Guide

Explore Washington, D.C.'s Historic Black Broadway on U Street

Washington D.C.’s historically black neighborhood of U Street is a treasure trove of African-American history hiding in plain sight. Once known as “Black Broadway,” 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.

But when the city became desegregated and black families began to patronize venues that had formerly been off-limits, U Street’s economy collapsed. White-owned businesses descended upon the neighborhood, and Black Broadway was slowly erased from history, preserved only by the stories and memories of its former residents.

Award-winning multimedia maker, storyteller, and multi-generational native Washingtonian Shellée M. Haynesworth is working hard to ensure that the story of Black Broadway is not forgotten with Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project. As Haynesworth's immersive, multi-platform project shows us, history is something best experienced firsthand. Use this guide to discover U Street’s rich, indelible past for yourself.

  1. Photo By: Black Broadway on U

    The Lincoln Theatre

    One of the most iconic of Black Broadway's many theaters, the Lincoln Theatre opened to the public in 1922. It was the center of a cultural renaissance that predated that of Harlem's, doubling as a movie house and a music venue. Prominent artists who performed there include Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Cab Calloway, among many others. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even held his birthday parties there!

  2. Photo By: Daniel Lobo/Flickr/Public Domain

    The Crystal Caverns

    You wouldn't expect D.C.'s preeminent jazz club to be found in the basement of a drugstore, but that's exactly what Crystal Caverns was throughout the mid-20th century. First opening its doors in 1926, Crystal Caverns earned its lofty reputation thanks to frequent appearances by members of the jazz elite, such as Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey. Eventually, the club would welcome musicians as renowned as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus to its stage.

  3. Photo By: Library of Congress

    Ben's Chili Bowl

    1213 U Street began life as the Minnehaha Nickelodeon Theater in 1910. Ben and Virginia Ali purchased the building and renovated it 1958, and Ben's Chili Bowl was born. The restaurant remains famous for its delicious chili and half-smokes (a half-pork, half-beef sausage), and has since expanded to H Street, Arlington, and Reagan National Airport. The facade of the former theater remains visible, an enduring reminder of the building's status as the last former nickelodeon in D.C.

  4. Photo By: Washington Area Spark/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

    Scurlock Photographic Studio

    Specializing in portraiture and general photography, Addison Scurlock first opened his studio on U Street in 1911. He soon gained a national reputation, taking portraits of such luminaries as political leader W.E.B. DuBois, educator Booker T. Washington, and former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. Scurlock also served as the official photographer for Howard University and other local schools.

  5. Photo By: ohadby/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Industrial Savings Bank

    Founded by entrepreneur John Whitelaw Lewis—who also built the Crystal Caverns—Industrial Savings Bank was the only black-owned bank in Washington, D.C. when it opened in 1913. It soon became a symbol of the black business movement in the city, which had spread to the U Street area by the turn of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the bank was forced to close in 1932 as a result of the Great Depression.

  6. Photo By: Library of Congress

    Murray Brothers Printing Company/Palace Casino

    By day, 918 U Street was home to the Murray Brothers' successful printing company. At its peak, it churned out 30,000 copies of the Washington Tribune, the city's major black newspaper, every day. But by night, the building became Murray's Palace Casino, one of U Street's most popular clubs in the 1920s and '30s. Designed by architect Isaiah T. Hatton, the Murray brothers' multipurpose building was a unique part of the U Street scene.

  7. Photo By: David/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Duke Ellington's Childhood Residences

    He didn't become truly legendary until after he arrived in New York City, but before then, Duke Ellington was one of the most visible jazz musicians in early-20th century Washington, D.C. Born in the city and raised on 13th Street, the teenage Ellington took piano lessons from his neighbor and visited popular clubs, eventually dropping out of high school to focus on music. Pay a visit to 13th Street and see where Ellington spent his life-changing formative years.

  8. Photo By: Library of Congress

    Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

    This building was the first official headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Founded in 1935, the NCNW developed strategies and programs for the advancement of African-American interests, both male and female. It also doubled as the residence of the NCNW's iconic leader and founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. Today, the Council House is a National Historic Site and houses the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum, which contains a wealth of artifacts and memorabilia pertaining to Bethune and the history of black women's organizations.

  9. Photo By: Ted Eyton/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

    12th Street YMCA

    Founded by formerly enslaved abolitionist Anthony Bowen in 1853, the 12th Street YMCA was the first African-American chapter of the YMCA in the entire country. The building itself was constructed between 1908 and 1912, and would serve as both housing for people in need and a center for social and civic activities. Langston Hughes lived at the Y in the early 1920s, and Thurgood Marshall held civil rights legislation meetings there.

  10. Photo By: NCinDC/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

    Langston Hughes Residence

    While he did live at the 12th Street YMCA for a brief time, poet Langston Hughes spent the bulk of his time in Washington, D.C. from 1924 to 1926 at this house on S Street. Working odd jobs to raise money for his family, who had rented out two unheated rooms in the building, Hughes published his first book of poems in 1926. The rest is, as they say, history. Hughes became one of the most famous poets of his time and a primary figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

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