U St NW Washington, aka “Black Broadway,” was the heartbeat of the largest African-American population in the U.S. until 1920 when New York’s Harlem took that designation.
The neighborhood attracted some of the leading African-American intellectuals of the day, some descended from Washington’s largest per-Civil War free black community.
As racial segregation tightened in the late 1800s, the neighborhood became the cultural center of the black Washington. In spite of difference in the mixture of people from all walks of life who lived side-by-side, a viable community was created that supported its people and inspired its youth.
More than 300 black-owned businesses clustered in the vicinity and U Street, three blocks north of Lincoln Temple, became the community’s boulevard. Theaters, nightclubs, ballrooms, restaurants, pool hall and retail stores operated alongside offices of doctors, dentists and lawyers and other professionals. Buildings served as settings for civil rights gatherings, religious services and business affairs and were financed, designed and constructed by and for African-Americans. Four major black architects, W. Sidney Pittman, Isaiah T. Hatton, John A. Lankford and Albert I. Cassell designed and built structures still standing today. Many have been restored to their original grandeur.
Entertainers performed on and around U Street and lived in what is now called the “Shaw” neighborhood; the area was so full of magic that it was dubbed Washington’s “Black Broadway.” Evenings and weekends, U street was the place to be, especially Easter Sunday when it became a parade ground. On Sundays, people gathered in scores of churches, including Lincoln, where generations had worshiped in congregations that dated back to the Civil War.
Designated a historic district, the U Street corridor became commercially significant when a streetcar line operated there in the early 20th century to allow government employees to commute to downtown D.C.
The neighborhood began to change in the 1950s when the end of legal segregation opened new housing and employment opportunities for blacks and many chose to leave for newer spaces. The area experienced further physical decline after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Residents over age 50 will certainly have fond memories of social and political gatherings on or around the nine blocks of U Street, N.W.
Taken in part from the brochure: City Within a City, Greater U St Heritage Trail, prepared by Cultural Tourism DC and the Historical Society of Washington, DC in 2001.