- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009


“Tell all my mourners To mourn in red - Cause there ain’t no sense In my bein’ dead,” wrote Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Like the phoenix risen from the ashes, the U Street corridor in Northwest Washington, where Mr. Hughes once strolled, is experiencing its own renaissance. The “joints,” nightclubs and restaurants, including Busboys and Poets, named in homage to Mr. Hughes, are jumping.

Contrary to folklore, before the Harlem Renaissance captivated New York, there was, undeniably, U Street. Singer Pearl Bailey, a regular headliner at the Lincoln Theatre, even dubbed the D.C. street “Black Broadway.”

Before the devastating aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the subsequent riots in 1968, U Street was the celebrated hub of black culture, academia and entertainment, adorned by stars in ermine and zoot suits. It was, no doubt, the place to be.

To commemorate the life and work of Mr. Hughes and the rich history of U Street - and also celebrate the unveiling of Langston Hughes Way there - the Greater U Street Historic Foundation Inc. (GUSHF) is hosting the Greater U Street Parade and Festival on Saturday. The theme for this flagship celebration is “Before the Harlem Renaissance, There Was U Street.”

Ron Briggs, executive director of GUSHF, said, “This is a festival with a purpose. U Street is a new trendy destination undergoing a new renaissance. We must show the true essence of Greater U Street, what it was before.”

GUSHF (www.greaterustreet.org) is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission, according to its Web site, is “to celebrate and promote the historic retail establishments, educational institutions, youth organizations and businesses throughout the Greater U Street Historic District; to educate the community about the significance of [that district] as the birthplace of the Black Renaissance (1920-1930s); to emphasize the importance of environmental preservation by encouraging beautification projects and recycling efforts.”

Andy Shallal already paid tribute to Mr. Hughes and writer Zora Neale Hurston by naming his restaurants, Busboys and Poets and Eatonville, after the literary giants. (Eatonville, Fla., was Ms. Hurston’s hometown.) He approached D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, with the idea of renaming V Street between 13th and 14th streets for Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Graham introduced the Langston Hughes Street Designation Act of 2008, and the council passed it unanimously.

The parade, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday, will travel from the African American Civil War Memorial at 10th and U streets to 13th and Vstreetsand showcase local high school and college marching bands, youth organizations, city officials, celebrities and U Street corridor retail establishments.

Planning has been a joint effort with the historic Lincoln Theatre, which will jump-start the festival with a two-day tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, according to theater marketing director Glory Edim.

Lincoln Theatre is a nonprofit performing-arts venue on U Street managed by the U Street Theatre Foundation. Opened in the 1920s, at the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance, as a vaudeville theater and movie house, the “Jewel on U” has reopened as a cultural crossroads where diverse and stimulating entertainment is offered.

A roll call of headliners at the theater includes jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughn.

Famous for its variety shows, Bohemian Caverns at 11th and U streets attracted winding lines of bourgeois blacks with the likes of bandleader Cab Calloway. Every night was the perfect occasion for an impromptu jazz session. Wailing blues could be heard in nearby alleys as commonly as Musak on department-store elevators.

Story Continues →