U Street-Shaw District
Though U Street-Shaw District rivals Adams-Morgan District as DC’s boutique hot spot, it’s important to review the origin story to fully appreciate the fight to preserve its Black Culture by patronizing Black-owned businesses.
More U Street-Shaw District Origin Story
Prior to the Civil War, U Street-Shaw District consisted of only trees. It evolved into military camps during wartime for former slaves escaping from the South. One of these camps developed into a neighborhood named in honor of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white officer who led the black Massachusetts 54th Regiment in the Civil War. You can see his dramatized character in the movie “Glory”, starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington in his first Oscar-winning performance.
In a protected environment, U Street-Shaw District emerged into a strong African American community that nurtured many great artistic talents more than twenty years before the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.
A walk down U Street in Shaw District provides an inviting illustration of Black cultural history that is still evident today. Its buildings have become widely known landmarks and its people, past and present provide physical representations of the community’s great achievements.
Duke Ellington, the renowned jazz artist, was born in the Shaw district in 1899. The piano lessons in his early years eventually lead to the formation of his own band in his late teens. A visitor to Washington should consider taking a walking tour of “Duke Ellington’s DC: A Tour of the Shaw Neighborhood. The tour portrays the life of the celebrated jazz artist but also includes the lives of other famous black Americans from the area.
Decades before Harlem’s Apollo Theater hosted black entertainers, Howard’s Theater stage was home to the best performers in vaudeville and early 20th-century jazz. In the 1920s-50s, the area was filled with nightclubs, theaters, and places with names like the Cimarron Club, Club Bengasi, The Green Parrot, Club Bali, The Crystal Caverns, Republic Gardens, and the Lincoln Colonnade.
The hottest music and latest dance crazes in black entertainment thrived on U Street and led Pearl Bailey to bestow the nickname, “The Black Broadway” upon U Street. Others called it the “Colored Man’s Connecticut Avenue.” White patrons visited to see & hear many of the best entertainers in the country.
But our country could not sustain one Black and one White America. From 1954-70, the Civil Rights Movement was like running water over a rock, gradually eroding legal segregation and discrimination so Black folks could gradually live, work, shop, and dine in new places in the area. U Street-Shaw District glory slowly deteriorated as shopping malls and freeways enticed people to the outskirts of town.
If that pace continued, the rebound of U Street would likely have happened in the 1970s, as it did for Georgetown and Adams-Morgan. But the gradual demographic shift quickly transformed into a rousing exodus days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on 4 April 1968,
White-owned businesses in the Black districts of DC were looted and burned. Fires knew no boundaries so many adjacent Black-owned businesses burned too. National TV networks broadcast the same disturbing images to millions of Americans. Predictably, most surviving businesses shuttered, a notable exception being Ben’s Chili Bowl. In those fallow years between 1968 to 1990, despair and drugs were the order of the day. You could often double-park on U Street.
About 1990, the shining Black Knight most credited for saving U Street-Shaw District was at work — Mayor Marion Berry. Despite his embarrassing fall from grace, Berry is loved for opening a government office building that returned hundreds of jobs and hopes to the area. He also attracted more federal redevelopment funds here and ensured that it would receive a Metro Rail station. He was arguably, the biggest catalyst for the district’s rebirth.
Restorations of the Lincoln Theater, Dunbar Hotel, Whitelaw Hotel, 12th Street YMCA, and True Reformers Hall were quickly followed by charitable organizations and developers. Restaurants and nightclubs reopened and many homes in the community were restored. African American Civil War Memorial anchors Shaw District at the 10th and U Streets Metro Station. Sine we published a Soul Of America DC map in 1996, we witnessed the transformation to today.
Across the street just below U Street on Vermont Avenue, African American Civil War Museum has relocated inside the historic Grimke School Building. It gives you the backstory of Colored Troops who helped win our freedoms today. Heritage trail signs along U Street remind every visitor of the diverse range of businesses and activities of Shaw District’s Chitlin’ Circuit roots.
Lincoln Theatre has a restored marquee and lots of polish. Some would say a bit too polished because most of the performing acts are non-Black. It may be the biggest “Tell of Gentrification” in the neighborhood. In its heyday, U Street-Shaw District was said to have nearly 300 mostly Black-owned businesses. Today, there are a couple dozen.
That’s somewhat understandable because our capitalist system permits property owners to raise rents. As a result, the low rents vanished along with several Black-owned businesses in U Street-Shaw District such as Horace & Dickies Cafe, Cafe Nema, Bohemian Republic, Utopia Bar, The Islander, and Love Cafe. Magic Johnson sold his Starbucks on U Street long ago.
Nevertheless, visitors can still get stylish Margaritas in upscale lounges, good Soul Food, Jazz supper clubs, and Afrocentric boutiques. Black visitors will enjoy the cultural vibe at Oohs & Ahhs, Henry Soul Food, Brooklyn on U, Busboys and Poets, JoJo Restaurant & Jazz Bar, St. James Modern Caribbean, Roaming Rooster, Victory Restaurant & Lounge, Zawadi Boutique, and even the Gospel Spreading Bible Bookstore.
You’ll be pleased with the first-rate investment in these establishments for high-quality products and experience.
Don’t miss an opportunity to visit the Howard Theater supper club at 620 T Street NW. Murals of Billie Holiday and others memorialize legendary artists who performed here. Today, it features a cosmopolitan buffet of hipster entertainment, including popular Podcasters.
Cafés, bistros, boutiques, galleries, and social centers abound on U Street flowing into Florida Avenue to the east and to 14th Street NW barely to the south. On a warm day, bustling cafe culture spills over to the sidewalks.
Expect higher prices & embedded tips for meals and cocktails at these establishments to pay living wages to the workers. Even though 14th Street NW is mostly cosmopolitan, Black folks fit right in. I guess progress zig zags!
Let’s close with one pleasant surprise on 14th Street, this reassuring mural of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.