The hidden history of U Street in Washington, D.C.
How did we forget about ‘Black Broadway’?
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Driving down the U Street corridor in 2013, producer Shellée M. Haynesworth got the inspiration to begin her “Black Broadway on U: A Transmedia Project.” Sure, driving down the road that would become the focus of her 2014 series provided plenty of ideas, but Haynesworth, a multigeneration Washingtonian, was actually pushed to start the work by her 96-year-old grandmother, Lucille Dawson, who joined her in the car.
Dawson migrated from Louisiana in July 1932 and moved to U Street with her brother. As Haynesworth and her grandmother made their way down the road, the matriarch began to point out where and how things had been, while Haynesworth noticed how everything she said was in past tense — none of these fantastic pieces of “Black Broadway” were there anymore.
On the day Haynesworth and her grandmother rode down U Street, they arrived at the corner of U and 14th streets — where popular bar Marvin is located today — which then was called the “black man’s Connecticut Avenue.” That’s when Dawson started narrating the history of what had been on that corner and the surrounding area in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Her grandmother was a barber on 14th and V streets and eventually moved her work to U Street, four doors down from Bohemian Caverns. But her time spent working in the heart of the community left a lasting impression on her, which allowed her to pass that on to the producer.
“That was my ‘aha’ moment that I needed to start documenting some of this history and some of these places that no longer exist,” said Haynesworth, who is an Emmy Award-winning producer, writer, director and storyteller. “And then also unveil the hidden history that lies beneath the historical landmarks that still exist today.
“Before I started this project, I always thought I was a third-generation Washingtonian, because my maternal grandfather was actually born in D.C.,” the 53-year-old said. “Started researching, working on this project and I could even be a sixth-generation Washingtonian based on his lineage. That’s what I mean by multigenerational.”
A year later, Haynesworth, who studied broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland and has done work for the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of Education, Smithsonian Institution, Gates Foundation, PBS, NBC, BET, TV One, HBO, Time Warner and more, launched the Black Broadway on U project. It’s an all-encompassing project that tells the story of the history, community and people using a multiplatform approach. Besides interactive elements, the project also incorporates minidocumentaries, photos, maps, digital and social media elements, museum pop-ups, virtual reality and more.
— Black Broadway on U (@BlkBroadwayOnU) February 1, 2017
She hopes that by embarking on the journey, her work would withstand time and allow future generations to know Black Broadway on U the way her grandmother could recall it from memory just riding down the street.
“The demographic landscape has changed, the buildings, the businesses, all of it has changed,” Haynesworth said. “So I feel that it’s a great time to preserve the history, curate it and unveil this hidden history in a community that was once also known as a city within a city here in Washington, D.C.”
Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.