live in when they came from out of town," he said. "Then it went through a bad period like so much on U Street . . . But it's a landmark for us."
It's a landmark that had sunk to such depths by the early 1970s that vice squad detectives could always count on its lobby for certain arrests--day or night. Drugs were more plentiful than towels. In 1977, it was finally closed because of hundreds of housing code violations, then sold, and now it is for sale again.One idea for a revitalized Whitelaw would be to turn it into office buildings for nonprofit organizations. Reasonably-priced space for such groups is badly needed, and the area around the Whitelaw should become more attractive for office workers with the city's office building now being built at 14th and U streets. The Green Line, scheduled for U Street someday, will bring transportation.
But it isn't enough to identify a landmark and revitalize it. The Whitelaw, Howard Theatre and similar places need to be highlighted with tours where people are told about the past. The Gray Line tour only recently added the Anacostia home of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Collier-Thomas says the tour still doesn't include the Lincoln Park statue of Mary McLeod Bethune--the city's only statue of a black person in a public park. Blacks pour a lot of money into tour coffers and should demand that such places be added to tour lists as important aspects of black--and American--history.
Many young people are desperately seeking their heritage. Saving the Whitelaw could be just one small step in reviving the true historic past.