If a single building could ever tell a story of the black urban experience in the U.S., it is the Howard Theatre in Washington.
In 1910, it became the first performance space built for African Americans. It hosted famous black musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Lena Horne.
Early days: separate, and smaller
After slavery was abolished in 1865, many blacks left the Southern farms on which they had been forced to work and settled in cities like Washington. Although no longer slaves, black people were segregated from white people across the U.S. by Jim Crow laws — named for a stereotyped minstrel-show character offensive to blacks.
All-black neighborhoods sprang up. “We had the same things that everyone else had,” said Dianne Dale, a native Washingtonian, historian and author, recalling Washington’s Jim Crow era. “It was just smaller.”
One such neighborhood was Washington’s Shaw, named for Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of a famous all-black Civil War infantry unit. It was in Shaw that the Howard Theatre was built.
Until the 1960s, the strip that begins at the Howard Theatre and extends down U Street was known as “Black Broadway.” Although born of racism, the community aspired to be as great as the famous Broadway in New York.
But when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, protesters burned down segregated neighborhoods in Washington and other cities, such as Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit. The federal government sent troops into Shaw to put out the fires and restore order.
By the late 1970s, Shaw had become a difficult place to live, with crumbling schools and violence that was related to the illegal drug trade. Burnt buildings had been left abandoned. Go-go bands, which played a signature style of Washington music, performed some of the last concerts at the crumbling and rat-infested Howard Theatre before it was shuttered in the early 1980s.
Holding on to history during renaissance
Countless buildings lay in ruins until the late 1990s, when real-estate investors began flooding Shaw and other formerly mostly black neighborhoods in Washington. Public-housing buildings were torn down and replaced. Young professionals both black and white flocked to the area, restoring some of its Victorian-era row houses. Restaurants opened. Schools were repaired. Crime rates dropped.
More than a century after it was built, the Howard Theatre was reborn with a $29 million renovation in 2010.
Until the restoration, the Beaux Arts–style theater had been abandoned for 30 years. “Decrepit and sad, the theater was just another example of American ruins,” said artist Sean Hennessey, who bought a house blocks from the theater in 2003 and was later commissioned to sculpt the trumpet for the “Jazz Man” figure that now crowns its edifice.
Today, the streets of the Shaw neighborhood reflect its origins in the Jim Crow era as well as its transformation over the last century.
Up the street from the Howard Theatre stands Howard University, established in 1867 to educate freed slaves. It enrolls more than 10,000 students and competes for black students with other top universities.
“I still walk by the theater weekly and am always overwhelmed with pride and a sense of place, both geographically and as a marking in the historical continuum,” said Hennessey. “The future is certainly one of continued renewal. Hopefully, it is a future that will include everyone.”
[Adapted from an article by freelance writer Natalie Hopkinson that appeared in EJ|USA in February 2014]