Black Broadway in DC: A New Book Explores the Undeniable Influence of U Street’s HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: books, African American history, urban history, Washington DC
Briana Thomas was thinking about the legacy of U Street when she watched Kamala Harris get sworn in as vice president on January 20. The local author, who released Black Broadway in Washington, DC that same month, saw the connection: “We had our Vice President Harris become the first Black woman vice president and she’s a Howard University graduate—another first that’s connected to U Street,” says Thomas. “It’s just never-ending.”
Other historic milestones from the corridor: The first Black public high school in the country (Paul Laurence Dunbar High); the nation’s first Black Y (Twelfth Street YMCA); and the first Black-owned bank in DC (Industrial). Those who were born and raised on U Street went on to create major inventions, such as Dr. Charles Drew, who created the first blood bank. Some of this powerful history crossed Thomas’s desk when she was an editorial fellow at Washingtonian magazine in 2016. She wrote “The Forgotten History of U Street,” a photo essay that explored the rich Black Broadway era between the 1920s and 1950s, and from that assignment grew her book. We talked to Thomas about the influence of U Street, her memories and inspiration for the book, and the stories that stuck with her.
How did you get involved in doing this research?
Even before [the photo essay], I was already familiar with the history of U Street because of my grandmother, Evelyn Thomas, who moved from Suffolk, Virginia, when she was in her early 20s, which was pretty typical around the ‘50s. Women and live-in servants would migrate from the south to get better jobs in DC because there were more opportunities for Black people on U Street during that time. My grandmother used to work for the federal government.
I can remember her taking me to different places when I was younger. She took me to shows at Howard Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre, Bohemian Caverns—that’s maybe one of her favorite spots and if she reads this later she might get me for this! [Laughs.] She would tell me about the jazz scene on U Street, how she would go see different shows and the dancers, and [Caverns] was a hot spot. I mean, every time she talks about U Street her face literally lights up. It’s like there’s no bad memory of U Street, at least for her during that time.
What pushed you to continue working on the project and start writing a book?
When I started doing the photo essay, I really fell in love with the project itself—meeting the people, like the Ali family at Ben’s, and Lee’s family, who are all such sweet people but they also have so many great stories. A lot of people ask: “Is the history on U Street lost?” When I was interviewing, I would ask, “Do you think that the Black Broadway era could ever be repeated or redone?” Of course, everyone’s answer is like no. We can’t go back in time and do this again, U Street is totally different, property taxes are so high that businesses are shutting down left and right, the residents that built this community can no longer afford to live here and enjoy what they built. I think that was my push to write this book because I don’t think the history–maybe no, it can’t be repeated—but I don’t think the history is lost. But I do think that there’s more we can do to make sure it’s not overlooked.
Do you have a favorite detail from your research?
Duke Ellington, who grew up on T Street within the U Street corridor—I don’t know why this is such a fun fact to me, maybe no one cares [laughs]—but when he was growing up, over the summer he actually sold ice cream at Griffith Stadium. To me, it just continues to show the people that we see as celebrities and notables and history-makers still had a normal life outside of making history. Like, he’s just a normal kid selling ice cream down the street and then we’re still talking about his music in 2021.
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