Discovering Washington D.C's U Street Corridor
A changing neighborhood that still has much African American
history and culture to offer.
Kevin Burkman, SSAAM Trustee, August, 2018
The U Street corridor, located in the northeast section of Washington DC, was once one of the city’s most prominent African American communities. Blacks began settling in the neighborhood before the Civil War. It soon became an intellectual stronghold, when it housed many black scholars began studying and teaching at nearby Howard University. It remained African American throughout the 80’s, surviving the 1968 riots, and the urban decline that followed. However, displacement of U Street’s black population began some twenty years ago, when Metro stations were built at Shaw and U Streets, making the area a target for millennials who couldn’t afford to live in other parts of the District.
Despite all of the recent change, much of the neighborhood’s original black character has yet to be erased. Historic theaters, sites dedicated to black soldiers in the Civil War, the District's most famous African American eatery, street murals, galleries, 19th century architecture, and a black university can all be found here. And unlike other parts of Washington, U Street has yet to be discovered by hosts of tourists. U Street may be off the path for many District visitors, but is certainly a worthy destination.
Our list below is just a small sample of the African American sites on U Street and vicinity.
620 T St NW, Washington, DC 20001
The Howard Theater open in 1910 and soon became the “largest colored theater in the world.” For most of the following century, the theater entertained audiences with music, dance, drama and comedy. Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday, among many others, graced the Howard’s stage.
Following the 1968 riots, both the U Street neighborhood and the Howard Theater fell into steep decline. Despite several attempts to keep it open, the theater closed in the theater closed in the 1980’s. However, with recent redevelopment of the area, the Howard reopened its doors in 2012, and is enjoying its rebirth as a center for entertainment.
Civil War Memorial & Museum
1925 Vermont Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum commemorate the more than 200,000 soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops who served during the Civil War. The memorial, “Spirit of Freedom”, was dedicated in 1998, and includes name inscriptions of all those who served. The museum opened its doors in 1999, and tells the stories of these soldiers through photographs, documents, artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by community members – volunteer re-enactors, to help visitors understand the largely unknown role of soldiers who fought for freedom from slavery during the Civil War.
1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
This D.C. culinary landmark was founded in 1958 by Trinidadian immigrant Ben Ali, and his fiance Virginia Rollins, in the previous Minnehaha Nickelodeon Theater. It is famous for its chili dogs, half smokes, and milkshakes. It was visited by both protesters and police during the 1968 riots that raked the U Street neighborhood.
1215 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
The Lincoln Theatre, built in 1922, was a cultural center of D.C., predating and influencing Harlem’s renaissance. Washington natives Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey were joined by nationally acclaimed artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughn who performed regularly on the storied stage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrated his birthday parties at the Lincoln Colonnade, a party hall once located at the Theatre.
16th St NW & W Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
Astride the Washington Meridian, the hilltop marks a defining feature of the federal city laid out by African American surveyor, writer, and naturalist Benjamin Banneker. The hill was the site of a camp for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw before he went to his death as the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Union Army Regiment, the northeast’s first all-black regiment whose courage led to the naming of the adjacent neighborhood of Shaw. The park is home to one of America’s largest and longest continuing drum circles, every Sunday the sun is shining at 3pm.
16th St NW & W Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
Howard has grown from a single-frame building in 1867 and evolved to more than 89 acres, including the six-story, 400-bed Howard University Hospital. Since 1974, it has expanded to include a 22-acre School of Law West Campus, a 22-acre School of Divinity East Campus and another three-fifths of an acre facility in northeast Washington and a 108-acre tract of land in Beltsville, Maryland.
Since 1867, Howard has awarded more than 100,000 degrees in the professions, arts, sciences and humanities. Howard ranks among the highest producers of the nation's Black professionals in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, nursing, architecture, religion, law, music, social work and education.
Sources: Howard Theater, AACWMM, Ben's Chili Bowl, Cultural Tourism D.C., Alexa Mills, Washington City Paper, Lincoln Theater, Washington Parks & People, Howard University