At the end of the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century despite segregation, D.C.’s historic Black greater U Street community prospered and built a self-reliant economic, social, civic, and cultural existence. During the height of the Jim Crow era, this influential Black U Street community of extraordinary achievers once known as “Black Broadway” birthed D.C.’s Black Renaissance and served as a prominent symbol of black culture and sophistication amid racial and political tension in America.
Anchored by the famed Howard University (founded in 1867) some of the African American pioneers in science, civil rights, architecture, education, business, medicine, literary and performing arts you might have encountered on Black Broadway on U; Madame Lillian Evanti (first black international opera star), Carter G. Woodson (Father of Black History), Mary Church Terrell (one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, civil rights activist and suffragette), Jesse H. Mitchell (founder/owner, Industrial Bank of Washington), Dr. Charles Drew (surgeon and researcher who organized America’s first large-scale blood bank), Zora Neale Hurston (anthropologist, author, poet), Georgia Douglas Johnson (one of the earliest black female playwrights/organizer “Saturday Nighters” literary salon), Mary McLeod Bethune (prominent educator/First Lady of Civil Rights Struggle) and Charles Hamilton Houston (prominent civil rights lawyer known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow in America”) laying the foundation for the New Negro and modern civil rights movements. The neighborhood was also home to the great American composer, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, first-rate AA-owned theaters and nightclubs that hosted the biggest stars in American music — Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Jelly Roll Morton, among many others.
Yet, not only did this Black U Street community flourish and develop self-sufficiency; it was nationally significant for its stance against the injustices of segregation, spearheading some of the nation’s first civil rights protests while simultaneously embracing the highest standards of culture and intelligentsia experienced by blacks anywhere in America at that time, prompting the prophetic poetic voice of the New Negro Movement (who lived in the U Street corridor from 1924 to 1926) to observe and write,
“Never before, anywhere had I seen such persons of influence — men with some money, women with some beauty, teachers with some education — quite so sure of their own importance and their high places in the community.”
Launched in February 2014, the Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project is a groundbreaking multi-platform story and public history initiative created to amplify, chronicle, preserve and enhance, the under-told story, cultural legacy, local memories and voices of Washington, D.C.’s marginalized Black community along the historic greater U Street community when it was known as “Black Broadway”, a city within a city. This transmedia story represents several distinct, yet interconnected multi-platform (digital media and immersive) components. Through the use of interactive and social media content, educational resources, mapping, archival photos, traveling, pop-up museum exhibit, short films, oral histories and stories and our website aka “living digital history book”, the project seeks to connect today’s, future and greater audiences to the “unsung” social, economic, historical and cultural influence and civic impact of this Black U Street community aka “Black Broadway” trailblazers on Black America and America at-large. They are “our ancestors, our torchbearers” who overcame America’s and our nation’s capital’s racial and social barriers making considerable, significant contributions to enhance the civic and cultural fabric of America. Most importantly, the project will shed light on the “hidden history” that lies beneath the surface through the lens and voices of native Washingtonians who remember it best.
The aim of this project is to use cross-platform and “cultural storytelling” techniques and user experiences to amplify these black community voices and their “first hand” memories to preserve a truer, “authentic” narrative of this historic American moment in time and humanities experience to foster knowledge and civic engagement around the important role of social justice, arts, history and culture — thus allowing communities of color to “learn from their past to REIMAGINE and REDEFINE, from the ground up, the 21st century African American experience” amid today’s rapidly changing demographic and cultural landscape in urban America, specifically in Washington, D.C.
The project has been profiled on: ESPN’s The Undefeated, TV One’s NewsOne Now, Washingtonian Magazine, WAMU 88.5 Bandwidth, Great Day Washington (WUSA-TV, CBS Affiliate), Good Morning Washington (WJLA-TV, ABC Affiliate), Afro Newspaper and District Cable Network’s Washington Style and has been a featured presenter at: Randolph College, Studio Theatre, Mayor Muriel Bowser Presents 202Creates, Annual Conference on D.C. History, Baltimore Creative Alliance, District of Columbia Public Schools, TheArc Community Theater, Atlas Theater’s Mosaic Theater Project, D.C. Ideas Fest, Renaissance DC and PNC Bank DC’s Annual Black History Month celebration, among others.
At the dawn of the “early 20th century,” for some, life was but a Gatsby-like dream…but in the little southern town of Washington, D.C., otherwise known as “The Capital of the Free World,” it wasn’t Freedom that ruled; it was Jim Crow. As our nation’s capital was still a segregated city, African Americans were not “free” to enter “white” theaters and nightclubs. Ironically, it was this very segregation that spawned a “CULTURAL and INTELLECTUAL REVOLUTION.”
EDUCATE greater audiences about the important role that the African American civil rights activists, culturalists, educators, entertainers, intellectuals and entrepreneurs (all in a little Washington, D.C. neighborhood) played in shaping American history. ENTERTAIN with compelling historical and digital content to promote positive cultural identity. EMPOWER through the sharing of “authentic” stories of these black leaders and civic places of prosperity that are part of our past and the points the way for our underserved youth’s future.
DISCOVER THE COMMUNITY: BLACK BROADWAY ON U! This interactive map is a storied journey back into time when D.C.’s greater U Street community’s businesses were black owned and run; its buildings, built and financed by blacks; its entertainment, by and for blacks. Through our digital walking tour you’ll discover the CHANGEMAKERS, CIVIC and CULTURAL LANDMARKS of this “great black way”, which by 1920 boasted more than 300 black businesses within a few square miles including the 12th Street Y (the first full-service black YMCA in the U.S.) and the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital 15 years before Harlem’s Apollo Theater).
It’s May 1940, and the illustrious actress/singer, Pearl Bailey (portrayed by D.C. native/actress, Roz White) is in her dressing room getting dolled-up before her performance at U Street’s historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. Pearl shares her tale about the music filled evenings, culture, entertainment, rich history and heritage and heydays of D.C.’s Black Broadway on U despite the tough Jim Crow laws of the day this black community continued to strive and thrive.
HISTORIC NOTE: Ms. Bailey is credited with coining the phrase “Black Broadway on U Street” for this historic Black Washington era before Harlem and jumpstarted her singing career here too. Learn More…