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A capital community

African-American history, culture shine in resilient D.C. neighborhood

Email|Print| Text size + By Mara Vorhees
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2004

WASHINGTON -- "Before Harlem, there was Shaw," locals boast about the vibrant African-American community that thrived in northwest Washington, D.C., for the first half of the 20th century.

Beginning in the 1890s, black lawyers, doctors, and tradesmen set up shop along U Street NW. The neighborhood blossomed into a separate downtown for those excluded from other parts of the racially segregated city. By the 1920s, the area was home to hundreds of black businesses, churches, schools, and civic organizations, as well as a prominent black university and a magical music scene.

Like many urban areas, Shaw fell into economic decline in the second half of the century. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, 14th Street exploded in riots that destroyed many black-owned businesses. Shaw would not recover for nearly 30 years.

These days, hip, young urbanites -- especially African-Americans -- have started buying and renovating the brick row houses on Shaw's residential streets. The "New U" now houses some of D.C.'s hottest nightspots and trendiest shops; construction in the area is nonstop.

The neighborhood's namesake is Robert Gould Shaw, the white Civil War commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the African-American unit celebrated in the film "Glory." The focal point of the Shaw neighborhood is a somber bronze memorial statue of rifle-bearing troops, built to recognize the 54th Regiment and all of the free blacks and fleeing slaves who served in the Union Army. The Wall of Honor lists the names of 209,145 black troops, as well as the 7,000 white soldiers who served alongside them. The small African-American Civil War Museum down the street allows visitors to search for ancestors in databases of black troops and battles.

The Civil War was the transformative event in the development of black society in D.C. Half a century earlier, what is now the capital of the country was the capital of the slave trade; after the war, it became a refuge for freed slaves. Thousands migrated to Washington, fleeing the depressed Reconstruction South.

By this time, blacks made up nearly half the district's population. They set up churches, schools, and civic organizations -- many of which have sustained this area's volatile but resilient community ever since.

Founded in 1858, St. Augustine is Washington's oldest and sweetest-sounding black Roman Catholic congregation. The Mass celebrated at noon on Sundays is an example of the spiritual and spirited role of religion in contemporary African-American society: It features a 165-member gospel choir -- often clad in Kenti cloth -- that rocks the house.

As Washington's black commercial and cultural center, Shaw was also a fault line in the struggle for civil rights. In the 1930s, the corner of 14th and U streets saw some of the nation's first picket lines protesting Jim Crow. Among the demonstrators was Mary McLeod Bethune, who lived just south of the area, near Logan Circle. (Her former home, now open to the public, houses an important archive of black women's historical materials.) She would go on to found the National Council of Negro Women and to serve as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's adviser on minority affairs.

When this corner is not covered in scaffolding, Duke Ellington seems to belt out his blue notes from a colorful mural on the side of the building at 13th and U streets (the mural has been temporarily removed during construction). Ellington grew up around the corner in a modest brownstone on T Street; his passion was sparked as he listened to ragtime pianists playing at Frank Holliday's poolroom down the street. The mural is tribute not only to Shaw's most famous native son but also to the lively music scene, known as "Black Broadway," that flourished here from the 1920s until the 1940s.

Segregation of entertainment venues meant that black Washington created its own arts scene, outshining anything white Washington could offer. Jazz, big band music, and swing rang out from clubs and theaters around the district and particularly in Shaw, which became a hot spot of the "chitlin circuit." Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sarah Vaughan all frequented the clubs of U Street.

Recognizing the historic appeal of the area, bars and clubs today are opening in the same buildings where the greats used to play. The sax-shaped sign and keyboard trim outside Bohemian Caverns leave no doubt about what goes on inside. This classy venue for live jazz is the reincarnation of the fashionable Club Cavern, which occupied the basement here beginning in 1926 and attracted big names from Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to Aretha Franklin and the Supremes. Today the club has dubbed itself the "sole home of soul jazz" and features live blues, jazz, and R&B every weekend (Thursday through Saturday).

Besides having a happening music scene, Shaw remains an intellectual center, due largely to the vitality of Howard University, anchoring the neighborhood at its northeast corner. The stately Georgian facade of the Founders Library fronts the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, which boasts the nation's largest collection of African-American literature. The Gallery of Art features rotating exhibits of African and African-American artists and artifacts.

Howard's distinction builds on the foundation of a literary movement that flourished alongside the musical awakening of the 1920s. Artists and writers often gathered at poet Georgia Douglas Johnson's Shaw home, which became the center of the Harlem Renaissance in the capital. Her guests included African-American poets Langston Hughes and Paul Dunbar, as well as Alain Locke, a philosopher and professor at Howard. Locke's legacy endures there, where his collection of African artifacts resides in the Gallery of Art and his writings on the "New Negro" are well documented.

Shaw is certainly not the only landmark in black Washington. The nation's capital is rich with African-American heritage sites, from Cedar Hill -- where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of his life and times -- to the Lincoln Memorial -- where King invigorated the civil rights movement with his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Furthermore, the Smithsonian Institution offers a calendar packed with free concerts, films, and workshops during Black History Month. The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture is arguably the best first stop for a visitor curious about black history.

The beauty of Washington, though, is that it offers more than just heritage. In such a little-known corner as Shaw, visitors can experience today's living, breathing, thriving African-American culture, from soul food to soul saving to soul music.

Mara Vorhees is a freelance writer living in Somerville. She is the author of the forthcoming Lonely Planet guide to Washington.

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