Who Tells Your Story: U Street’s African-American Legacy in D.C.
Telling stories about historic places is a constant learning experience. Challenges such as ever-evolving technology, long-abandoned places that are difficult to research through traditional channels, and a cultural narrative that ignores marginalized voices can seem insurmountable. But award-winning multimedia maker, storyteller, and multi-generational native Washingtonian Shellée M. Haynesworth is using these challenges to pioneer immersive, multi-platform content that reflects the values of preservation and retelling history in an inclusive, empowering way.
Her most recent endeavor, Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project, explores the history of a nearly forgotten example of African-American innovation and success. Between the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, Washington, D.C.’s historically black U Street neighborhood flourished—despite racist Jim Crow laws and segregation, which plagued the city at the time.
“Black Broadway,” as it was commonly known, sparked a black cultural renaissance in D.C. that produced icons like author Zora Neale Hurston, historian Carter G. Woodson, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and researcher Dr. Charles Drew. It was also the home of Duke Ellington and a prime location for performers including Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Jelly Roll Morton.
U Street’s black community thrived with successful businesses that fed back into its localized economy. Jesse H. Mitchell, owner and founder of the Industrial Bank of Washington, financed nearly all other businesses—restaurants, clubs, and other venues—in the U Street area. The True Reformers building, which housed progressive movements, local organizations, and even performances by famous artists like Duke Ellington, was designed, financed, and built by African-Americans. The neighborhood was a hotbed for innovations in technology and culture, and it was built and sustained independently by African-Americans.
After desegregation, however, U Street fell into economic decline. Middle-class families began to patronize the white-owned businesses they historically couldn’t access downtown. As community members stopped supporting local venues, they gradually closed and fell into disrepair or were replaced with white-owned venues instead. At the same time, Black Broadway and its legacy were slowly erased from history.Haynesworth launched Black Broadway on U in February 2014 to recover the memory of what’s been lost.
Haynesworth remembers driving down U Street in 2013 with her grandmother, Lucille Dawson, who migrated to the U Street community from Louisiana in July 1932. Dawson didn’t recognize U Street from her 20-plus years as a barber there. As her grandmother told the story of places that no longer exist, Haynesworth was inspired to do something about preserving the area’s history. But there was a problem: U Street’s rich history is almost entirely oral. Few historians have focused on the area or written about the places that made it significant.
Haynesworth explains that, in spite of U Street’s significance “as it relates to the African-American experience and our contributions, I wasn’t taught this history in school. I heard about the stories through people I grew up with, my grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ friends, so I discovered the whole breadth and depth of what our accomplishments were in some very tough times.”
Haynesworth's first goal in her new project was to compile a comprehensive oral history of U Street in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—no small feat, and one that is ongoing. She wanted to tell an authentic story through a lens that emphasized the people who lived and thrived during the era of segregation in D.C., but the full story required more than traditional research. To her, “no one can tell this story better than those that can remember it the best.”
She began to interview residents who had lived on U Street in the 20th century, starting with people in her immediate network—friends, family, and elders she knew. As they told their stories, the elders referred her to other community members who had played a significant role in U Street’s success.
The Black Broadway on U website is a visual representation of these oral histories, many of which describe places that no longer exist and haven’t existed for decades. The site’s main feature and the highlight of the project is a guide to historic U Street’s businesses and homes. It currently includes 70 distinct places and will grow as Haynesworth continues her research and secures major funding.
The interactive website can help visitors learn more about everything from local D.C. hot spot Ben’s Chili Bowl (which is still black-owned and has expanded to Arlington, H Street, and Reagan National Airport) to Frelinghuysen University, an accredited school that provided academic, vocational, and religious education for African-American working class adults until it closed in the 1950s.
But the website is just one component of a much larger transmedia project, which Haynesworth says is “designed to bring people into a moment and help them experience it in different ways. I want to continue to preserve and embed this culture and history in the community.” Live performances and short videos serve as another leg of the project; Haynesworth hires historic reenactors to perform at local schools and museums.
She’s also created an interactive exhibit powered by “augmented reality content,” which combines an app with a traditional museum exhibit. Users can point their phones at physical images to trigger related content through the app, creating an intersection between a cultural storytelling project and cutting-edge technology.
Black Broadway on U’s necessity is clear. It embeds African-American history into our cultural lexicon, exposes it to wider audiences, and helps empower a new generation to redefine their cultural identity. It’s true that some iconic U Street locations—like Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Lincoln and Howard Theatres, and Lee’s Flower and Card Shop—are still thriving. But, according to Haynesworth, "developers [on U Street] are using black history to get people into new places. They’re naming apartment buildings after Duke Ellington, and that’s not really the full story. I don’t think it’s right to use history in that fashion, for their benefit."
Her solution is to bring the story back to the community, and to lift up the voices of black innovators on U Street and around the United States. “I’m one of those people who believes it starts with us,” she says. “As a person of color, I think it’s important for us to tell our story because only we can really tell our story.”
Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project uses cross-platform and cultural storytelling techniques and user experiences to amplify voices from the black community and preserve an authentic narrative of a historic American moment in time. Visit their website for more information about the project, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up with new events.