On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Certain cities are always mentioned when discussing Black history in the United States, like Chicago, Harlem, and Birmingham. But, the District also has a lot of rich Black history, and it all centers around the historic U Street, known in the ’20s as “Black Broadway.”
We’re speaking with author Briana Thomas about her new book, “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” a detailed history of Black culture and resilience in the District.
Produced by Richard Cunningham
- Briana Thomas Author, Black Broadway in Washington D.C.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. When discussing black city history in the United States, there are certain cities that always get recognition, like Harlem, Birmingham, Chicago and our sister city, Baltimore. However, the District has its own stories of black city life, and much of it revolves around historic U Street. We're joined now by Briana Thomas to talk about her new book "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C." Her book is a detailed history of the rise of black culture in the District. Briana Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
BRIANA THOMASHi. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIBriana, where did the idea for this book come from? What sparked your interest in U Street?
THOMASYeah. So, what was my initial introduction into researching U Street was my book is actually an expansion of a photo story essay that I produced for Washingtonian magazine when I was working there as a fellow in 2016. One of the editors asked around to the interns about this neighborhood known as U Street during the golden years of Black Broadway. And I initially remembered immediately, Black Broadway and kind of hearing these stories from my grandmother who told me about her time on U Street when she moved to D.C. in the '40s and '50s.
THOMASAnd so, I jumped on the project, and I compiled this photo story essay which featured the last remaining black-owned businesses from the Black Broadway era, which is Industrial Savings Bank, Lee's Flower and Card Shop and Ben's Chili Bowl. And after that published, it has now expanded into this book that as released this year. And so that's how I started researching. And I just have a strong connection to U Street from the stories that I've heard from, you know, my family and different members of the community.
NNAMDIWhere did U Street get the name Black Broadway, and why is that important?
THOMASSo, the name Black Broadway stems directly from what people would recognize as Broadway, the theater district in New York. And so, who was credited with coining the term Black Broadway, a lot of researchers give Pearl Bailey, who was a D.C. native and a well-known singer during the Black Broadway era, which is from the early 1900s to about the mid-1900s, she's credited with coining the term Black Broadway.
THOMASShe got her start as a high-stepper on the Howardettes, who performed at the Howard Theater. And it's known as Black Broadway because -- just like Broadway in New York is a strip of clubs or theaters and supper clubs and things like that and very lit up and flashy -- well, D.C. had the same vibe. But not just the same vibe, but had that vibe of entertainment and partying. Even before there was an Apollo Theater, there was a Howard Theater.
THOMASAnd so, a lot of people are familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, but what they don't know is before there was a Harlem Renaissance, there was a D.C. Renaissance in the early 1900s. And so, Black Broadway gets its name because a lot of the people that eventually named names for themselves in New York got their start in D.C.
THOMASPeople like Duke Ellington, who went on to compose more than 6,000 works, you know, actually grew up on T Street and worked at Griffith Stadium, which is where Howard University Hospital is now located. So, you have all of these great people, all these jazz artists, Louis Armstrong, you know, all of -- Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway. They are all spending time playing on U Street, and eventually take their talents to New York.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Briana Thomas, author of the book "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C." Briana, the book begins with a detailed history of slavery in the District and the Civil War. Why?
THOMASSo, the book has to begin with slavery, because slavery is the foundation of Washington, D.C. Now, has horrid as that sounds, that is the horrible truth. D.C. is chosen as the nation's capital in 1791, and although it's chosen to be this place of freedom and independence, it's also a major slave market at this time, because D.C. is situated between major slave-holding states, Maryland and Virginia.
THOMASAnd so, by 1800s, slaves in Washington are outnumbering free people by five to one. That's a massive difference, when you look at that ratio. And so, it was impossible to journal the golden years, if you will, or the glory days of U Street, which Black Broadway and what it's known for, without starting at the very beginning, which is this culture of slavery, this culture of what we know as horrifying. And moving into the Civil War, and then eventually the D.C. emancipation, which brought freedom to slaves in D.C. before there was freedom for slaves anywhere else in the nation.
NNAMDIAfter the Civil War, D.C.'s population more than doubled, and the African-American population was almost 60,000. Yet, by 1920, less than a quarter of the District's residents were black. What happened to the black population? What put a stop to black migration into Washington, D.C.?
THOMASYeah, so, you see this population boom after the D.C. emancipation. Black people are starting to make their own money. They are breaking these manumission laws, where they can work for themselves, and they're really starting to become a self-reliant community. And this does cause a mass migration to the city, especially as slaves from the south are running away during the Civil War.
THOMASBut what causes this slowing of a migration is really what we see as the destruction of the reconstruction era with the Inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. He comes into office and he really rolls back all the progress and the policies that black people have made for themselves, and to the point where, by 1925, there's barely 25 percent of D.C. population that's black. And that's the lowest that it had been since before the Civil War. And so, what really causes this into migration is because the institute's very strong in rigid segregation policies within the federal government, and these trickle down to other places.
THOMASAnd so, you may have had someone, a black worker who was able to work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and he was a high-level worker. Well, when Woodrow Wilson comes into office, he now demotes these black workers. He's segregating washrooms and cafeterias and really snatching jobs away from black people. And so, now people from other parts of the country really have no reason to migrate to D.C. any longer, because there's no jobs. There's no opportunities for them.
NNAMDIHere's Manuel, in Washington. Manuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MANUELYes, thank you, Kojo. And hello to the author, there. I have a recollection, a very fond recollection to contribute. I went to a Catholic High School out in Montgomery County. And that was mostly white, but mixed to some extent, some Latins, as well. And during the 1960s, I would think much of the East, maybe the nation, was held in the grip of a soul music craze. We just loved soul music. Everyone did.
MANUELAnd I'm glad to say one of my fondest memories of high school is going down to the Howard Theater a few times, where we saw these fabulous reviews and with some of the mega-stars appearing, performing. And the crowd absolutely loved it, and everyone loved it. And we even staged a soul review, a Motown review in our high school in honor of this type of -- this craze that was going on. So, I'd say it's a fond recollection. It very much marked the cultural life of the kids in our high school. And this goes back half a century, now.
NNAMDIManuel, thank you very much for your call. You underline a lot of what is in this book. Briana Thomas, can you talk about the relationship between Howard University and U Street? Remind us when and how Howard was founded.
THOMASYes, definitely. So, Howard is really the center and the social hub for black people when it comes to education, when it comes to hanging out, when it comes to congregating. Howard becomes what is known as the black mecca. Howard is established in 1867, during the Reconstruction Era, and it established out of what is known as the Freedmen's Bureau. And this was a place to help newly freed slaves get jobs, get housing and have an education.
THOMASAnd so, out of this, we have Howard University, which really becomes this staple for the black community, not just within U Street, but in the nation. And it attracts a lot of scholars, young professionals, entrepreneurs. And it creates this cultural boom. Journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary is the one who actually coined Howard as the black mecca, but it was this time of mass pilgrimage to the area of U Street, because Howard opened up so many opportunities.
THOMASIt attracted the creator of black history, Carter G. Woodson, and the famed lawyer who's known as killing Jim Crow, Charles Hamilton Houston, and his famed student, Thurgood Marshall, who was the hero of winning the Brown v. Board of Education case. And so, Howard University really has these major players in a play on U Street that aren't just educating one another, but then they're also taking their education and they're opening banks, like Industrial Savings Bank. And then these banks are finding black businesses.
THOMASSo, you have this boom that's not just political, that's not just social or not just activism, but then it's also very economical. And it really creates this catalyst for black advancement and usery that you see an impact nationwide.
NNAMDIHere now is Mike in Crystal City. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHello, Kojo, and to your guest. I'm wondering if the book has families associated with D.C. I'll give you one example. There's a family, Daniel Murray, and he worked at the Library of Congress. And, as you stated, when Wilson came in, he was demoted. And that was the thing that was going on back then, but a lot of congressman from other areas eventually moved here, like P.B.S. Pinchback, Blanche Bruce.
MIKESo, I'm just wondering if those families were mentioned. Dunbar, all those -- Dunbar's like a feeder to Howard University and Dunbar back then was like a who's who list of people. In fact, the Divine Nine, about half of the founders from those fraternities and sororities went to Dunbar High School. So, I'm just curious...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Yes. There's a great deal about Dunbar. Go ahead, please, Briana Thomas.
THOMASYes, definitely so. That was one of the biggest things about my book, that if you get the book, you'll see the back of the book is called the voices of U Street, because I started as a journalist and not a historian, right. And so, my connection to U Street is the narratives from my family, from my grandmother. And so, what I wanted to do was make sure I included strong community narratives and family members.
THOMASAnd so, I have the Mitchell family from Industrial Savings, the Ali family from Ben's Chili Bowl. I actually have Daniel Murray is in the book, actually a whole subsection all about his demotion working for the government. And Dunbar High School is a major feature in my book, as well, because Dunbar High School was special, because it was the first public school that admitted black students in the entire nation.
THOMASAnd so, like you said, people came to U Street, and you were going, really, two places. You were going to Howard University to either be a teacher or be taught, or you were going to M Street High School -- is what it was known as at the time -- to be a teacher or be taught. And speaking of members of Congress, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton actually wrote the forward to my book, and she was a student at Dunbar High School.
THOMASWhen I interviewed her, she just talked about how important education was at U Street at the time, and how it really created this self pride for black people that they didn't feel inferior to people of other races. They didn't feel inferior to white people, because they were highly educated. Dunbar High School had the top students, literally, in the nation. So, yes, a lot of that is in my book.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. According to your book, Alexander Robey Shepherd is a controversial figure. Can you talk a little bit about how he shaped the District and about his role in D.C.'s development and growth?
THOMASYes, definitely. So, Alexander Robey Shepherd, or better known as "The Boss" Shepherd, he comes into the city and he's really looking to revitalize -- or at least that's how he projects it or sells it to black people. Because, at the time, the U Street does not look like really anything. It's not polished. And so, he decides that he really wants to create this government that is consolidated. At the time, D.C. is operating on this territorial government where there are three sections, Washington City, Georgetown and Washington County.
THOMASNow, he wants to create a consolidated government, because this way, you kind of take the power and the voting rights away from the people. And you can make this government where everything is run from the people that have the money, from the property owners, for the real estate developers, for someone like himself, "Boss" Shepherd. Now, he's a really good friend with President Ulysses Grant. And because of this friendship, he's really able to weave his way into the government, although he started off in D.C. as just a plumber.
THOMASAnd out of his legislation and out of his lobbying, really, we get to a place where black men are granted the right to vote in 1867. It's protected in 1869 with the passage of the 15th Amendment. And then when Shepherd comes along in 1871, we see those rights taken away, completely. And Frederick Douglass notes this as the Great Betrayal. And this is a big blow for D.C., when it becomes a consolidated government. The reason being is because D.C. won't see any sort of self-governance until about a century later with the Home Rule Act.
NNAMDIHere now is Dem in Arlington, Virginia. Dem, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEMYes, how you doing? I was kind of confused of why Howard gets to get put into the conversation in anything black because, as my knowledge, he was responsible for slaughtering millions of Indian lives. And I also wanted to note that I wanted to see if you kind of like have a book on all the slaves that was sold -- slave names that was sold in front of the U.S. Capitol, since I have no recollection of no type of condolences or any type of reparations (sounds like) for, you know, all the lives that was sold that had to walk down to the South on barefoot.
NNAMDIOkay. This is not that type of book, and I don't know if Briana Thomas is contemplating on such a book. So, let's talk about what you asked about in this book. Tell us about the formation of Howard University and General Howard.
THOMASYeah. So, General Oliver Otis Howard, actually he gets this charter to build Howard University. And this comes from a place of, as I mentioned earlier, The Freedmen's Bureau. Now, I can't speak to all of what Howard did back in that day. I did not live in that era, but I do know that, at the time, he did help create a positive environment for black people from this bureau, because it helped black people get employment and housing and education.
THOMASAnd what a lot of people don't know about Howard University is that it prided itself, from the very beginning, of being diverse. It was never a university that was created just for black people, although it was open and welcoming for black people, which attracted a lot of African-Americans to the District. The first graduating class of Howard was of mixed race. And what made it even more special, the first graduating class of Howard also included women.
THOMASSo, that tells you why Howard University is so important and so pivotal to be included in my book, because it really is the catalyst for all things U Street. Especially when it comes to women empowerment, when it comes to black people having a voice and really having a shot at any type of fairness and success.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Dem. Here is Chris, in Trinidad, in the District. Christ, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYes. Thank you to the author. I'd like to ask if there's any way today to recreate that enthusiasm and excitement that we had on U Street when Cab and Duke were there. Is there any way to recreate that today? And, if so, would it push us forward in society, as black people?
NNAMDIWell, Briana Thomas, U Street today is full of bars and restaurants, but, as our caller, Clive, points out, it's no longer the hub that it was once for black culture. Many of its famous jazz establishments, for example, have closed. So, talk about that.
THOMASYeah. So, I interviewed a lot of people for my book and for this project. And one of the questions I always ask at the end was, can we have another Black Broadway? Can history repeat itself? And a lot of times the answer was no. The answer was no, and no because we do not have the black banks funding black businesses. We don't even have the black population on U Street or the District itself any longer.
THOMASYou think about how long music played a part of U Street, thinking about the funk era and thinking about global music and things like that. Well, that came out of a place of not just Black Broadway, but transitioning into where D.C. was known as Chocolate City. You know, in 1970, the District was 70 percent black people. Now, that's not the same numbers when you look at them today, which I have detailed in my book.
THOMASAnd so, I don't think that there will be, necessarily, a renewal of the same kind of black music everywhere, but I do believe that we are making our way to getting back to that. I mean, look at the Don't Mute D.C. protests in 2019. That was black people and young black people, millennials, right, saying, no, we remember our ancestors partied on the street. We remember -- we love Chuck Brown, still. We love all the music. We still enjoy going to go-gos. And we're not going to shut off our music that matters to us.
THOMASAnd out of that we get legislation that makes D.C. the official music -- I mean, that makes go-go music the official music for Washington, D.C. So, that shows you that music -- and black music, specifically -- still has power on U Street, but I don't know if it has enough power to become another Black Broadway.
NNAMDIIndeed, during the height of the D.C. Black Broadway period, there were more -- according to this book -- more than 300 black-owned businesses on U Street. Is that correct?
THOMASYes. That is correct.
NNAMDIHere is Patrice in Southeast Washington. Patrice, your turn.
PATRICEHi. Good afternoon, Kojo and Ms. Thomas. I've just really been delighted by this conversation. I did not know about the book. I intend to get it. It's so funny that you mention the Don't Mute D.C. activism on U Street. And because of the conversation, I just have been imagining a live experience of your book.
PATRICEDo you have any plans to branch out into merchandising or create, like, a Black Broadway festival so that we can come together and celebrate this legacy? Are you looking for volunteers? (laugh) I'm just very excited. So, I was just curious if you had, you know, any plans to help us to sort of relive what your work is on your narrative actually out on U Street.
THOMASYeah, so I will tell you something that you can join in, speaking of festivals. So, the funk parade will be in May, and their theme this year is Black Broadway, because the funk parade was founded on U Street. And so, what they are doing is they're really looking at the history of U Street and including Black Broadway. Now, it will be virtual this year, but you'll still get the festival, musical kind of feel. And so that could be -- that's definitely one thing that'll kind of bring Black Broadway to life.
THOMASAnother thing is, at some point, I am going to start doing virtual walking tours. And then when things get safer outside, I will start doing some tours outdoors. So, if you just stay tuned, you can look me up on Facebook. I know that this is being live tweeted right now, or follow me on Instagram @theblackbroadway. But I will be keeping all of my readers up to date on what's to come. But, yes, Black Broadway will become interactive, probably this summer.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Patrice. Briana, has this -- has writing this book changed your perception, your understanding of race in America?
THOMASYes. So, this book has definitely changed my perception of race in America, I think, for the better. Now, of course when you have to sit down and journal the history of our ancestors, you have to journal the history of slave coffles that literally were slave pens and slave coffles and black people being chained right out in front of the capitol. And especially being born and raised in the DMV, that is very disheartening. But at the same time, I was able to see how black people made something out of nothing.
THOMASAs a culture we have always been great at making a lot of very sweet, tasty lemonade out of very, very sour lemons. And that is my perspective after studying this book is that, you know, if Jim Crow laws forced black people not be able to sit where they wanted to be, not be able to own property and not be able to go to school, but, in turn, black people decided, we're going to respond with owning our own nd creating 300 black-owned businesses and 100 black-owned churches, and we're going to write our own music and we're going to get paid for it, it really gives you this perspective of inspiration and really motivates you, right, to do whatever you want to do and to create impact and change. So, yes, it's changed my perspective, but in a good way.
NNAMDIBriana Thomas is the author of "Black Broadway in Washington, D.C." Thank you so much for joining us.
THOMASYes. So, glad that I was invited.
NNAMDIToday's segment with the director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our segment on Black Broadway was produced by Richard Cunningham. Be sure to tune in tomorrow, at noon. After 23 years on air, I'm hosting my last Kojo Show. Of course, Friday's Politics Hour will continue. But for our final broadcast, I'll be joined by special guests to reflect on what this program has meant to the community and what the community has meant to us. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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