- 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 V streets and 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.

Washington native Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, with his Colored Syncopators, debuted at the landmark True Reformers Hall on U Street, where he earned a whopping 75 cents.

Shaw and the adjoining LeDroit Park neighborhood in their heyday were the mecca of Washington’s black intellectually elite. Affluent black scholars, literary figures and many civil rights leaders, such as Alain LeRoy Locke and Mary Church Terrell, had their primary residences or located their businesses there.

In the heart of it was Howard University, the epicenter of higher education, black sorority and fraternity life and landmark Supreme Court decisions affecting and improving the lives of blacks.

Mr. Hughes, one of America’s most prolific and revered writers, lived in LeDroit Park and various other places in town and regularly strolled District streets, particularly Seventh Street, absorbing the cultural sounds and sights.

He held a number of menial jobs to pay his tuition while at Howard, which Ms. Hurston also attended. For a short time, he was personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History” and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

It was in Washington that Mr. Hughes penned his first prose, “Mexico Games,” which appeared in the Brownie’s Book, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) periodical for children.

While working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, Mr. Hughes, having finally completed his poem “The Weary Blues,” slipped a copy to famed Russian poet Vachel Lindsay, who was appearing at the hotel, and was “discovered.” Headlines in a Washington daily the next day read, “Russian Poet Discovers Negro Busboy Poet.”

WPGC-FM host Donnie Simpson will serve as the grand marshal of Saturday’s parade. WPGC is sponsoring a health fair at Harrison Recreation Center, 1330 V St. NW

The ceremony designating Langston Hughes Way will kick off at noon.

The festival will include a host activities along the entire U Street corridor. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, and council members Graham, David A. Catania, at-large independent, and Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, are expected to attend.

A children’s pavilion with magic shows, clowns, face painters, games and poetry readings is planned. Live music, food and vendors selling merchandise will be located at the Civil War memorial.

Native Washingtonian Sandra Butler-Truesdale, who owns the Emma Mae Gallery at the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets, will exhibit photographs of Mr. Hughes and play the late Nap (“Don’t Forget the Blues”) Turner’s popular recitations of Mr. Hughes’ “Jesse B. Semple” stories. For close to 20 years, Mr. Turner, a blues expert and fixture at local radio station WPFW. 89.3, graced the airwaves with his deep baritone renditions.

“U Street’s history is so rich, and we [African Americans] must tell our own story,” Ms. Butler-Truesdale said.

On Thursday, renowned actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, accompanied by writer, actor and singer Andre De Shields, best-known for his work in “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’, ” will celebrate the legacy of Mr. Hughes through a theatrical narrative embodying the thoughts and emotions of his poetry. Dance performances by Edgeworks Dance Theater and the Dance Institute of Washington also will highlight his writing.

On Friday at the Lincoln Theatre, actors Jasmine Guy and Blair Underwood will star in the “Harlem Renaissance Revue,” a multidisciplinary art extravaganza featuring the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Miss Holiday.

Headlining the evening will be the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra presenting its signature repertoire, “Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.”

Ms. Edim said, “We’re hoping this festival gains momentum and becomes an annual event attracting thousands of people to U Street each year.”

Lyndia Grant, chief executive of Lyndia Grant Associates LLC, was a driving force behind this year’s event, which took less than four months to plan, thanks to overwhelming support from the community and U Street establishments. Ms. Grant was the project director for the African American Civil War Memorial and coordinated the Georgia Avenue Festival for more than a decade before brainstorming the U Street festival.

U Street is back and starting to look like its old self again. So the next time someone sings, “Drop me off in Harlem, any place in Harlem,” perhaps someone should inform the singer that before Harlem, there was U Street.

• Geraldine Washington is a writer living in the District.

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