- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

“Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new sense of hope or triumph. This is triumphant music.”

— Martin Luther King at the Berlin Jazz Festival, 1964.

“I used to go to the Lincoln Colonnade and dance.”

— Sylvester Whiting, August 2003. 79-year-old District resident

Forty years ago today, in rolling, poetic words, Martin Luther King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave the thousands gathered his dream of equality.

Forty years later, his speech that day on the Washington Mall is a part of the city’s history, its mosaic, a permanent feature.

A little over two weeks from today, the city will embark on a 2 -1/2-month celebration that will lift the veil on all the rest of the moments, sounds and experiences that make Washington, D.C., the special city that it is.

“Blues and Dreams: Celebrating the African-American Experience,” a project of Cultural Tourism D.C. and the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourist Corp., begins Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 30. It’s an event-filled, experience-loaded celebration and quest to reveal the history, the importance and the contributions of black life to tourists and D.C. residents alike.

The celebration is keyed around two major exhibitions — “The Art of Romare Bearden,” at the National Gallery of Art from Sept. 14 through Jan. 4, and “African American Quilts from the Robert & Helen Cargo Collection,” at the Textile Museum Oct. 3 through Feb. 29.

These two exhibitionsare the jumping-off point, the catalyst for a celebration and an exploration of the black experience in the District.

Kathryn Smith, director of Cultural Tourism D.C. (formerly the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition), concedes that “Blues and Dreams” is a tricky, heady, complicated and ambitious undertaking.

“It involves a lot of networking, a lot of cooperation, a lot of institutions and groups in the city coming together to work together,” says Ms. Smith, who has written books on Washington’s neighborhoods and history.

“Many of the elements of the celebration are ongoing or in place, while others have been created specifically for the occasion. It ranges all over the city, involving many, many groups from the National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center to neighborhood arts groups, schools and churches,” she says.

“Mainly, it’s about taking pride in the contribution of the African-American experience to the shaping of this city,” Ms. Smith says. “African-American history and culture have been central to this city since its inception. This is first and foremost a celebration of the identity of this city.”

“Blues and Dreams” is a much larger tourism-heritage project predated by Washington’s Jackie Kennedy effort, which was keyed to an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art recently.

Representatives from a variety of arts, cultural and heritage groups looked for themes and events to include.

“The opening of the Bearden show and the Textile Museum exhibition presented the occasion and brought us the theme,” Ms. Smith said. “We saw the events as an opportunity to build a celebration around African-American culture and history in Washington. It was also another way of going beyond the Mall concept for tourism.

“Washington is a city that’s a kind of a layered mosaic of function and experience,” Ms. Smith said. “The African-American role in Washington is a major layer in that experience. In fact, it’s a huge part of the identity of this city and we wanted to take the opportunity to bring it to the forefront and celebrate the experience.”

The “Blues and Dreams” celebration is an effort to move beyond the mall experience. It’s an event that’s designed to move visitors out into the city to gain a new perspective on the black experience. Ms. Smith says the emphasis is on “the hidden, the unseen, the uncelebrated, the unrecognized community.”

“Blues and Dreams” visitors might start at the National Gallery and then move on other days to Dance Place in Northeast, to the Capital Children’s Museum, to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia or the Stephen Decatur House Museum near the White House for a lecture on slavery in Washington.

They might stop by the Studio Theater for a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, or the Kennedy Center and its salute to the blues, or music by local a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, or go to Georgetown to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts for exhibitions and concerts.

Jazz, in fact, will flavor many of the city’s cultural institutions, from the Kennedy Center with a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, to the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Corcoran Gallery and the National Gallery.

Visitors can submerge themselves in the many tours that will highlight black culture and history. Along the way, no matter where they are, they can partake of the special “blue”-flavored offerings by restaurants and hotels during the course of the “Blues and Dreams” celebration throughout the city.

The celebration will lead visitors to the neighborhood where resident Sylvester Whiting, nattily dressed in a summer suit and getting coffee at Ben’s Chili Bowl, remembered dancing at the Lincoln Colonnade a long time ago.

To end up at 13th and U streets is to be in one of the most vivid and richest neighborhoods in the city, and one that embodies a large part of the triumphs, the disappointments and resilience of the black experience in Washington.

Visitors can go to the beautifully restored Lincoln Theater at 1215 U St. Oct. 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. and watch “Remembering U …” as part of the “Blues and Dreams” celebration. The multimedia production by the Dance Institute of Washington pays tribute to a section of the District that entertainer Pearl Bailey dubbed the Black Broadway.

Or they can do something as light as dropping by Ben’s just next door for a half-smokes (hot dog) or chili and then get lost in the flavor of the atmosphere that hasn’t changed much over the years.

“I have resisted changing anything,” says Ben Ali, the proprietor of Ben’s. “We have come through a lot over 45 years. We stayed open through the 1968 riots. We made it through the Metro construction. Here we are.”

To get the full effect, visitors can go on the Before There Was Harlem, There Was U Street tour, an experience that takes them through time in a historic neighborhood amid the cacophony of urban change and construction.

Or maybe they should talk just awhile to John Snipes, a self-designated historian and storyteller of the U Street neighborhood.

Mr. Snipes, 68, has been in the neighborhood for “half a century.” “I went to elementary school here, right through high school, Grimke Elementary, Shaw Junior High School and Armstrong Senior High School. And these were good schools, academic. I had three businesses over the years, right around the area where Ben’s is. I had a custom shirt shop, the first jeans shop in Washington and a convenience store. The Metro finally did me in.”

He isn’t angry about change. He’s proud of the history.

“You gotta remember that in the days of segregation, folks here didn’t go downtown. They couldn’t,” Mr. Snipes says. “So we were self-contained. We had the best doctors from Howard University, our own lawyers, our banks, our businesses. This was a community.

“And yeah, there were the theaters, and the greatest musicians in the world. Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and later in the 1960s, James Brown and the Motown people. The Clovers, the Spaniels. Glory years,” he says.

Mr. Snipes or almost anybody you talk to can rattle off the names of the players and where they played: the Lincoln Colonnade, the Casbah, the Howard Theater, the Republic Gardens, the Zanzibar, and the Bohemian Caverns, Bengazi. Ben’s was a silent movie theater, the Minnie-Hah-Hah, and then changed into a pool hall before 1958 when Ben Ali opened it.

If visitors go down to 11th and U Street, they’ll see a resurrected Bohemian Caverns, a restaurant that offers live entertainment. The upstairs is laid out gracefully for lunch, and a big facade depicts Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others.

One longtime area resident calls the world of U Street through the 1960s a kind of “heaven for black people. It was the helm of delight, the joy of entertainment, and a source of achievement and economic independence.”

The irony is that the neighborhood went into decline with the coming of desegregation. The 1968 civil riots in the wake of the killing of Martin Luther King rocked the neighborhood further and construction of the U Street-Cardozo Metro station had its effects on residents and businesses there.

Change is once again in evidence. Ongoing construction is the norm, with office buildings, condos and lofts going up everywhere, including across the street from Ben’s and the Lincoln Theater. You can see the Coca-Cola imprint on the side of the True Reformer Building while next to it a sign proclaims that a Starbucks is coming soon.

Yet, the rich vestiges and history of the neighborhood remain for visitors to see during a tour of U Street. The tour includes homes where Duke Ellington was raised, the Whitelaw Hotel at 13th and T streets, home to many a grand ball; and the still-operating Industrial Bank at 11th and U streets, which was founded by John Whitelaw Lewis, a former bricklayer.

The tour begins at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, which was the 12th Street YMCA, the first black YMCA in the nation. Visitors can still see the plain, small rooms where people like poet Langston Hughes once stayed. In any part of U Street tour, participants can see the tall facades of Howard University, which provided doctors and lawyers to the black community.

Visitors can stop by the sobering and moving African American Civil War Memorial at the U Street-Cardozo Metro and the African American Civil Memorial Museum in the True Reformer Building a block away. Just across the street some small businesses remain, including the Hollywood Al Shoeshine Parlor.

Sometimes, when the jackhammers stop and the construction workers have left, maybe very early on a Sunday morning, you might hear the sound of a sax or the Duke’s full-blown band, or the whispers and laughter of couples dancing, or the sound of the blues along U Street.

You can almost imagine Ben and Virginia Ali dressed up to go out, or Mr. Whiting dancing at the Lincoln Colonnade.

Celebrating the blues back then was the stuff of dreams.

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