Sandra Butler-Truesdale is the only person on U Street not in motion. Standing on the corner of 15th and U on a recent Friday afternoon, joggers and shoppers streaming past, she gazes up at a no-frills apartment building that overlooks the busy intersection.
“This right here used to be the Dunbar Hotel,” she says, pointing. “Such people as — if you believe it or not — Fidel Castro, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke, all those people stayed at the Dunbar Hotel.”
She pauses for a moment, picturing this corner as it had been when she was a teenager living nearby: the impressive brick hotel with its ornate front entrance, the dignitaries and musicians flocking around it.
“But after it deteriorated, we didn’t have the historical society at the time. They tore the building down.”
It’s a story that could describe at least one building per block of the U Street corridor in Northwest Washington. Once the thriving center of the District’s black community, the street saw many of its proudest monuments razed during the riots of 1968 and eroded even further by the years of neglect that followed. Now that the development of the past decade has returned some of the neighborhood’s bustle, there are few physical reminders of what had been. The only way to get a sense of the way this street once looked is to have it explained by someone like Butler-Truesdale, who lived in the area and watched history pass through it.
But people with memories like Butler-Truesdale’s are rare, and getting rarer. Many have died, or moved, or simply moved on.
That’s where Kelly Navies comes in. As a special collections librarian at the D.C. Public Library, Navies often saw researchers come in looking for information about U Street’s heyday during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. But the library’s collections for the neighborhood were sparse: a couple of books and a few manila folders full of newspaper clippings.
“It seemed like a huge oversight,” Navies says — one that she wanted to fix.
An oral historian by training, Navies’s first instinct was to talk to people who had experienced the neighborhood 50 years ago, when it was known as “Black Broadway.” So she applied for, and won, a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services last fall. The funding allowed her to establish an audio archive at the library dedicated to stories of mid-20th-century U Street, and it gave her time to set about tracking down those few people who still remembered it.
“To hear this history from the mouths of people who actually witnessed it is something that you won’t be able to do in a few years, and I felt that it needed to be done,” Navies says.
So far, she has recorded the memories of eight D.C. residents. Some grew up along U Street, others came from across the city to be a part of the area’s nightlife. Combined, the interviews paint a picture of a thriving commercial and cultural corridor, the one place in a segregated city that African American residents could call their own. David Gilbert, who would walk four miles from Barry Farm in Southeast just to see a show at the Lincoln Theatre, told Navies, “When you got to U Street, you felt free.”
Navies’s subjects say that sense of freedom and ownership has largely been lost.
“It’s the only thing that bothers me about this change,” says
Butler-Truesdale, who is 74 and now lives in Southwest. “It doesn’t feel like my community. It’s the newbies’ community.”
But that’s what makes documenting the neighborhood’s past so important, she adds: “They need to know what their foundation is.”
Navies’s interviewees can share a thing or two about the city’s history — after all, they witnessed most of it.
Take Jeannine Clark. The 86-year-old grew up around the corner from U Street, and her father owned several businesses on the corridor — all of which she described in loving detail during Navies’s hour-long interview with her.
It wasn’t until Navies was packing up at the end of the session that Clark mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that she’d been present at celebrated contralto Marian Anderson’s famous concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
“I was like, ‘Wait, we have to do a whole separate interview now,’ ” Navies recalls, laughing.
There is a moment like that in almost every interview Navies conducts. She’ll be talking about something mundane, such as high school or beauty tips, and then her subject will casually mention that they’d stood next to Marvin Gaye in choir, or had been a hairstylist for James Brown and Ray Charles (for the record, Butler-Truesdale did both of those things).
“You do things, and at the time, you don’t realize how significant they are,” Navies says. “You don’t think about it as history; it’s just your life.”
Her project, which she will be presenting at an event at Busboys and Poets on Thursday night, aims to capture both aspects of U Street’s mid-century prime — the intersections with history and the quirks of everyday life.
It’s a task for which oral history is uniquely suited, Georgetown University history professor Maurice Jackson says. He has written extensively about the history of the District but says that Navies’s project will help preserve an aspect of the city’s past that can’t be conveyed in writing.
Oral histories “capture the essence of a people,” he says. “They capture the soul, the struggle, the humor and music.”
Like Butler-Truesdale, Jackson doesn’t expect the old U Street to be preserved in amber — it’s too late for that, anyway. He does hope that Navies’s project will inform debates about U Street’s current incarnation, and make new residents more sympathetic to those who still mourn the Black Broadway they’ve lost.
For many of Navies’s interviewees, though, the project is more personal than political, a chance to reflect on their own glory days as well as the neighborhood’s.
“People don’t believe me. Even sometimes I really have to snap and think, ‘Did I really do that?’ ” says 68-year-old Greg Gaskins, a U Street native and guitarist for Elvis Presley. “But yeah, yeah I did.”
Just go to the library and listen — it’s all there.
Kelly Navies’s project, “It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing: U Street Memories from Duke Ellington to Marvin Gaye,” will be presented at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.