U Street: The Historic Black Broadway
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Many know (or at least have heard) about the Harlem Renaissance, but not enough know about DC’s very own Black Broadway. The U Street corridor became known as The Black Broadway because of its prominent Black arts and business communities. U Street has served as a bastion for Black history and culture. The Twelfth Street YMCA, the country’s first to exclusively serve African Americans, opened in 1853.
Many Black artists were forced to perform on U Street because it was illegal for them to perform anywhere else in the city. The Paul Lawrence Dunbar Senior Living building was formerly the only hotel where Black celebrities coming through DC could stay within distance of the famous Howard Theatre.
Ben’s Chili Bowl served as a meeting ground. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis (before he served in office), and other civil rights leaders came to Ben’s Chili Bowl to organize the March On Washington. During the riots following MLK Jr.’s assassination, Ben’s Chili Bowl served free meals to the protestors and the police officers who tried to quell the uproar in the surrounding community.
All of this to say, U Street performs many functions in the DC community that have little to do with what happens on Capitol Hill. While it is a playground for many, it comes with a deep, rich history that explains why we love it so much and celebrate it today.
“U Street was a thriving center of African-American culture and social change, an oasis of innovation in a city scarred by Jim Crow laws throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Iconic figures like Zora Neale Hurston and Mary McLeod Bethune found refuge in Black Broadway, and performers such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday made regular appearances there.”– Washingtonian Magazine
The legacy of the Black Broadway lives on with spaces for live entertainment celebrating the often marginalized music of the African American community. You hear it in live jazz performances at venues such as JoJo’s, Bin 1301, and Ben’s Next Door. Or at the historic Marvin, which hosted Main Ingredient Mondays for more than ten years, gave a platform to local DJs. Through the years, U Street has managed to retain its character. One of the best examples of this is the Funk Parade, which draws thousands of people to U Street each year. That is why our role at U Street Main Street is essential to promoting the four pillars of the Main Street: Economic Vitality, Design, Promotion, and Organization to promote the strong legacy of the Main Street and support our business community for generations to come.
These times have been tough on all of us. We thank you for your continued support while we navigate this tough time together. U Street Main Street has been working to support business owners and make sure that they are informed about opportunities for access to capital like the Mayor’s Microgrant and the PPP program from the SBA. We are working hard to make sure that they are prepared to keep their doors open. Help us continue doing out work by chipping in $10, $100, $1,000 at districtbridges.org/donate.